A seemingly legit 25-year-old “German” heiress, Anna Delvey, managed to convince everyone she met that she was about to inherit $14 million… and racked up thousands in unpaid bills before going to jail.
Then there’s Yvonne Bannigan, a former assistant to US Vogue’s Grace Coddington, who was arrested for charging $68,000 of her own things to her boss’s credit card.
Here in Australia, who can forget Belle Gibson, who lied about healing her own cancer with a wholefoods diet? She’s been in the news again recently for failing to pay the $410,000 fine.
So yeah, as Jia Tolentino for The New Yorker writes, it’s “grifter season”. But what compels someone to lie to such an extent that it becomes a crime?
The truth is, we all have the tendency to lie, even just a little, from telling ourselves we won’t hit the snooze button to bailing on dinner plans due to “sickness”. The con artist is simply at the other end of the spectrum of untruths, says forensic psychologist Misia Temler. “We all lie, but it’s mostly not harmful.” It might even be necessary for our survival. “We don’t have the physical power and speed of other animals, but we can make things up and hope they become true,” says Ian Leslie, author of Born Liars.
Lying for gain is something we probably all do, but con artists take it to the next level. Dan Ariely, author of The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, talks of a museum gift shop where money frequently went missing. When the museum finally set up registers to monitor the flow of money, the losses stopped – it turned out almost all staff were stealing small amounts of money every now and then. The lesson? “Only a tiny minority feel comfortable stealing a huge amount, but given the chance, nearly everyone steals or cheats a little,” says Ariely.
But what truly separates scammers from your everyday, run-of-the-mill liar is usually a disregard for the moral code. “Liars like these tend to have anti-social personality disorder,” says Temler. “They have their own ‘rules’ and moral code they live by, and they ignore the social contract.” There’s an element of narcissism there, too, says Temler, in that those who lie in such ways tend to blame others for their problems (Holmes fired people who dared question Theranos’s non-existent technology).
Scams thrive in times of change, says Konnikova, as it breeds uncertainty – the con artist’s greatest ally. And what time could be more uncertain than this one?
Tom Gara, a Buzzfeed writer, suggests that 2018 is to scammers what 16th-century Florence was to sculptors: so ripe for success it’s almost rotten. Climate change, fake news, Trump, Brexit, the very real possibility of falling in love with the Honey Badger: it’s all kind of bonkers. No wonder we’re so quick to believe people who seem unusually confident (which, incidentally, is where the “con” in con artist comes from).
“There’s more of a cultural acceptance of lying these days,” says Temler. “To some degree, we all know that social media is a lie, or at least allows us to stretch the truth or omit things we don’t like.” Who among us hasn’t posted a pic of our “amazing weekend”, leaving out the bit about the hangover and the Uber-ed hash browns?
Online communication itself, with its distant nature and sense of anonymity, is fuelling our dishonesty, too, says Ariely. “The more communicating we do online, the more our crimes are seen as victimless. All our research shows these are the crimes we’re happiest to commit, because we have no sense of hurting anyone.” Case in point: Belle Gibson, who lied via Instagram, and showed little remorse afterwards.
But perhaps the biggest reason we all lie (even just those harmless white lies) is because it’s so easy. “It’s much easier to lie in order to get someone’s money or wealth than to hit them over the head or rob a bank,” says Harvard ethicist Sissela Bok.
The more we lie, the easier it gets, say studies. For a con woman (or man, for that matter), who tells lie upon lie, the act gets easier and easier, until, of course, it all comes crashing down. ■