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America's fascination with con artists

  • (From left) Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence in 'American Hustle'
(From left) Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and… (Francois Duhamel/Columbia…)
January 14, 2014|By Leonor Vivanco, @lvivanco | For RedEye

Gail Bullock got the letter in the mail at what seemed like the perfect time.

In 2012, she was living paycheck to paycheck. She had just been laid off from her job as a home care aide. She was on the verge of losing her apartment. And then she opened a letter that said she had won more than $1 million in a sweepstakes.

"I figured that would be the answer to my prayers," said Bullock, 48, who lives in Woodlawn with her daughter.

To get her winnings, all she had to do was send more than $400 through Western Union for a processing fee. She was instructed to deposit the check into a bank account, but instead she took it to a currency exchange where she found out it was a fake.

Bullock is far from the only one who has fallen for such scams. An estimated 25.6 million people—10.8 percent of U.S. adults—said they were fraud victims in 2011, according to the results of a consumer fraud survey by the Federal Trade Commission released in 2013.

Hollywood has taken note. Scams and con artists have once again become the center of attention in movies from "The Wolf of Wall Street" and "American Hustle" to an HBO film in the works titled "The Wizard of Lies" about Ponzi scheme mastermind Bernie Madoff. Casting frauds, impostors and swindlers in leading roles isn't exactly new, and neither is the art of conning people. The twists and turns of scams—true or exaggerated—always seem to capture the attention of and fascinate the American public.

"There's a certain kind of drama in those stories. Con artists have to use their wiles and work their con, and it unfolds usually. You see people getting sucked into, step by step, the deception, lies and fraud," said Arthur Lurigio, psychology and criminal justice professor at Loyola University Chicago.

In reality, con artists—short for "confidence" artists—can manipulate their targets in person or from behind a computer. Generally, they have a knack for gaining people's trust based on false promises and credentials. They take advantages of weaknesses such as loneliness or financial ignorance, experts say.

They usually have no remorse, empathy for their victims or guilt about their crime. They can be witty, entertaining and adept at fooling their victims by using the right lingo and assuming phony roles—like one of America's most prominent con artists, Frank Abagnale, whose swindles in the '60s and '70s were the basis of the 2002 movie "Catch Me If You Can."

While many steal and embezzle, the scams aren't all about money.

"It's about the excitement of engaging in the con," Lurigio said. "It's gratifying for them to gain power and control over another person. There's some risk involved so it's thrill-seeking behavior."

More often than not, though, the ruses begin to unravel. Successful con artists can get careless, increasing the likelihood of getting caught. And as victims pile up, so do the reports of their crimes.

"It's basically the notion of accumulating a record of evidence of fraudulent behavior that eventually catches up to you, and that's why con artists move around a lot," Lurigio said.

Until then, they are able to design ploys to get what they want.

"What makes them successful is they can be very charming. They are believers in their own invention. When you believe in something, you deliver it very well," said Tamar Frankel, Boston University law professor and author of "The Ponzi Scheme Puzzle: A History and Analysis of Con Artists and Victims."

People often ignore the signs that they might be getting played. Red flags such as requests for money in advance, undue pressure and promises of getting rich quick often go without deeper investigation.

If it's too good to be true, it probably is. "If it's illegal a little bit, keep away. If it's a secret, keep away. If you don't get all the information, keep away. If there's a lot of charm but no substance, run," Frankel said.

People should not wire cash, pay for taxes or transfer fees for a so-called lottery win, said Tom Joyce, spokesman for Better Business Bureau in Chicago. Also, people should be careful about getting college loan debt relief or help with fixing their credit.

"Scammers are smart, and these scams work because people send them money. If people didn't send money, they'd stop doing it," Joyce said.

In hindsight, the red flags were there for Bullock, who ended up reporting the sweepstakes scam to the Better Business Bureau. "I don't even enter sweepstakes. My luck isn't that good so I don't even bother with them. I don't even play the lottery," Bullock, who now has a part-time job, said.

"It hurt because that $435—I could have really used that money. ... I just tried to get on with my life and forget I threw away $435 for no reason."

lvivanco@tribune.com

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There are a number of ways people get scammed. Don't fall for these three common online swindles.

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