Notorious con man Victor Lustig (or “Count Lustig,” as he styled himself) was born into poverty but taught himself to impersonate wealthy businessmen. He was so effective that, in 1925, he claimed to be a high-ranking French government official and “sold” the Eiffel Tower to one of France’s biggest scrap dealers. To put on the necessary airs, Lustig conducted all meetings in the posh Hotel de Crillon and ordered limousines to take prospective buyers on tours of Paris. He was also known for his tasteful wardrobe and well-manicured nails, which were so immaculate that the officers who eventually arrested him took note.
The takeaway here is that if you’re trying to persuade rich people to give you their money, it helps to appear rich yourself.
“Soho grifter” Anna “Delvey” Sorokin, who was recently convicted for grand larceny in New York, told everyone that she was a German heiress. Convicted fraudster Matthew Brown (or “the Honourable Sir Matthew de Unger Brown,” depending on whom you ask) convinced members of upper-crust London social circles that he was a foreign aristocrat before he made off with more than a $100,000 of their cash and valuables.
Of course, all kinds of people fudge their personal details all the time. Research shows that almost everyone lies at least once or twice a day in order to grease the wheels of social interactions or seem more polite, interesting, and important than they actually are. But to telegraph faux wealth in a believable way, to genuinely wealthy people, takes certain level of chutzpah and skill. After all, if anyone is conditioned to be suspicious of disingenuous behavior, it’s probably the privileged few who are used to being buttered up and asked for favors. So, how does a big-time scammer pull if off? What separates a grand larcenist from a would-be mooch?
Great scammers usually start out by promising something. “Crooks often try to create trust and dependency by doing something for people, or getting people to rely on them socially,” says Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist and founder of the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University. “Once they accomplish that, there’s all kinds of things they can get from people.” Case in point: Anna Sorokin footed the bill for countless no-expenses-spared dinners with other New York socialites, and Brown frequented charity auctions (although his checks tended to bounce).
Good con artists also do their homework. “They do meticulous research and know their victims,” says Maria Konnikova, who researched the psychology of famous swindlers for her book The Confidence Game. She describes this first step, often known as “the put-up,” as an essential part of the process. “During the put-up, nothing actually happens. It’s just a phase where con artists work to understand their marks, what motivates them, what makes them tick.” It’s also when they get into character — and in many cases, adapt a certain lifestyle. (Social media makes this especially easy.) “They know how to give off signs that say, ‘I’m powerful,’” says Konnikova. “They have status symbols that aren’t in your face. They learn these very fine cues that most of us miss because we aren’t so attuned.”
What might those cues be? Nicola Harrison, a New York–based image consultant, has never worked with a grifter (to her knowledge) but often helps clients who want to look the part when their jobs involve hobnobbing with wealthy circles. She says that one of the best ways to telegraph wealth is to be understated. “People with a lot of money are rarely flashy with it. Chances are, they won’t be wearing lots of logos.” They will, however, take care of themselves. “I can tell when someone’s got a nice manicure,” she says. (See also: Victor Lustig.) “If a person’s nails always look good, it probably means that they have that appointment scheduled every week. Same thing with hair. A person doesn’t have to be mega-rich to get a weekly or bi-weekly blowout, but it’s something that others will notice.” In other words, it’s not that hard (or even that costly, relatively speaking) for anyone to look “expensive” if they know the right tricks.
Another way to seem at home among the elite is to highlight — or invent — common experiences, says professor Leanne ten Brinke, who directs the Truth and Trust Lab at the University of Denver. “If a person wants to align himself with a crowd, he might try mimicking them,” she says. “If they say, ‘Oh, we were in Paris last summer,’ he might say, ‘Oh, I was in Paris in the spring!’” Across different socioeconomic strata, people are more likely to associate with others who seem similar to them — also known as a member of their “in-group” — and those ties inspire trust.
Once a con artist plants the seeds of status, the benefits tend to keep growing thanks to the “halo effect” — a psychological phenomenon where we assume that because you have one positive quality, you probably have others too, even if those qualities are unrelated. (“He’s handsome. He must have a nice family.” Or, “She’s well-dressed. She’s probably smart.”) “People often think that these positive traits might rub off on them, and con artists use this to their advantage,” says Konnikova. That sense of false authority also tends to snowball. Research has found that the more powerful a person feels, the better they are at lying — so as the con artist succeeds, her deceptive abilities improve.
And really, is it so hard to lie about money? Most people would rather avoid the topic entirely, which means the con artist doesn’t need to say much. In fact, the more obscure a person’s wealth seems, the more plausible it becomes — once we hear vague allusions to Cannes or a grandparents’ railway business, we’ll assume the rest. “As a society, we have an uneasy relationship with wealth, and con artists are incredibly good at exploiting that,” says Konnikova.