TOMS RIVER, NJ – Have you ever been “conned”? Has anyone ever taken advantage of you or betrayed you by using nothing but the force of his personality?
By John Bowers
I think most of us have. At one time or another, most people have encountered a slick salesman, a fast-talking promoter, or someone with a pathetic sob story. It’s easy to be fooled if you aren’t on your toes, and the most dangerous aspect is that you are usually caught off guard.
Con men (short for “confidence” men — someone who gains your trust) come in all shapes and sizes, all ages, and both sexes. There is a stereotype for con men, but not all con men fit the stereotype. We often think of a used car salesman or a door-to-door salesman when we think of con men, but there are many kinds of cons and their practitioners come in many flavors.
From time to time we hear a warning on the local news that someone or some group is working the phones for a phony “charity” and bilking people, usually the elderly, out of large sums of money. Other stories tell of men who romance lonely widows, sometimes even marry them, then clean out their bank accounts and disappear. Others sell phony stocks, perform unnecessary home or auto repairs, or feed off the charity of a local church. Some of these are prosecutable acts, but many are not, and quite often those who perpetrate these acts are never brought to justice.
Street Corner Con Men
Have you seen those poor “homeless” individuals at the intersection, standing under the left-turn light, with their home-made cardboard signs? “Will work for food”, some of them say. “Homeless and hungry” others declare. “Disabled vet”. Or something similar to tug at your heartstrings. Some of these people, no doubt, are genuinely in need of help. They all look hungry. But are they really?
About 15 years ago, a local radio talk host in the city where I work did a two-hour special on these people, and those who called in told an amazing range of stories. Several callers said they had offered some of these men jobs, but were turned down. Another lady, who had just done her shopping, handed one of them a loaf of bread; he asked her if she didn’t have some Twinkies instead. In short, many of these beggars were revealed to be frauds, and the result of the radio show was that angry drivers began confronting them; within a few days most of them disappeared from the intersections.
For a while.
Another beggar in a nearby city worked the same intersection for over a year, until one day someone followed him at the end of the day and saw him get into a late-model car and drive away. The word spread, and soon after that he disappeared from sight. In 2002 I saw an attractive young lady at a freeway exit near a gas station holding a sign that said “Out of Gas, Need Help”. Two weeks later she was still there, still out of gas.
Close to Home
Not all con men, of course, are strangers. Sometimes they are very close to home, and may even be living under your very roof. Sometimes your own kids are guilty of conning you. Adult children who can’t seem to hold a job, for instance, who never get “the break” they need to succeed, and are constantly hitting you up for “a loan” may be the con men that you don’t recognize. Even more subtle is the adult child who still lives at home, eating your food, dominating your living room, and paying no rent (he can’t, because he isn’t working!) Are you being taken advantage of by your own flesh and blood? It happens.
The power of the con man is that you don’t recognize him for what he is. If he’s really good at what he does, he can operate for a lifetime; if one person catches on to him, he simply moves on, burning that bridge behind him. He uses persuasion to get what he wants, and he can be very convincing. His greatest weapon is his sincerity; he takes you into his confidence, convinces you that he would never lie to you, and perhaps that you are his very best friend. He confides in you what he would never tell anyone else, and if you “help” him he will (1) be eternally grateful, (2) reward you beyond your wildest dreams, or (3) you will be doing God’s work.
Or so he says.
The best con men are very charismatic. They may be very complimentary. They make you feel warm and fuzzy. They make you feel special, as if you are the most important person in their lives. And if they’re very good, they can keep it up for years, even a lifetime…while they bleed you dry. You may never catch on to them, may never realize you have been (or are continually being) scammed. Depending on the con man and his particular personality, you may be taken for a sum of money before he vanishes from your life, or you may be taken for a great deal of money over a period of many years. The price of the con may not be money at all, but support of another kind — emotional support, business or political support, enablement of an addiction, or simply to be popular. No matter what payoff the con man is after, you are always the loser.
Do you know anyone like that? Have you ever been taken in by someone like that? Are you, even now, the victim of this kind of robbery?
How Do They Do It?
We all know they’re out there. We may not recognize them if they are close to us, but we know they exist. How do they do it? How can someone take advantage of others that way and still sleep at night?
The answer is as simple as it is frightening — such people are usually psychopathic in nature. This doesn’t always mean they are dangerous, simply that they have no emotional connection to those around them. They have no ability to empathize with others, to place themselves in your shoes and say, “Man, I wouldn’t want someone to treat me that way!” In a word, they are narcissistic, with no regard for anyone or anything that doesn’t benefit them.
A person with an antisocial personality disorder, manifested in aggressive, perverted, criminal, or amoral behavior without empathy or remorse.
–Houghton Mifflin dictionary (emphasis mine)
The causes and manifestations of such behavior can be complex, but we don’t need to be psychologists to recognize it in our lives. Any time you see a pile of horse manure, you can be pretty sure a pony has recently been in the neighborhood. When your relationship with a “friend” leaves you feeling frustrated and empty, you can probably assume you may be the victim of a psychopathic personality. Not always, but don’t rule it out.
Religious Con Men
If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably guessed where this was heading. Not all con men are used car salesmen or drug addicts. As I stated earlier, con men come in all flavors, and their goals are as varied as the flowers on a hillside in the spring. The one thing they have in common is that they want something from you, and they will do or say anything to get it.
Enter the religious con man. (Yes, even preachers are not always what they first seem.)
It isn’t too difficult (hopefully) for the average person to see through a Jerry Falwell or a Jimmy Swaggert. Any time you tune in to a religious broadcast and see someone wearing a suit that cost more than your monthly mortgage payment, whose hair style reminds you of the Country-Western singers of the 1960s, you can safely assume he’s in it more for money than to help you get to heaven.
Have you ever looked in on the Trinity Broadcast Network? Talk about a gallery! I don’t know most of those clowns, but Benny Hinn, Paul Crouch (not to mention his double-wigged wife Jan), and Robert Tilton all look like characters in a “Diamonds Are Forever” commercial. Anyone who flouts his carats while “preaching Christ” has a definite credibility problem, especially considering that Jesus purportedly told his followers to “sell all that you have and follow me”. Yet these jokers rake in millions every year.
But not all religious con men are so obvious or so ostentatious. Many of them live less opulently than those mentioned above, yet are no less con men in that they use charisma or other persuasion to work that tithe check loose from your bank account. Any preacher who uses fear tactics to hold onto his congregation is a con man, pure and simple. The “hellfire and brimstone” preacher has been around for centuries, and his tactic worked as well in the American colonies of 1800 as it does today. Simply stated, the tactic threatens the listener with eternal death unless he “supports the work”.
How Can You Tell?
Obviously, not everyone with a winning personality is a con man. Lots of people are just naturally friendly and charming. So how can you tell if the person who is your “best friend” is really genuine or taking you for a ride?
Well, it might be difficult, especially if you are emotionally attached to the individual. The person we are talking about might be a relative, your child, or even your spouse! So how can you know?
The first step, as always, is to recognize that it’s even possible you might be a victim. Even if you don’t think you are, you might want to evaluate your life just to be safe. And if you have a particular individual in mind, then you really should take the time to sort it out.
Ask yourself this: Do you feel you are on the “losing” side of the relationship? Is this person always “getting” and never “giving”? Does he “borrow” money and never pay it back? Repeatedly? Does he make promises that he never keeps? Is he always in a crisis and only you can help him out of it? Does he repeat the same “mistakes” over and over, and you always have to bail him out of them?
Does this individual flatter you and then immediately want something, only to ignore you until the next time and then repeat the process? Is he flattering only when you are alone together, but abandons you in the company of others? Do you see him doing the same things to other people? When you need something, is he there for you, or is he suddenly “too busy” to help you out?
All by themselves, any one of these scenarios might not prove anything, but if you can detect a pattern of such behavior over a period of time, there is a good chance you are being conned, even if money is not the capital you’re being conned out of.
One More Thing
If you’ve evaluated the possibilities above and think you might be the victim of a con, but you still aren’t sure, there is one more thing you can do that may prove conclusive.
Whoever the con man (or woman) is, and whatever it is that he wants…
Just that. The next time he approaches you in need, simply say no.
And see what happens.
Nine times out of ten, the true con man will fly into a rage. How dare you say no! Who do you think you are! After all he’s done for you! You’ve been friends for years, and he always thought you were different! Now you’re turning your back on him in his hour of greatest need! What kind of friend are you! Who needs you! He never wants to speak to you again!
Or some variation of the above. It may not be done in a shouting voice, but the underlying reaction will be the same. YOU have let HIM down! YOU are the ogre, the perpetrator, the bad guy! YOU should be ashamed of yourself!
If you get this reaction, or anything close to it…then you know. No more guesswork.
What you do after that is up to you. Make sure, before you take this step, that you are willing to let the relationship end, because it might. But the odds are that he’ll be back again, next time he wants something.
Now…try it with your preacher.
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