Alexis Conran is a rare combination of smart, suave, mysterious and … good-hearted. He’s the star of an international hit TV show called The Real Hustle, aired first on the BBC. A professional magician, Alexis and his band of “criminals” perform scams on unsuspecting consumers in the show — all filmed by hidden cameras — then reveal the “crime” and explain the theft. It’s all done in the name of consumer education. The shows are riveting and you should watch them (available on YouTube).
A few years ago, the folks at the RSA Conference put me on stage with Alexis (and my Plateau Effect co-author Hugh Thompson) to talk about what we can all learn from magic tricks. Alexis has a talk he gives to organizations called “The Elements of Deception” which really is quite brilliant. Many companies pay big money for these performances, but you can hear my conversation with Alexis for free in the latest The Perfect Scam podcast.
Before you head to the podcast, I also want to plug Alexis’ amazing documentary, Gambling Addiction and Me. In the movie, viewers follow his quest to understand his father, who became a real-life con man in order to fund a gambling addiction. Viewers also see a series of other lives ruined by gambling. It’s incredibly timely given America’s recent rush to legalize sports betting. It’s also available on YouTube.
Click here to listen to my chat with Alexis on AARP’s website, or click the play button below if that works for you. Below that is a partial transcript where Alexis describes what’s at the core of nearly every crime: a story.
[00:10:09] Alexis Conran: Well this is, so this is, we’ve worked together, Bob, and, and you’ve seen me sort of give this talk. It’s just my observation of all the scams that I have done. They always have these common elements, they’re sort of principles that, that are, are always present in a scam. Now sometimes it’s just one of the principles is, is present. Sometimes it’s three or four principles that’s present. But I’ve yet to come across a scam that didn’t have at least one of these principles involved. And the advantage I have, and I don’t like sort of blowing my own trumpet here, but the advantage I have is I’ve done so many different scams. And when you look at master criminals, a lot of them focus quite rightly, they become experts on one type of scam, whether that’s financial fraud, stealing cars, stealing wallets, property fraud, you know, boiler rooms, all the kind of stuff. But on The Real Hustle, we did all of those scams. We did every single scam imaginable. We went out and did it– impersonation scams, everything. So, you get a wide variety of those scams, and you start really realizing, sort of joining the dots together of what makes all these scams work. What psychological principles are involved to convince someone of your story, because essentially, Bob, that’s it, isn’t it? A scam is a story, it’s a narrative. My job as a hustler is just to get you to believe in me and believe in the story. That’s all I’m trying to do. Now, you could say, and, and I will say, but I don’t want anybody to get offended, but you could say the same applies to advertising for example, or politics, it’s all about narratives. Buy my narrative, buy my story.
[00:11:52] Bob: Buy my story. That’s the goal of anyone trying to deceive you, to sell you a story. So elements are often present when a criminal is selling a story? Element number 1: Misdirection.
[00:12:08] Alexis Conran: Misdirection is something that we use in the world of magic and sleight of hands, the idea that I make you look one way whilst I’m doing something the other way. I don’t want you looking at my hands, and I’m going to distract you by focusing your attentions on something else. Maybe I’ll ask you a question. That means that you’re going to have to give me some eye contact, which means that your eyes go to my eyes, but they’re not on my hands in the moment when I might have to do something fishy. Now, misdirection is a common trait. You want your victim to be focused on something positive. You don’t want to be focusing their mind too much that they’re, on the fact they might be, I don’t know, they might be about to buy some tickets for a concert in the middle of a street from someone they’ve never met before. That’s not something you want them to focus on. What you want them to focus on is how wonderful that concert’s going to be, and what a great deal they’re getting. So that’s what you’re going to focus on. A lot of the email scams, again, that you see or text messages, employ an element of misdirection there as well. You might get an email, for example, or a text message that says, did you just spend $3000 at the Apple store in Paris? Now you’re sitting there in London or New York or Los Angeles, now you’re going to panic. You’re going to go, well that’s not me. $3000 has just left my account. The text message will have a nice little link that say, “click here to report the fraud.” You know, again, that’s misdirection. Why? Well, because you’re now focusing on the fact that you may have lost some money from your account, because that’s clearly not what’s happened, and you’re not focusing on the fact that a text message has just come through, and you’re about to click on a link which, Bob, as you and I know, clicking on links in text messages or emails, even if they are from people you know, is an absolute no-no. If that does happen, contact your bank. Do not click on any links. So, I don’t know if that’s clear, but misdirection’s this idea that I get you to think one thing because I don’t want you to focus on another thing.
[00:14:03] Bob: Element number 2: Time pressure.
[00:14:07] Alexis Conran: So, time pressure is a legitimate sales technique. You’re just pressuring someone to make a decision quickly and there on the spot. You don’t want them to focus on what they’re about to do for too long. You know, boiler room scams, those people that call people out of the blue, cold calls, they are notoriously good from preventing you from hanging up. They will keep you on that phone and almost badger you into submission to give them a sale. And that, they will use techniques of once I hang up, the deal is gone, the deal’s no longer. It’s only going to be valid for, you know, the following days. You need to make your mind up right now. Every time I have to say, Bob, that I’ve come across something which has a time limit on it, I always sort of think twice. And you see it. You see how successful it is in, in sales. For example, look at Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Yeah, people spend ridiculous amounts of money on stuff that they don’t need. Why? Because it’s only available for that day. So we know it works psychological, and of course, criminals use it all the time.
[00:15:15] Bob: Element number 3: Herd mentality. Behavioral scientists call this social proof we tend to do what everyone around us is doing. If we’re not sure about a situation, we look around, look to others, to the herd for proof that things are okay. One way to learn how this works is to watch street hustlers play a shell game, Alexis says.
[00:15:39] Alexis Conran: First of all when you watch that game being played, there is a gang playing that game. It’s not just one guy with some cardboard boxes and a couple of cards or disks that has decided to set up. You can be absolutely 100% sure that there are at least two or three other people in the gang who are in the crowd. And they are his shills. They are his, part of the team. One of them’s probably on the lookout to see if any police are coming. And the other two are playing along. They are pretending to be interested customers. This is that principle that we all like, you know, that if everyone else is doing it, you know, the herd principle, then it’s okay, it’s, it’s all right for us to, to, to sort of play along. So if you’re seeing two or three play this game and they’re having a lot of fun and they’re winning some money, you’re much more likely to go and play it yourself.
[00:16:27] Bob: In the internet age, it’s easier than ever to build this sensation that everyone’s doing it.
[00:16:33] Alexis Conran: So you see ads on Instagram, and on Twitter and on Facebook, and if you’ve, if they’ve got, you know, 50, 60,000 likes, a 100,000 likes, all of a sudden you give them a sort of legitimacy. You say, well this, this is going to be genuine, so many people have shared it. Well, it’s not necessarily the case.
[00:16:51] Bob: Plenty of folks might think they don’t do things just because everyone else is doing them, but as Perfect Scam listeners know, all of us are vulnerable.
[00:17:01] Alexis Conran: Some people listening to this will go, well I don’t do that. I, I, you know, I’m not a sheep. I make up my own mind. And but unfortunately you do, and it’s a good thing that you do. The herd principle is the reason that we’re still here, Bob. We haven’t been eaten by bigger, stronger animals because you know it, it, it’s what’s kept us safe, that we’ve acted as a herd. You know, a couple of thousand years ago, if you saw a bunch of people running away from something, you joined them and run away. You don’t have to go, oh, hang on a minute, no I need to investigate is that really a flesh-eating dinosaur that they’re running away from. Oh yes, it is. Oh, now I’m dead. So, we need the herd principle, but it’s a very, very powerful thing because it means that you’re taking the cues as to how to behave from your environment. You’re looking at what everybody is doing, and you follow suit. Now me, as a hustler, if I know that, then all I have to do is to manipulate your environment. Okay, I fill your environment with stooges, I fill your environment with people who are going to behave like I want you to behave. We want to fit in to what everybody else is doing, and that’s incredibly powerful.
[00:18:05] Bob: Yet another element of deception involves copying familiar icons, logos, badges, uniforms, and copying their credibility too. That’s something else that’s easier in the internet age.
[00:18:20] Alexis Conran: All those things are really, really important to people. It’s incredibly powerful to wear a uniform or a, a good suit. People assign you with responsibility when you have a high visibility jacket on. I mean, the thing costs like 10 bucks and all of a sudden people think that you’re in charge. So these things are, are really kind of prevalent amongst the hustling world, and in the cyber world, the equivalent of a high vis jacket or to a really nice suit is a really well-designed website, okay. Someone you’ve never heard of says, check us out, you know, google us. And you land on their webpage and it’s beautifully designed, it looks like someone spent money on it, but actually, what are you looking at? You’re just looking at some code. You’re not looking at a real company, but we can’t help ourselves. We are ascribing quality and value to something like a webpage because we always need to sort of make sense of things, but those logos, those symbols, those badges, those uniforms, they’re all hugely powerful in the world of scamming.