Interviewing Self-Confident Con Artists

By O'neal, Scott | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Interviewing Self-Confident Con Artists


O'neal, Scott, The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


Known as con artists, scam artists, swindlers, shysters, grifters, bunco artists, or fraudsters, these criminals perpetrate a significant portion of the large-scale and sophisticated fraud schemes that victimize individuals, banks, businesses, and government agencies. They are the figures behind most fraudulent investment plans, advance fee loan schemes, and many other white collar crimes, such as bank and insurance fraud and illegal telemarketing. Members of this class of criminals differ from most others who may commit crimes out of desperation (economic stress, drug/alcohol abuse), or because of their environment (family violence, gang/peer influence), or who simply represent greedy opportunists. Con artists commit crimes because it pays and because swindling is easier and more exciting than working for a living. [1] And, when confronted with their deceptions, these predators feign bewilderment and frequently turn the tables on their victims. Unfortunately, scam artists too often convince victims that they have not received harm or that any loss suffered did not result from intentional misrepresentation. Also, too often, their skillful deception dissuades criminal investigators, prosecutors, or both from pursuing them.

Con artists tend to act irrationally--their criminal behavior more the result of flawed character than of adverse social conditions or greed alone. Successful con artists are charming, manipulative, and able to exploit the innate trust and greed of many people. Their over-abundance of self-esteem is exaggerated by their lack of respect for others. These individuals lack empathy for their victims and guilt for their parasitic lifestyle. [2] Additionally, most challenging for law enforcement, con artists can be intelligent, confident, and masterful liars.

The interview of con artists represents a significant challenge in the investigation of frauds committed by this type of criminal. The con artist often sizes up an interviewer to determine their expertise in the particular financial/business dealings involved in the fraud and then attempts to explain the "misunderstanding" using jargon the con artist perceives the interviewer will not understand, which presents a unique challenge for fraud investigators. Due to a general lack of regard for the abilities of others, these subjects do not fear interrogation by law enforcement, and their willingness to talk freely makes them overconfident, which provides an opportunity for a prepared investigator. An investigator in the role of an interested interviewer, as opposed to an authoritative interrogator, can take advantage of the character flaws of financial swindlers. With the proper preparation and strategic approach on the part of investigators, evidence produced from subject interviews of con artists can become th e key to successful fraud prosecutions.

PLANNING THE INTERVIEW STRATEGY

In fraud cases, as in all criminal investigations, the subject interview presents important opportunities. A properly obtained confession most often will bring the investigation and prosecution to a swift conclusion. Even when a subject interview fails to yield a full confession, it affords law enforcement the opportunity to document information to further build a case so that the prosecutor can decide whether, or how, to charge the subject.

Approaching the subject interview with the focused goal of obtaining a confession may not prove practical in cases targeting experienced con artists. According to one expert in the area of interviewing and interrogation, "Suspects confess when the internal anxiety caused by their deception outweighs their perception of the crime s consequences." [3] However, con artists who think nothing of cheating people out of their life savings do not experience internal anxiety. [4] When an assessment of the subject's background and personality indicates a practiced con artist indisposed to confessing, a more practical and often achievable goal is to elicit false exculpatories and admissions of intentional misrepresentations. …

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