ENCORE: Inside the con artist's confidence game

Why is it that people who are otherwise smart and rational keep getting sucked in by the con artist's magic? From snake oil to email scams, writer Maria Konnikova gets inside the con artist's head in her book, The Confidence Game.
Bernie Madoff's decades-long Ponzi scheme was the biggest fraud in U.S. history. His victims were embarrassed that they were such easy marks, but author Maria Konnikova suggests in her book The Confidence Game, even the most savvy person can be sideswiped by the careful con. (Timoth A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

Read story transcript

The larger-than-life character played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can was based on the real-life of Frank William Abagnale, Jr. He wasn't a pilot, a doctor, or a lawyer — though he fooled many people into thinking otherwise. He was a con artist, making millions by his 19th birthday — all by convincing people to part with their cash.

How con artists pull it off — again and again — is the subject of a book called The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It ... Every Time by The New Yorker writer Maria Konnikova.  

Cons artists are storytellers who weave compelling narratives that we can't help but believe in.-  Maria Konnikova

Konnikova spoke to The Current's host Anna Maria Tremonti in January and told her "no single person is immune" from a con artist.

"I thought I was pretty sophisticated, pretty skeptical. And I came out of this thinking 'Wow,' I could be conned at any moment, and perhaps I already have and I'm just not aware of it."

According to Konnikova, there's no particular profile "that would capture every single con artist," but she says there are "a series of predisposing traits that a lot of con artists do possess."

"I found that a lot of them have one, or some, or all of the so-called "dark triad of traits." That includes "psychopathy or the inability to experience empathy with other people," Konnikova explains.

"The second part of the triad is narcissism which is this overblown ego and sense of self that comes with a healthy helping of entitlement. So it allows you to justify taking things from other people."

Konnikova says the final part of a con artist personality is a Machiavellist trait that involves the "ability to use the tactics of persuasion to sway people to do your bidding for your own personal ends."

If we said that every single liar was a con artist then basically the entire world would be populated by con artists.- Maria Konnikova

Machiavellianism is the talent most con artists possess because, as Konnikova says, "that's the heart of convincing people to do what you want them to do rather than what's in their best interest."

It's not just con artists who make things up. Konnikova points out that we all lie more often than we think, such as during social interactions when we're asked, "How are you?" and we respond "Fine," when really our day might be going horribly.

"On that level you know deception makes the world go around," says Konnikova.

"If we said that every single liar was a con artist then basically the entire world would be populated by con artists … it just depends on how broad your definition is."

Listen to the full post a the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Liz Hoath.

Here are some other famous imposters through history including The Current's interview with Christian Gerhartsreiter: