Confidence game

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Confidence games (also known as “grift”) are criminal enterprises in which the victim is persuaded to become a criminal himself, and then taken advantage of. Almost all confidence games rely upon the victim’s greed, although occasionally other character weaknesses, such as lust, may be exploited. Confidence men almost always work in teams, although there are a handful of exceptions.

In a typical confidence game, the victim is presented with an opportunity to make a great deal of money through cheating or stealing, but in order to do so the victim must first invest some of his own money to bring the scheme to fruition. Once the victim has lost control of his money, something goes wrong with the criminal plan, and the money is lost. Since the victim has himself committed a crime, he is not in a good position to report the confidence game to the authorities. As a result, most confidence crimes go unreported.

Because all true confidence games require the victim to act dishonestly before he can be hurt, the well known saying has arisen that “You can’t cheat an honest man.”

Confidence games can be simple, involving only two con men and a simple prop such as a wallet or personal check, or elaborate, with dozens of con men playing a variety of roles and elaborate props and sets worthy of a Broadway show. When an office or similar location is used in the con after having been dressed up to look like a gambling den or similar location, it is called “The Big Store”.

In his definitive book “The Big Con”, linguist and amateur criminologist David W. Maurer lists the 10 steps of all “Big cons”, which are paraphrased below:

  1. Finding the victim
  2. Befriending the victim (gaining the victim’s confidence)
  3. Steering him to the con man’s partner (called the “insideman”)
  4. The insideman tempts the victim with a plan to make a lot of money dishonestly
  5. Letting the victim make some money in the scheme (to convince him it will work)
  6. Determining how much the victim should invest
  7. Sending the victim to the bank or home to get the money
  8. Taking the money from the victim while making it look like the dishonest scheme failed
  9. Getting rid of the victim
  10. Forestalling action by the law [1]

A variation of confidence games which relies on lust to motivate the victim is the “badger game”. In this variation, a married man is approached by a woman who seduces him into an adulterous liaison. At the appropriately embarrassing moment, the woman’s “husband” (actually her con man partner) bursts in and accuses the victim of carrying on with his wife. The “husband” then threatens violence and/or to expose the victim’s infidelity to his wife or community, unless money is paid.

Confidence games appear in many aspects of popular culture, particularly mystery and detective fiction, and have provided the theme for many films, notably including “The Flim Flam Man” (1967), and “The Sting” (1973).

Ponzi Schemes

Ponzi schemes do not require the victims to be dishonest. Instead they have total confidence in the swindler who pays off the firt round of suckers with money given by the second round. Some Ponzi schemes have tricked victims out of billions of dollars, as in the case of Bernard Madoff, who was caught in 2008.


  1. Maurer, David (1940, reprinted 1999) The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man, Bobbs-Merrill, reprinted Anchor Books, p.4 of reprint edition

Further reading

Maurer, David The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man, (1940)