A confidence trick (synonyms include con, confidence game, confidence scheme, ripoff, scam, and stratagem) is an attempt to defraud a person or group after first gaining their confidence, used in the classical sense of trust. Confidence tricks exploit characteristics of the human psyche, such as credulity, naïveté, compassion, vanity, irresponsibility, and greed. Researchers Lindsey Huang and Barak Orbach defined the scheme as "a distinctive species of fraudulent conduct ... intending to further voluntary exchanges that are not mutually beneficial", as they "benefit con operators ('con men') at the expense of their victims (the 'marks')".
The perpetrator of a confidence trick (or "con trick") is often referred to as a confidence (or "con") man, con-artist, or a "grifter". Samuel Thompson (1821-1856) was the original "confidence man". Thompson was a clumsy swindler who asked his victims to express confidence in him by giving him money or their watch rather than gaining their confidence in a more nuanced way. A few people trusted Thompson with their money and watches. Thompson was arrested in July 1849. Reporting about this arrest, Dr. James Houston, a reporter of the New York Herald, publicized Thompson by naming him the "Confidence Man". Although Thompson was an unsuccessful scammer, he gained reputation as a genius operator mostly because Houston's satirical writing wasn't understood as such. The National Police Gazette coined the term "confidence game" a few weeks after Houston first used the name "confidence man".
A confidence trick is also known as a con game, a con, a scam, a grift, a hustle, a bunko (or bunco), a swindle, a flimflam, a gaffle, or a bamboozle. The intended victims are known as marks, suckers, stooges, mugus, rubes, or gulls (from the word gullible). When accomplices are employed, they are known as shills.
A short con or small con is a fast swindle which takes just minutes. It typically aims to rob the victim of everything in his wallet.
A long con or big con (also, chiefly British English: long game) is a scam that unfolds over several days or weeks and involves a team of swindlers, as well as props, sets, extras, costumes, and scripted lines. It aims to rob the victim of huge sums of money or valuable things, often by getting him or her to empty out banking accounts and borrow from family members.
In Confessions of a Confidence Man, Edward H. Smith lists the "six definite steps or stages of growth" of a confidence game. He notes that some steps may be omitted.
In addition, some games require a "corroboration" step, particularly those involving a "rare item". This usually includes the use of an accomplice who plays the part of an uninvolved (initially skeptical) third party, who later confirms the claims made by the con man.
Confidence tricks exploit typical human characteristics such as greed, dishonesty, vanity, opportunism, lust, compassion, credulity, irresponsibility, desperation, and naïvety. As such, there is no consistent profile of a confidence trick victim; the common factor is simply that the victim relies on the good faith of the con artist. Victims of investment scams tend to show an incautious level of greed and gullibility, and many con artists target the elderly, but even alert and educated people may be taken in by other forms of a confidence trick. Researchers Huang and Orbach argue:
Cons succeed for inducing judgment errors--chiefly, errors arising from imperfect information and cognitive biases. In popular culture and among professional con men, the human vulnerabilities that cons exploit are depicted as 'dishonesty,' 'greed,' and 'gullibility' of the marks. Dishonesty, often represented by the expression 'you can't cheat an honest man,' refers to the willingness of marks to participate in unlawful acts, such as rigged gambling and embezzlement. Greed, the desire to 'get something for nothing,' is a shorthand expression of marks' beliefs that too-good-to-be-true gains are realistic. Gullibility reflects beliefs that marks are 'suckers' and 'fools' for entering into costly voluntary exchanges. Judicial opinions occasionally echo these sentiments.
Accomplices, also known as shills, help manipulate the mark into accepting the perpetrator's plan. In a traditional confidence trick, the mark is led to believe that he will be able to win money or some other prize by doing some task. The accomplices may pretend to be strangers who have benefited from performing the task in the past.