Time for a Cackle Bladder
A rather irrestible story today on Slate about 2010’s most popular con games. Of course, identity theft is, and will continue to be a major source of fraud, but other swindlers’ standards are still thriving, including, incredibly, sweepstakes and contest scams.
Who are the marks? I would have guessed they’re mostly old people, but, in fact, people aged 70 and older accounted for only 7 percent of the total; the only age group responsible for a smaller share was those aged 19 and under, and of course kids are usually too young to swindle. The sucker mother lode, I’m shocked to report, is my own slice of the baby boom age cohort, ages 50 to 59. We supplied 24 percent of fraud complaints in 2010. Fortysomethings were a whisker behind us with 23 percent. Roughly the same pattern held in 2008 and 2009 (though in 2008 the fortysomethings pulled ahead to 26 percent).
Before Midge Decter seizes the opportunity to blame my generation’s credulousness on the same spirit of naive exploration that characterized youth in the 1960s—sex, drugs, radical politics, etc.—she should note that the earliest baby boomers, who created most of the ruckus, have already graduated to the 60-plus cohort, which matches the over-70 set’s modest 7 percent of consumer-fraud complaints. When the 1960s ended I was only 11 years old. But I will admit that this isn’t the first time my age cohort’s collective smarts was called into question. In 2008 it was identified by Neil Howe, a longtime parser of generational identities, as “the dumbest generation.” Still, a simpler explanation for the fiftysomethings’s pre-eminence is the Willie Sutton principle. Con artists are probably likeliest to target people who have lived long enough to accumulate some money but not so long that they’ve stopped working and started drawing down those savings as they enter retirement.
The article also mentions a great book and one that I’ve recommended to several people, David Maurer’s The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man. The book recounts the history, technique, philosophy, and best of all, language of swindle men, circa 1964. In several cases, Maurer, a linguist by training, I think, takes the reader step by step through several of the most popular cons. I’ve almost ordered his other book, Whiz Mob: A Correlation of the Technical Argot of Pickpockets with Their Behavior Patterns, several times but am holding out hope that a cheap copy will one day manifest itself to me at a library book sale or estate sale.
Another fine contribution to the history of cheats, bamboozlers, tricksters, and charlatans is the 1948 autobiography of Yellow Kid Weil, Conman : A Master Swindler’s Own Story, reissued in a new edition in 2004 as part of Broadway’s wonderful Library of Larceny. Stories and language from a lost America….