How Social Media May Help Curb Con Artists

How Social Media May Help Curb Con ArtistsIf you live in a big city (or maybe even if you don’t), you’ve likely been targeted at least once for a well-known scam. A well-dressed person near a transit center claims to have fallen on very temporary hard times such as losing a wallet and needs cash for a train or bus ticket home. Could you possibly spare $10 or $20 to help out? They’d normally never ask, and they’ll even mail the money back if you can help them out of a tight spot. Maybe you take pity, only to see the same person telling the same story in the same train station the next week. It’s a con.

In The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time, Maria Konnikova discussed con artists and how people don’t accuse them or turn them in as often as you’d think. Turning in a con artist is essentially a public admission of foolishness for victims, who in the process of making the accusation also have to admit that they fell for a ruse. As a result, many con artists are able to carry on longer than you’d think, deceiving increasing numbers of people over time.

Konnikova describes being approached for the relatively minor con I mentioned above while on a date in New York. While she was savvy to the trick, her date handed over some cash. He was eager to impress her and probably didn’t realize it was a con.

Despite Konnikova’s (well-founded) assertion that con artists are able to get away with the scam because victims are too embarrassed to point fingers, I think social media is increasing the risk of exposure, especially for scams like the public transit one. In Boston, I’ve noticed that people will tweet about known con artists to accounts like Universal Hub, whose retweets then warn others of the location of the con artist at a given point in time. There’s even a website where sightings of one particular “con man” are compiled.

I think social media adds at least three ingredients to the dynamics that make it easier for people to uncover these minor cons:

Anonymity. Not all people who report these scams do so anonymously, but many do. Even if a person uses their real name, chances are that readers don’t know them in real life. We know from research that people behave more boldly when they are anonymous.

No admission of personal victimhood. Even if the reason you know someone is conning you is because you fell for it in the past, there’s no need to say so in your social media report. You can conveniently sidestep that information in your account, removing embarrassment from the equation.

A chance to be a hero. Reporting a con artist on social media is an action ostensibly intended to help others. The message is, “I’m not doing this as an act of revenge, but to protect innocent people from being deceived.” Being a hero feels good, and may motivate some people to speak up. It helps that social media is real-time transmission and may realistically help alert some people to avoid a shady character.

I do feel bad for people who are genuinely in need of help and perceived as scam artists, and think there’s value in occasionally helping out even at the risk of being conned.  If the cost to me is only a few bucks but it actually helps someone who needs it, that’s not much to pay. That said, if you know of a repeat offender, it’s nice to have a mechanism to alert others to the ruse so they can focus their altruism elsewhere.