Ever since I saw The Sting–the first movie I remember watching–grifters have been a central part of my life. At the turn of the 20th Century, America’s attitude toward confidence crime was, "If you’re stupid enough to fall for a grifter’s tale, you deserve what you get." But that zeitgeist changed as the confidence men worked their way up the social ladder and started working their schemes on the upper class. That’s when the bunco laws got passed and through various means, confidence crimes because actual crimes. The conman ceased being a kind of Robin Hood figure and became an actual criminal.
Myself, I’m torn. I can see confidence crimes as tools. They are morally neutral. How you use them defines their morality. A hammer can be used to build a house or bash a man’s brain in. The latter activity does not make the hammer itself an immoral tool. Likewise, confidence crimes can be used to create just ends.
But then, there’s a part of me that remembers Socrates’ story of the Ring of Gyges. The Ring makes you invisible (sound familiar), and so Socrates’ students asked if the Ring could be used for moral purposes. The teacher said, "Every moral act should be a public act," establishing the groundwork for civil disobedience and his own later suicide.
The way the law sees confidence crime as a kind of fraud. You make a promise you cannot deliver on. I promise to give you a car in exchange for ten thousand dollars. I get the cash and you get no car. That’s fraud. Breaking a contract. Confidence crime falls under that definition in the American legal system. Con games may be handshake agreements, but under our legal system, handshake agreements are still agreements.
Every confidence crime in the world operates under that premise: the conman makes a promise he cannot deliver. He tricks you into giving him your confidence. Usually, he does this by giving you the illusion that you’ve won his confidence.
It’s called "the Spanish Prisoner," and the reason they call it that is because it dates all the way back to Elizabethan England when Catholic Spain was capturing and ransoming Protestant English nobility. At least, that’s the first time we have a record of it. Even that record calls this, " a very old story." It is, without a doubt, the most "classic" con of them all. In fact, it’s still in play. Today, they call it "the Nigerian Prince." Here’s another one…
I know, I know. You’ve seen it. And you never fall for it. But, trust me. The reason you’ve seen it so much is because it’s still working like a charm.
Confidence tricks work because it appeals to a part of the human mind that encourages us to invest in the State Lottery. It encourages us to believe in UFOs and conspiracy theories. These are things we believe without critical analysis. If we were objective and looked at the facts, we’d easily dismiss these beliefs as what they are: unsubstantiated claims.
And, that same part of our brain encourages us to believe in the unsubstantiated claims about the end of the world.
What is happening over at Family Radio Church is a confidence crime. Since they’ve announced the End of the World was going to happen today, they’ve received over 100 million in donations. The last time they pulled this stunt–back in 1994–they pulled in millions of dollars as well. Harold Camping’s church is worth over 72 million dollars. And counting. Of course, after tomorrow, it’s debatable whether or not his reputation will survive a second failed prophecy.
Or will it?
One of my Youtube subscriptions, ProfMTH, created a wonderful video all about what happens when prophecies fail and how believers react. You’d think they would leave the failed prophet behind. You’d think that, but you (and I) would be wrong.
That’s because human beings are gullible. Yes, I count myself as a human being, so I fall into that category as well. There are things I want so desperately to believe that I’m willing to ignore evidence to maintain my belief. It’s a conscience effort to overcome my biases and see evidence to the contrary. Knowing that it’s not a simple effort, but a concentrated and deliberate task, makes it a little easier, but my biases trick me just as often as they trick others. I work hard at it, but I fail more often than I’d like to admit.
People look at Camping and call him a conman. They’re correct. But what most people fail to realize is that his church is really no different than any other church in the United States. They all do the same thing. They make a promise they can’t deliver on and ask money for delivering it.
Hey, I’d like to tell you about this friend of mine, Jesus Christ. He’s gonna save the world. All you have to do is change your entire life: how you think, how you act, the people you call friends, the people you call family. All you have to do is believe what I’m telling you and join us. And you’ll be saved.
And if you don’t think religion asks you to change your entire life, take a step back and think about it. How many people have you rejected relationships with because they aren’t part of your faith? How many family members do you have conflict with because they aren’t part of your faith? How many books, movies, TV shows, songs, etc. do you not even give a second glance because they don’t agree with your faith?
I can think of dozens of examples. Gay marriage. Sex outside of marriage. Homosexuality. Bi-sexuality. Polygamy. Polyamory. Hell, I haven’t even gotten outside of SEX yet. These lifestyle choices are dictated by the world’s religions and the only argument they have is "God said so."