The Customer

The Grifter’s Hit Parade

America’s most popular confidence games, 2010.


A guy comes up to you, you make a call, you send in a brochure, it doesn’t matter, ‘There’re these properties I’d like for you to see.’ What does it mean? What you want it to mean. (Pause.) Money? (Pause.) If that’s what it signifies to you. Security? (Pause.) Comfort? (Pause.) All it is is THINGS THAT HAPPEN TO YOU. (Pause.) That’s all it is. How are they different? (Pause.) Some poor newly married guy gets run down by a cab. Some busboy wins the lottery. (Pause.) All it is, it’s a carnival. What’s special … what draws us? (Pause.) We’re all different. (Pause.) We’re not the same. (Pause.) We are not the same (Pause. Sighs.) It’s been a long day. (Pause.) What are you drinking?—Ricky Roma in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross

Poor Ricky Roma. In 2010, timeshare fraud failed to rank among the top 10 most common consumer swindles, as measured by the number of complaints to the Federal Trade Commission. It’s the 19th-most common, responsible for only about 1 percent of all complaints—and that’s when it’s lumped in with other kinds of deceptive offers for free or low-cost vacations and travel. In 2008 it ranked 17th, and in 2009 it ranked 18th. Pretty soon Mamet’s play (it later was adapted into an excellent movie) may be all we have to remember a lost art.

Identity theft, on the other hand—the appropriation of somebody else’s Social Security or credit card number—has held the No. 1 spot for at least the past three years. It was responsible for 19 percent of all complaints to the FTC in 2010. That marks a slight decline from 2009 (21 percent) and a somewhat larger decline from 2008 (26 percent). But identity theft is still the reigning champ. My Slate colleague Jack Shafer argued in 2006 that the concrete harm caused by such privacy breaches is usually minimal. But as cons go, identity theft would seem to offer opportunities to scale up that are difficult to acquire elsewhere. If I were to advise an aspiring young swindler about the most profitable illegal path to wealth—not something, mind you, I’m likely ever to do—I would probably say, “Go identity theft, young man (or woman).”

Identity theft is well ahead of deceptive, bullying, or outright phony debt collection, the category that holds the No. 2 spot. Debt collection prompted 11 percent of all consumer complaints to the FTC in 2010—a slight uptick from 2008 and 2009, when misbehaving debt collectors prompted 9 percent of all consumer complaints. With consumer debt headed downward, it seems unlikely debt collection will maintain its privileged spot for much longer.

I derive these and other statistics from the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book 2010 and from its predecessor volumes for the previous two years. The FTC shares its complaint database only with law-enforcement agencies (unlike the Consumer Product Safety Administration, which recently made its complaint database available to all, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has shared such information with the public for many years). One day perhaps the FTC will hop aboard the full-disclosure bandwagon. In the meantime, the FTC provides a pretty delectable feast of data about trends in consumer complaints to the agency. Here, at last, we have a guide to the most popular cons in America—which is to say most popular with con artists, not with the unhappy people who alert the FTC that they’ve been conned. David Maurer (linguist author of The Big Con, a classic 1940 book about life on the grift that later inspired the Oscar-winning movie The Sting) would have loved to get his hands on this baby.

Let’s take a moment to study the main findings.

Internet services have been ranked No. 3 for the past two years, having in 2009 dislodged various cons associated with shop-at-home and catalog sales (many of these through the Internet, though also the telephone or mail; auctions through eBay and other Web sites are not included in this category). Shop-at-home is now No. 5. “Internet services” refers to undisclosed charges, misleading trial offers, and blocked cancellations from Internet providers; various funny stuff from entertainment, gambling, and social networking Web sites; and spyware, malware, and adware. These last three, I suspect, are enough to rank Internet services No. 3 with a bullet. Internet services complaints currently represent 5 percent of all complaints to the FTC. Plenty of room for growth there. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this category displace debt collection at No. 2.

It’s a relief to see prizes, sweepstakes, and lotteries at No. 4. Maybe some of the old craft (“To collect your prize just pay this fee!”) has not been lost to posterity after all. An interesting new wrinkle is that the con man (or woman) now pretends to work for some government agency that is supervising delivery of your sweepstakes winnings! “Now if you’ll just wire the money to this foreign country. …” It does make you wonder whether humankind is getting, well, dumber.

Wire transfer, I’m surprised to observe, was the most common method of payment to swindlers in last year’s consumer complaints to the FTC. It was responsible for 44 percent, well ahead of such seemingly likelier methods as credit cards (24 percent) and debit cards (14 percent). That appears, however, to be a one-year blip, possibly reflecting publicity accorded the FTC’s $18 million settlement with MoneyGram International, the country’s second-biggest wire transfer company, in October 2009. For 2008 and 2009, wire transfer took second place behind credit cards, with debit cards placing a much closer third. That’s still a lot of wire transfers! In 2010 con artists’ preferred method of baiting the hook was email, which was responsible for 45 percent of all initial contacts with complainants. In second place was Ricky Roma’s favored technology (when he wasn’t haranguing that sad-eyed fellow in a bar): the telephone. Initial contact by phone came in at a strong 19 percent, up from 17 percent in 2009 and a mere 11 percent in 2008. Mail continues its inexorable decline as a medium for everything, including fraud. Initial contact by mail stood at 10 percent, down from 13 percent in 2009 and 14 percent in 2008.

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.

On the other hand, when you look only at complaints to the FTC about the most common con—identity theft—the Willie Sutton principle evaporates. My cohort represents only 15 percent here; the pre-eminent cohort complaining about identity theft is people in their 20s, who represent 24 percent. Perhaps with identity theft the greater wealth of the fiftysomethings is offset by an inability to match twentysomethings in time spent on computers and smartphones.

We end with a geographic breakdown. My own beloved metropolitan statistical area of Washington and its suburban environs provided 24,671 complaints to the FTC, which far surpasses the absolute number received from anyplace else. But before you make too much of that, please note that on a per capita basis, Greater Washington’s way down in 32nd place. In 2010 the nation’s capital for consumer complaints about getting conned was not Washington, D.C., but Dunn, N.C. Dunn logged a mere 805 complaints, but that gave it the highest rate of complaints per capita—740 complaints per 100,000 people. I couldn’t tell you what earned Dunn the distinction of being Suckertown, USA. But a quick Google search turned up that only four days ago a convenience store owner in Dunn allegedly told a customer who won the lottery that her ticket did not, in fact, win, then tried to cash nearly $90,000 in winnings himself.