TV's consumer fraud, risk and scamming expert, Alexis Conran, popped into NMP Live to discuss the psychology of why people still fall for scams, every day. And how his background as an actor and magician helped him realise that scams, magic and acting are fundamentally the same as what salespeople are trying to do; you're storytelling, and you're getting people to 'buy in' to your story. Watch the interview or read the full transcript below.
In conversation with Alexis Conran
What was it that led you to presenting The Real Hustle?
I ended up presenting The Real Hustle purely by just knowing some people in the magic world; the people who were making Derren Brown were friends of mine who I discovered in the magic world who had introduced me to magic. The same company who were making Derren Brown’s Channel 4 show were starting to make a program called The Real Hustle, and some people recommended me to go and meet, and the rest is history.
What happened after that was that we made a show for 11 series, we did over 100 episodes, it got sold to over 70 countries around the world, possibly one of the most successful shows on the BBC. Myself and my co-presenters wrote over 500 scams and carried out over 500 scams during the course of The Real Hustle.
It was an incredible experience, and an experience I will never forget, and an experience that I think is utterly unique. It’s unique not in the sense that we are the most successful con men in history because obviously we did it for a TV show, but what is unique about it is when you look at the world of security and scams, there are two types of people you are going to come across. You’re going to come across security experts; these are the people whose job it is to stop hustlers and con men getting away with what they are getting away with. The other side is you’re going to have ex-criminals who have reformed, and are coming forwarded and saying this is how I did it. We stand in the middle.
I stand in the middle because I carried out over 500 scams. Most scammers and hustlers you will find have done one, maybe two scams, all their life. If they did ID theft then that is all they would do. If it was cheque fraud, bank fraud, then that is all they would do. But, what happened on The Real Hustle, because it was a TV show, we did over 500 different scams. We did over-payment scams, pickpocketing, cheating at casinos, door-to-door salesman, burglaries, robberies, jewel thefts, all of those put together.
So, by having that experience of doing all those 500 scams it then becomes very clear and you start to understand why these scams still work, why we are still falling for them, and you start to see very clear patterns that all these scams have in common. If you look at the architecture of a scam, essentially they are all the same, and yet we still fall for them to this day.
What are the main topics you address in keynote speeches?
I get really passionate and love keynotes because I have seen it as my mission to go out and educate people and companies about scams. Primarily, why do we still fall for them? So I talk about the psychology of every scam, why do we still fall for it, why after thousands of years we are essentially still falling for essentially the same scams.
Also, parallel to that I talk about why systems fail, and I use my knowledge in magic. I talk about the greatest diamond heist there ever was, which was the Antwerp Diamond Centre, and you look at the system. The keynote starts a little bit like an Ocean’s Eleven Meeting; here’s the safe, here are all the security things, how do we get in? And yet they did get in. Well, how? And I explain how systems can fail when people who are using them don’t understand what the systems are there to do when we don’t understand the dangers. I talk about the psychological principles of why people still fall for scams.
The other thing I have become really passionate about recently, and I have been doing a lot of keynotes recently and enjoyed them a lot, has been about storytelling. I realised that with scams you’re telling a story, you’re trying to get someone to buy into your story. Magic; you’re telling a story. Pick a card and I will find it! And I will find it by the way that you’ve moved your eyes, looking at the deck of cards. You’re telling a story. All of a sudden someone questions if they can actually do that. You’re engaging staff and I have realised that scams, magic and storytelling are exactly the same thing as what salespeople are trying to do.
I thought that I know all the tips and tricks of how to hold someone’s attention, how to get them to do what I want them to do, how to get them to think what I want them to think, because I do that all the time as a magician and as a scam artist. And, I can transfer all those skills into when someone has to sell something, when someone has to sell an idea in a room.
What does confidence look like? How would you go around convincing someone that the story you have is better than the story the four other people waiting outside the room have?
I have to say that I have been enjoying that immensely because I think it is tremendously useful and it all comes together, I also do a couple of tricks whilst I’m doing a keynote just to put real physical examples into what I’m trying to say. The keynote is more image heavy than writings and graphics. I am much more into talking, rather than just showing.
The other thing I love doing the most is a Q&A with people, because I find that I know enough about my subject to be able to deal with a variety of questions, whether they are specific to security or psychology or how things work. I find that it inspires an extra depth into any keynote situation that I found myself in.
How do your after dinner speeches differ from keynote presentations?
The after dinner is a completely different event, but it is on the same themes. What I like to do after dinner is that I will do a little bit of cabaret, I will do a couple of magic tricks which will involve people coming up to the stage with me, but it is all centred around the themes I have talked about already at the beginning of the after dinner speech, which is things that went wrong in The Real Hustle, working in television and scamming, and how those two things sometimes clash completely and disaster ensues.
I also talk about unbelievable scams that I have come across, true stories that you listen to and ask how that ever happened? And bring that all together with a final piece with audience participation where 4 members of the audience come up and join me on stage, and we do a live lie detector test. I try to see if they can lie to me and get away with it. It’s a lot of fun because people get to see it in action. The whole room is involved and trying to figure out what kind of poker faces their colleagues have got.
It’s a lot of fun, and it differs there, but I also offer an extra special element to the event, which is me sat down at the table, usually pre-dinner at the reception, and I exhibit card cheating. There are very few people who can do some of the stuff I show people; dealing from the bottom, second from the top, false dealing, actual techniques that you will find card cheats using today, whether it be in casinos or private games.
And again, I see it as part of my job, it’s the same job. Yes, it might be fun to watch, it’s a bit like a magic trick, but I am saying “look, it looks like I am shuffling cards but not a single card has changed order”. Now that you know that, if you are playing in a game and all of a sudden the same people keep winning over and over again, hopefully, a little light will go to say that you have seen people who can shuffle the deck of cards and it looks like they are shuffling when they are not, maybe I am being taken here, and stand up and walk away from the table. So it is part of the same thing for me, it is all about showing people what is possible.
What can businesses do to prevent becoming victims of fraud?
I think that businesses need to understand that it’s on them to educate both their employees and their customers. Don’t forget, the customer is also a way into a business. If I compromise your customers I can have access to you. So, it is the business’s responsibility to educate all that have any contact with the business.
Now, how do you do that? You don’t go about handing over random bits of protocol, or bits of hardware, or bits of software and say use those, you actually need to start educating from what the dangers are. Why are we doing this? Why are we using an anti-virus system, a firewall? What are the dangers? What happens if we don’t use it? It’s very, very easy to explain all that stuff to people and they will start understanding why it is important to use it and not just do something because someone has told them to do it.
There are a multitude of examples of people who are the gate-keepers, people who are head of security, people who are the first port of defence for a company, really having no interest in the company because it’s not their money, they just work there. They have just been given a random protocol to follow, but they don’t quite understand because the dangers of not following it has not been explained to them, and you expect them to care enough about your company to protect you? It’s never going to happen.
Especially nowadays when we have automation entering companies. There are a lot of people out there who are looking at their jobs thinking “when am I going to be replaced by a machine?” Those are the people who need to be more motivated into why they should care about their companies. Education is the only way we can do this.
Actually, I think companies should be doing more to educate their employees in their private lives as well, to make sure that their homes are safe because we are seeing a lot of attacks to companies happen from the employees' point of view. If I can compromise your home Wi-Fi network, and then I can capture some passwords that you use for your work, or your bank account, or anything like that, I can use that, not against you but against your company. I can use it to go into your company.
So I think companies have a big, big role to play in promoting security, in promoting education about security, and actually going back to basics. Basics like, if you get a phone call out of the blue urging you to take some financial action, don’t. Whether it is to do with the company or yourself, don’t. How much CEO fraud do we see? The email that comes from ‘the CEO’ who is stuck somewhere and some money needs to be sent over immediately. Loads of companies have been taken in by that. Why? Because they don’t know about it, they haven’t been told about the scam.
If there is one criticism I have about companies, about our police forces, about our security organisations it is that we are very, very slow in making a scam well known. And I can tell you from experience, from having done 500 scams, from having done The Real Hustle, the moment you publicise a scam it is very difficult to carry out.
We did a scam in London called The Mustard Squirt. This is where you would squirt mustard on someone’s jacket and somebody else would say “oh, you have something on your jacket, take it off” and in the action of taking your jacket off they would steal your stuff. The Met Police told us that since we made that really public, and really famous, because the clip went viral, they saw numbers of that scam go down. Because someone who had seen the clip, if someone said, “take your jacket off”, they would say, “no, I have seen this” and what happens is the hustlers just go away.
If you go to someone “I know what you are up to” they are going to move on. But, how are we going to do that when the first instinct of every company when they have been compromised it to go “shhh, don’t tell anyone!” That’s ultimately playing into the hands of con men. Now, with the new rules of GDPR things like that have to change, companies have to come forward, but I don’t think that is a bad thing, I think it is a good thing and education is the number one way to protect your customers, your clients, and your business.
What are the scams most likely to catch people out?
I think you are likely to be caught out in a scam when you are not thinking, when you’re not expecting it, and when you’re panicked.
I talk about the 5 principles behind every single scam and they are things like Misdirection, so your focus is away whilst something else is happening. Pickpockets use that a lot. If someone touches your shoulder whilst taking something away from somewhere else on your body, but also misdirection works on a text message scam. “Did you just spend $1500 in the Apple store in New York?” How is that misdirection? Well, I am panicking now because my focus has been directed to someone stealing my money, next step is to click this link and verify that it's you, so I have been directed and I’m panicked so I am about to do something really stupid. Misdirection.
Time Pressure is another thing. Anytime a deal approaches you and says that you’ve got to act now, act now or we’ll take it away! You need to take a step back and think. That phone call you had where they have just had stocks and shares come up, and if you don’t invest now they will have to give them to someone else. Fine. Any genuine deal should be able to give you enough time to think about it.
You’ve got Time Pressure, you’ve got Misdirection, and there is another thing called the Good Deal Syndrome. The Good Deal Syndrome is when I come up to you saying “I really shouldn’t be doing this, but, I’ve got a great deal!” Look, the truth is that all of us love a good deal. All of us love the idea that we are getting something for nothing, that we are beating the system, that somehow we are getting something that not everyone else is entitled to, but all that does is it shuts you up if you are the victim, because if you have done something illicit, who are you going to go to?
If I say to you “these cameras, I can get you one for £50, they cost £500, but, [wink, wink] you know…” then you kind of know that they fell off the back of a lorry. When you open the box and you find a sack of potatoes in it because I have switched them out, because I’m not going to give you a camera worth £500 for £50, who are you going to go to? Are you going to go to the police and say “Officer, I seem to have bought £50 worth of potatoes”, “what did you think you were doing?”, “I thought I was buying a camera”, “off a man, in a white van, in the street?!” A lot of scams have that built in because they get you to do something illicit, which means that you cannot follow up. You’re not going to go after them.
And then the final two things are Social Compliance and Social Proof. Social Compliance meaning that you react to badges, uniforms, high vis. jackets. You see someone in the policeman’s outfit and you stop thinking, you go, well he is a policeman. How do you know?
One of my favourite scams in The Real Hustle was standing outside hotels and asking people for their luggage, or for their key cards, or anything like that, and people wouldn’t think. It was one of the first scams that we did; stood outside a hotel opening taxi doors, the hotel didn’t have a doorman, I pretended I was a doorman, opened the taxi and said: “let me take your bags for you”. Even when people would go “oh, I’d rather take the bags myself” going “you know what, if I don’t take them they are going to fire me because that’s my job, but I will bring them straight up” “oh, okay”, they go in and I take off with the bags.
You make assumptions every day in life, and life would grind to a standstill if we didn’t. Imagine every time you walked into a bank you had to ask yourself if it really was a bank or has someone set this up? Life would grind to a halt. So, that is an area that con men really use.
And finally, Social Proof. The idea that you do what everybody else does. You know, can I park on this spot? Well, five other cars have so, therefore, I am okay. So if I know that, as a hustler, that you are looking for clues as to how to behave by looking at people around you, I just manipulate your environment. I just get other people to do what I want you to do and you will follow suit.
Again, we all like to think that we are clear-minded individuals with a will of our own, but actually, we are more sheep-like than we care to admit. So I would say that any scam that employees any of those five principles has got a very, very high chance of success.
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