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The Con Artist Playbook

conartistplaybook_coverI’ve been involved in consumer advocacy for more than 25 years, and I’ve encountered a bewildering array of predatory behavior. I’ve confronted illegal telemarketers, crush video producers, plagiarists, fraudsters, pedophiles, publishing scams, animal abusers, fake charities, identity thieves, cyberbullies, fugitive felons, and more. But despite the vastly different circumstances surrounding each of these cases, there are reliable patterns of behavior that surface: collectively, I call them the Con Artist Playbook.

As far as I know, there isn’t really a handbook instructing bad actors on how to deflect blame (and I sincerely hope nobody is inspired to pen Criminal Behavior for Dummies or The Idiot’s Guide to Committing Felonies), but these cynical, manipulative tactics are so eerily consistent, I’ve wondered if these bad actors are operating from the same guidebook.

Individual tactics from the Con Artist’s Playbook are commonplace, but meaningless in isolation. We all have bad days. When your spot one of these negative behaviors in a friend, that doesn’t mean she’s secretly running a pyramid scheme out of her garage. Rather, these signs and symptoms are part of a larger syndrome, a cluster of behaviors that when viewed together points to something highly suspect.

The quotes below are fictionalized, but typical of real comments I’ve heard from bad actors. Watch for them in the wild. And if you see these responses from a publishing service of any kind, run.

If I Hide, They’ll Go Away

Depending on the offender’s personality, this may be their first resort, or a later response when other tactics fail. A favorite tactic of corporate offenders, refusing to respond to questions assumes that people will lose interest and promptly forget about the controversy.

  • “No comment.”
  • “I don’t know anything about that. You’ll have to ask _____________.”
  • “Please see the statement we posted on the 15th. We have nothing further to add.”

Silence only worsens suspicion, and the offender then resorts to other forms of evasion.

My Public Misbehavior is Private

If the offender can’t hide from the issue, they will attempt to silence it, ruthlessly stifling any discussion on forums they control and avoiding public forums.

  • “What I do is none of your business!”
  • “I don’t owe you anything, including an answer.”
  • “Please respect my privacy during this difficult time.”

This particular behavior is problematic in that some matters are private. However, it’s hard to give that defense much credence when the issue is a highly public one, such as the charity operator accused of defrauding donors of hundreds of thousands of dollars, or a hypocritical “family values” politician who gets caught with his pants down (literally and figuratively).

I Never Did That, But So What If I Did?

When it becomes clear that they can’t hide from the issue or deflect the blame, the offender may try to minimize the offense or their role in it.

  • “Everybody does it.”
  • “It’s just business.”
  • “This has all been blown out of proportion.”
  • “Fake news.”
  • “This was a politically motivated attack.”
  • “What’s the big deal?”

Downplaying the magnitude of the offense is a step toward discrediting the accuser and the evidence presented against them. It may also be a step toward rallying their supporters against the whistleblowers.

I’ll Sue!

Guilty individuals fear prosecution, so perhaps it’s no surprise that they view the legal system as a weapon to be wielded against one’s enemies.

Cease-and-desist notices with threats of litigation are a favorite tactic of bad actors. Sometimes they’re poorly written, laughably amateurish efforts copied and pasted from internet samples. (One such letter received by yours truly still had the “YOUR NAME HERE” placeholders intact.) Other times, they’re perfunctory form letters rattled off by a strip mall attorney for $75.

It can be unnerving to receive one in the mail, but they’re usually toothless: the last thing a criminal wants is to actually set foot inside a courtroom. Bad actors know these are intimidating, and dispense them like candy from a pinata.

Blame the Haters

As pressure mounts, the offender invariably blames “haters” for their woes. Adopting the role of the innocent victim will become the offender’s principal defense, with any setbacks blamed on a nefarious cabal of black-hearted individuals who are out to destroy the offender’s happiness. They may spin elaborate tales of conspiracies, particularly if law enforcement has become involved.

  • “The evidence was faked.”
  • “They’re out to get me because they’re jealous of my success.”
  • “They’re just hateful people who want to destroy everyone’s happiness.”
  • “I’m being persecuted because of [unrelated topic].”

In one case I assisted with, a convicted animal abuser announced that the arresting officers, the judge, the newspapers, and Facebook had all been compromised by “the haters” and were conspiring to destroy him, and that’s why things were going so badly for him in court.

In another case, a fraudster angrily informed the court that it didn’t matter what verdict was handed down, because he knew that everyone involved had been paid off. After it was thrown out he was going to singlehandedly expose the corruption in our legal system — starting with the judge.

In the end, neither argument was persuasive.

Ha Ha, This is Fun!

In the offender’s narrative, they are being harassed by bitter, jealous people who just want to see everyone else be as miserable as they are. So, to show their lack of concern, the offender will put on a display of good-natured cheer, taunts, and over-the-top vitriol.

  • “Going to Disneyland today with the kids. Haters won’t stop me from enjoying life!”
  • “Ooh, the haters are back. Where’s my popcorn?”
  • “If you stalkers are reading this, you can take your **** and shove it up your ******** **** with a ******!”
  • “Where are all the haters today? Probably faking more evidence!”

I have little sympathy for those who prey on others, but I’m always sad to see this phase. The bravado and bluster are as natural as a $12 toupee in a windstorm. This is the point where the anxiety and stress of maintaining a lie bleeds through to the surface.

Goodbye Forever!

A common manipulative technique is the dramatic “Goodbye forever!” moment, in which the offender announces that they are leaving social media (or an industry, or a group) forever because the haters have driven them away.

I imagine them flouncing through the doorway, then pausing at the threshold, waiting for someone to plead with them to reconsider.

After a suitable absence of several days, the offender returns to announce they’ve changed their mind, to the applause of their supporters.

  • “Regretfully, I must announce that I am resigning from the group today. My presence here has become a distraction.”
  • “Due to threats from the haters, I am deleting my social media accounts.”
  • “Don’t you believe me? Well, if you think I’m a crook and a liar, maybe I should just leave!”

Sockpuppet Theater

Sockpuppets are fake identities used to manipulate the discussion, attack others by proxy, influence bystanders, or bring shame or disfavor on a rival group by impersonating them. The use of sockpuppets to disseminate misinformation and political rhetoric gained the focus of the media during the 2016 election, but the practice has been employed for centuries in the form of shills and confederates.

When supporters and sympathizers are in short supply, or are not vocal enough in their support, the offender may invent their own army of sockpuppet supporters — or avengers.

An author accused of plagiarism used dozens of sockpuppets to attack her victim with 1-star reviews, vicious comments, trolling, hate mail, and threats. It was later discovered that the perpetrator — a schoolteacher by day — had been using the identities of her young students to wage her campaign of harassment. And when that was exposed, she turned to the next page in the Playbook, and began wailing about how she was the victim…

The Pity Party

With a sudden shift in tone, the offender reveals that they’ve been under tremendous stress — which is undoubtedly true. Unfortunately, this is used as leverage against their enemies. They will hint at serious health and financial problems brought on by “the haters”. Screenshots of hate mail and angry comments will be shared with supporters as evidence of the horrible things they’ve had to endure. This will be paired with self-serving comments about all the good things they’ve done, their charitable donations, the long hours they’ve spent helping the community, only to be persecuted by such evil people.

In some cases, the offender truly believes they are the victim, but more often, it’s a calculated attempt to manipulate supporters and drum up sympathy. Sometimes, the woebegone status updates are accompanied by a plea for donations either from the offender, a supporter, or a sockpuppet.

  • “It’s a shame that I’ve had to cancel my annual charity event.”
  • “Oh, I don’t feel bad for myself; I just feel awful that my fans are missing out because of the haters.”
  • “I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up. Maybe I should just give up.”
  • “[Offender] would never mention this, but if you could find it in your hearts to donate a few dollars, I’ve made a crowdfunding campaign here…”
  • “My life has been ruined because of this! I’m the victim here.”
  • “The haters reported one of my posts and had me banned from Facebook for a week. They can’t stand the truth!” [after posting obscenities and threats on a victim’s wall]

The goal is twofold: on the one hand, the offender solicits sympathy, encouragement, and reassurance that they’re in the right. On the other, they throw gasoline on an emotional fire in hopes that less-restrained individuals will retaliate on the offender’s behalf.

You Can Borrow My Pitchfork

After Blame the Haters and The Pity Party have supporters calling for a whistleblower’s head, the offender may try to incite their followers to retaliate, harass the victim, or even commit violence.

  • “One of the haters left a 1-star review on my book today. They need a taste of their own medicine.”
  • “Everybody go report __________’s posts! If we all report him, he’ll get banned.”
  • “Gee, it would be a shame if someone followed her down a dark alley some night.”
  • “If anyone’s angry at the way I’ve been treated, please feel free to write to __________ and tell him what he can do with his lawsuit.”

Harassment doesn’t often cross the boundaries of the internet, but when it does, it can be deadly. Stalking, arson, assault, and murder have all resulted from incitement on the internet. It’s a serious concern that should not be dismissed.


A Closing Note

Confronting injustice is a noble pursuit, but it must be done with care. Confrontation is inherently emotional, and there are many on the internet today who allow those emotions to override their common sense.

Don’t be one of them.

Venting your anger at an injustice may be emotionally satisfying, but it’s counterproductive, and when multiplied by hundreds or thousands of similar voices it can quickly spiral out of control. Note how many of the tactics above involve the criminal playing the victim, or turning the tables on an accuser and making them out to be the bad actor. That’s made infinitely easier when the real criminal can point to acts of aggressive harassment as proof that they are the aggrieved party.

And that person who made one stupid, offhand remark that offended, or briefly stepped over a line they shouldn’t have? The behavior deserves condemnation, but they don’t deserve to have the hyenas of the internet rip them to shreds.

The angry mob does not understand proportion, which is why justice doesn’t come at the hands of a bloodthirsty crowd. It comes through patient investigation, determination, and unrelenting calm.

Be the person who sows peace in times of trouble.

Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. — Friedrich Nietzche


Over to You
Have you witnessed these behaviors in the bad actors you’ve encountered? Let us know in the comments below, but please, out of an abundance of caution, do not identify names.

Criminal behavior has its own playbook. Have you seen these danger signs? — @johndopp Click To Tweet

Indie Author Self-Defense: Piracy, Plagiarism, and Impersonation (Part 1 of 3)

How Indie Authors Can Avoid Predatory Awards

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5 Responses to The Con Artist Playbook

  1. K.S. Trenten May 24, 2018 at 7:49 am #

    I’ll admit, I’ve often used silence myself, or rather refused to react or answer when someone tried to bait me or was losing their temper. I figured anything I said would let things get more heated and to simply let it go. Interesting that silence is the bag of the tricks! It’s often the professional response to bad reviews and trolls, too. 🙂 Interesting list…I’ve noted and groaned over some of this behavior online, often in places I wished it wouldn’t be. You’re right, this pattern does repeat itself a lot. Thank you for sharing these warning signs.

  2. Anuradha Vittachi May 18, 2018 at 5:28 pm #

    Great post. Thank you so much.

  3. Rene Fomby May 13, 2018 at 8:27 pm #

    Loved it, John. And much of this is magnified by the anonymity inherent in the Internet, and the web’s ability to marshal large armies to attack a perceived enemy. About a year ago, I posted an in-depth constitutional analysis of a president’s (in)ability to pardon himself, which was a viral topic at the time. No politics, just cogent legal research and analysis based upon scads of constitutional and case law. Almost immediately my FB page exploded with hundreds of thousands of quite personal attacks, including physical threats. Thankfully, FB responded and cleaned it all up, then apparently banned several of the most egregious posters. But the message was clear — when tiptoeing along the ragged edge of hell, proceed with great caution.

  4. Cathryn Cade May 12, 2018 at 4:43 pm #

    Wonderful, in depth article, John. We can all recognize these behaviors from the news, and regrettably from the publishing industry.

    Thank you!

  5. Peter Hurley May 10, 2018 at 5:37 pm #

    Re. “Criminal Behaviour for Dummies”

    Well I’ve penned something close: Dirty Business! Or… The Strategic Implications of Criminality, Unethical Conduct and Black Economic Practice on Legitimate Business

    https://www.amazon.com/Dirty-Business-Implications-Criminality-Legitimate/dp/1520124651/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8

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