HBO’s new film, The Wizard of Lies, has Oscar-winning actor Robert De Niro playing Bernie Madoff: The infamous former stockbroker who pleaded guilty to 11 felony counts in 2009, led his own son to commit suicide, ruined the lives of thousands and did it all with a “fatherly persona” that made one think he could be trusted.
The despicable con man is currently serving a 150-year prison sentence for essentially destroying the lives of thousands of people, including those of his family.
A Life of Deceit
Bernie Madoff is a criminal who kills you with a smile and a handshake. He operated the most notorious Ponzi scheme in history – conning his investors out of $65 billion and going undiscovered for decades.
He deceived his family. His wife and two sons were unsuspecting, innocent victims of his monstrous secrets.
He deceived banks and firms around the world, a pension fund for teachers, the founder of Bed, Bath, and Beyond, the owner of the New York Mets, The International Olympic Committee, Steven Spielberg’s charity, a county club and many schools and universities.
To try to sum up the magnitude of Bernie Madoff’s crimes does not give proper weight to the reality. What we can do is look at the mind tricks that a criminal like Madoff uses to trick victims.
Con Artists Play Sophisticated Psychological Tricks
In an interview with Business Insider, De Niro talks about going inside the head of Madoff to play the character. As he pointed out, “He had this fatherly persona so people would put their guard down and think, ‘How could this guy screw me?’”
1. Con artists make themselves seem ordinary
While researching her book on con artists, journalist Maria Konnikova interviewed many con artists herself.
Her reaction: “I was surprised at how ordinary a lot of them seemed. It’s not like you can see them and say, ‘oh this is a pathological liar, this is a psychopath, this is an evil human being.’ A lot of them seem just like the girl or boy next door, perfectly unremarkable.”
This is all a part of the con artist’s game: Merely appearing as one thing so they can keep their dark inner motives a secret.
2. Con artists are clearly aware of your vulnerabilities
Would you say you’re very active online?
Do you worry about debt?
Are you lonely?
Feeling stressed out about moving, having an illness or going through a divorce?
If you experience any of these feelings, watch out – especially with what you express on social media and to individuals you don’t know very well. Because con artists are good are spotting vulnerabilities in people and they will use that information to further propagate their scamming efforts.
Also, these feelings and behaviors make you more susceptible to scammer, so keep that in mind.
3. Con artists make you feel bad for them
You tell your kids not to talk to strangers. You tell them that anyone who asks him or her to “help me find my lost puppy” is a “bad guy.” So, you know already that “bad guys” will make false claims to get you to want to help them. If you fall prey, then you’re involved in this person’s scheme and the worst is yet to come.
4. Con artists use their charming and engaging personality
Here’s insight from a true-life con artist:
“On the outside you will see nothing but charm, an engaging personality and swagger. On the inside lies a predator. There is no conscience in this business. It’s every man for himself, and the goal is to acquire as much money as possible.”
Many of us are frightened by a dark alley but not by a particularly nice person. Remember that no matter how “nice” someone is, let trust be earned. That person’s niceness could be masking a scary motive.
As the mind of Bernie Madoff shows us, con artists use powerful, yet subtle, psychological tactics to make you trust them so they can trick you. The fact he was so successful, tricking so many people, proves how effective these tricks can be.