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What is a Con Man?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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A con man, or confidence man, is a swindler who works by gaining the confidence of the person they are going to swindle. He has been a popular figure in literature and media for more than a century, and is often portrayed as an anti-hero or at least somewhat charismatic villain.

The term con man was first used in the mid-19th century at the trial of William Thompson. Thompson used a very simple con, where he would literally walk up to strangers and ask them if they had the confidence to lend him their watch. When they did, he would leave with the watch. This seems incredibly straight-forward, and a bit ludicrous, to think about, but in fact many swindlers have used such direct techniques to reap enormous profit.

It has been said that there are as many types of con as there are types of people, and if that’s the case, there are as many types of con man as well. He or she may be anyone from a dashing figure, bedecked in rich clothes and seeming to want for nothing, to a decrepit old man, tattered and in rags and seemingly blind. One cornerstone of the con artist is that he or she rarely looks untrustworthy.

The con man was common during the 19th centuries, particularly in England and America. Famous con men include Lou Blonger, who organized an entire gang to harass people of Denver at the turn of the century; Walter Scott, who worked in the Death Valley region and conned people into purchasing shares in his mining endeavors, praying on their desire to be a part of the gold rush and eventually built an enormous ranch that was known as Scotty’s castle; Charles Ponzi, who created the infamous Ponzi “get rich quick” scheme; and Victor Lustig, who was most famous for a scheme in which he sold the Eiffel Tower to scrap metal dealers.

Perhaps one of the most famous con men in the modern age is Frank Abagnale, who had his life turned into a Hollywood movie, Catch Me If You Can. Abagnale was a master forger and impostor, who conned his way through more than two million dollars worth of checks, and pretended to be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, and an airline pilot during his career.

The con man is an incredibly popular figure in cinema, with larger-than-life con artists often making up central plots in movies. Movies containing con men from hits of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s include The Rainmaker, The Producers, and The Sting. During the 1980s, the popular A-Team TV show featured a con artist as one of the main characters, and Frank Oz directed both Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Vanishing, two films revolving around con men. The 1990s saw an increase in movies with con men, with hits such as The Talented Mister Ripley, The Spanish Prisoner, Six Degrees of Separation, and The Grifters. In the early-21st century, a huge surge of con movies and TV shows appeared, with blockbusters like Oceans Eleven, Heist, The Score, Catch Me If You Can, Lost, The Real Hustle, and The Riches.

Many criminal elements hold a great deal of fascination to the popular imagination, but it seems that perhaps none are as popular as the con man. Perhaps it is the idea that anyone can be swindled, or maybe the fact that most cons, in spite of having very real victims, involve no physical violence and are undertaken by the most charismatic of people. Whatever the reason, the con phenomenon is unlikely to go away anytime soon.

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Discussion Comments

By anon352151 — On Oct 20, 2013

The most successful con man of this century will be Barack Obama.

By anon310893 — On Dec 27, 2012

So what is the difference between a "ladies man" and a con man? I've seen cases where men lure women for their money, or to get a "green card" or to be covered by health insurance, etc.

By Ted41 — On Sep 01, 2012

@betterment - That's an interesting point. I doubt every single con man is a sociopath, but some definitely could be. From what I understand, the hallmark of a sociopath is being unable to feel empathy for others. I guess that would make it a lot easier to con someone if you can't feel empathy for them.

Also, many sociopaths are charming, which is a trait that a con man needs.

By betterment — On Sep 01, 2012

I think you have to be kind of a sociopath to be a con man. I mean, you're basically getting people to trust you and then taking advantage of them. Most people would feel too guilty to do something like that, so I think it would take a sociopath to be able to do it and feel OK with it.

By dautsun — On Aug 31, 2012

@SZapper - I think you're talking about the character Sawyer from Lost. From what I remember, I kind of hated him at first because he seemed like such a dishonest guy, but by the end of the show he became quite a sympathetic character.

However, I doubt most con men in real life are actually decent guys.

By SZapper — On Aug 31, 2012

There have been a ton of movies in the last few years about con men. As the article said, people do seem to be fascinated by these kinds of characters, because most of us could never pull something like that off!

Anyway, con men haven't just been featured on movies in the last few years. One of the main characters on the show Lost was a modern con man, before the plane crashed on the island. I think in the first or second season you end up seeing some of the cons he pulled off during flashbacks to his back-story.

By anon158784 — On Mar 08, 2011

Business is only honest when both parties know 100 percent of the story. Why? Because only when you have 100 percent of the elements of judgment you can make an educated business decision. Honesty is more than simply not lying. It is not having any element for deceit, including not disclosing something that might affect the other party decision.

Most of the time, business people do not disclosure the whole information (how much do we make, how much does this really cost it, how much quality is really in this product). And because of that, one can safely say that most business people are not honest.

However, that does not stop them to believe that they are honest. So you find yourself with a dishonest person that honestly believes that he/she is honest.

By hangugeo112 — On Jan 19, 2011


If there is no room for "dishonest swindlers" as you say, then why do we read in the news so often about men such as Bernie Madoff making off with other people's cash? I'm sure at least half the dishonest businesspeople will retire undiscovered.

By BioNerd — On Jan 17, 2011


I think this is a legitimate point, the difference being that businesspeople are required to be "honest con men," which is different than a con man per se. The structure of business employs techniques of convincing people my any legal means possible, and there is no room for dishonest swindlers.

By Leonidas226 — On Jan 15, 2011

Ponzi was an artful con man who inspired optimism in his customers, but had no real moneymaking plan, just a sham scheme. These schemes were eventually shown to be particularly wrong, because they usually get exposed as an escalating investment in thin air.

By Qohe1et — On Jan 13, 2011

I feel like everyone can be a con man from time to time. In business, inspiring confidence via solid charisma and friendship can be very important, regardless of whether or not you really appreciate people. Everyone appreciates people's wallets. Dale Carnegie made the art of conning a mainstream concept, and today it is the law of business transactions and sales.

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