Why do con artists like Frank Abagnale Jr. not feel guilt?

Why do con artists like Frank Abagnale Jr. not feel guilt?

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I just finished watching a video of Frank Abagnale Jr discuss his life history. Who knows if its true, but it is an amazing story. For those who don't know, Frank Abagnale is one of the most infamous con artists in history according to Wikipedia.

What really strikes me about his story is the following: he seems to have an extraordinary memory and storytelling ability. Couple this with good looks, height, and a face that looks older than he is and you can see how he would have the tools to be con artist. But those are also skills that can be used for many many many other disciplines and could have been put to good uses. He could have been a salesman or any number of things.

Some criminals seem really messed up psychologically. He doesn't come across as that. He seems to have an intact psyche that isn't riddled with some abused past. But he is missing some basic emotions like guilt. For instance, he decided to work in a hospital without even considering the safety of patients around him and, according to Wikipedia nearly killed an infant. Another instance is that he took control of a plane when he didn't know how to fly one, obviously putting all the passengers and his own life at risk. That seems insane! Only until he actually gets in a situation where lives are at stake did he really realize what could happen. Thus, he also seems to have no imagination for the consequences of his actions. He would tell strings of lies basically continuously and never think twice about it, never considering the consequences for businesses of the money they lost.

What part of the brain fails such that a person would act that way? What goes wrong?

Cognitive science generally does not try to explain individual behavior, but rather the behavior of all people. We can meaningfully speak about what may cause a deficient ability to feel guilt and remorse, or other features that characterize an individual, but we cannot speak directly about the individual's behavior outside an applied or clinical context. Therefore, and I cannot stress this enough: please do not read this answer and then start looking for signs of APD in individuals.

Antisocial Personality Disorder

Deficient ability to feel guilt and remorse is a cardinal trait of antisocial personality disorder, or APD (American Psychiatric Association, 2000), which may offer a tentative framework. APD is a complex personality disorder with many different facets and characteristics that, at least at face value, seems to describe a behavioral pattern matching the popular image of a con man, such as Frank Abagnale Jr. surely represents in the popular mind.

Diagnosing APD

Under the DSM-IV-TR definition, satisfying the APD diagnostic criteria requires an individual to A) be over 18 years old, B) exhibit evidence of conduct disorder before age 15, C) not exhibit antisocial behavior exclusively during manic or schizophrenic episodes, and D) exhibit at least three of the following seven symptoms suggesting a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since 15 years old:

  1. Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest.
  2. Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.
  3. Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead.
  4. Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults.
  5. Reckless disregard for the safety of self and/or others.
  6. Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations.
  7. Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated or stolen from another.

It's worth noting that the DSM-IV-TR and DSM-V definitions of APD differ somewhat. Because the DSM-V is still so recent, most empirical research at time of writing has used the DSM-IV-TR definition. How well the new definitions correspond with the old ones is ultimately an empirical question, so I will focus on the DSM-IV-TR literature here to avoid speculating.

Cognitive neuroscience of APD

A number of neurocognitive deficits have been identified in patients with DSM-IV-TR antisocial personality disorder. As with most mental disorders and cognitive functions, it's difficult to pin down any one region or set of regions and say "here is where X is." However, Blair and Frith (2000) reviewed three common trends, reporting support for the latter two:

… [1] an impairment in executive functioning implicating prefrontal cortex, [2] an impairment in executive emotion's processing implicating orbito-frontal cortex, and [3] an impairment in emotion processing implicating the amygdala


CG illustration of the amygdala's location

One of the main regions commonly associated with APD and antisocial behavior, and in particular with its remorselessness criterion, are the amygdala (Blair and Frith, 2000). However, while the amygdala's heavy involvement in emotional processing is well established (Kandel, 2013), and a veritable sea of studies support an emotional processing deficits and abnormalities in the amygdala for general antisocial behavior (e.g., Coccaro et al., 2006; Narayan et al., 2007; Veit et al., 2002) over different antisocial disorders, I couldn't find any direct investigations of amygdaloid activity in APD patients.

Orbitofrontal Cortex

Model and sagittal MRI of the orbitofrontal cortex

The other region commonly implicated in association with APD and antisocial behavior is the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) (Blair and Frith, 2000). For example, Völlm et al. (2004) reported fMRI evidence for a go-no-go task suggesting that APD patients exhibited reduced OFC activity for response inhibition as compared with controls. Dinn and Harris (2000) reported that "APD subjects showed greater neuropsychological deficits on measures sensitive to orbitofrontal dysfunction in comparison to control participants." The OFC seems to be associated with increased impulsivity and risk-taking via deficient response inhibition.

Did Frank Abagnale Jr. have APD?

At this point, one may be tempted to answer, "Clearly, he did!" and start looking for APD in oneself, or others. This would be a mistake. Identifying APD in a person requires a considerable amount of well-structured information about that person. Nothing could illustrate that we lack such information here better than Abagnale's own words:

In 2002, Abagnale himself addressed the issue of his story's truthfulness with a statement posted on his company's website which said in part: "I was interviewed by the co-writer only about four times. I believe he did a great job of telling the story, but he also over-dramatized and exaggerated some of the story. That was his style and what the editor wanted. He always reminded me that he was just telling a story and not writing my biography."

With respect to Abagnale himself, therefore, cognitive science does not have anything to say about his story, because we don't have any way to independently verify most of it. We can probably surmise that some of it is accurate, some of it is not, but we can't empirically say which is which. People don't necessarily need to be pathological in order to be jerks.


  • American Psychiatric Association (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., Text Revision). Washington, DC: Author.
  • Blair, J., & Frith, U. (2000). Neurocognitive explanations of the antisocial personality disorders. Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health.
  • Coccaro, E. F., McCloskey, M. S., Fitzgerald, D. A., & Phan, K. L. (2007). Amygdala and orbitofrontal reactivity to social threat in individuals with impulsive aggression. Biological psychiatry, 62(2), 168-178.
  • Dinn, W. M., & Harris, C. L. (2000). Neurocognitive function in antisocial personality disorder. Psychiatry research, 97(2), 173-190.
  • Kandel, E. R., Schwartz, J. H., & Jessell, T. M., Siegelbaum, S. A., Hudspeth, A. J. (Eds.). (2013). Principles of neural science (Vol. 5). New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Narayan, V. M., Narr, K. L., Kumari, V., Woods, R. P., Thompson, P. M., Toga, A. W., & Sharma, T. (2007). Regional cortical thinning in subjects with violent antisocial personality disorder or schizophrenia.
  • Veit, R., Flor, H., Erb, M., Hermann, C., Lotze, M., Grodd, W., & Birbaumer, N. (2002). Brain circuits involved in emotional learning in antisocial behavior and social phobia in humans. Neuroscience letters, 328(3), 233-236.
  • Völlm, B., Richardson, P., Stirling, J., Elliott, R., Dolan, M., Chaudhry, I.,… & Deakin, B. (2004). Neurobiological substrates of antisocial and borderline personality disorder: preliminary results of a functional fMRI study. Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health, 14(1), 39-54.

From Captive to Captivating

After spending five years in prisons in France, Sweden, and the United States, Abagnale received an enticing offer from U.S. officials—he would be paroled contingent on assisting the feds, without pay, by teaching law enforcement agencies the nefarious tricks of his trade. Abagnale accepted, and for the last 35 years he has fraud-primed every new agent rotating through the FBI Academy and worked with the FBI National Academy instructing law enforcement agencies nationwide. During this cleaned-up career, Abagnale developed a close friendship with Joe Shay, the dogged agent who finally collared the errant youth (he was played by Tom Hanks “to a T,” according to Frank). Shay, to whom Abagnale dedicated his book The Art of the Steal, died last year at age 88.

“Frank has this incredible intelligence and brings a fresh, comprehensive perspective from both sides of the law. He understands criminal motivation and knows how they operate. He looks at things differently than you and I do,” says special agent Keith Slotter, head of the FBI’s San Diego Field Office. Whereas he once figured out ways to make hay of loopholes, now he spins it the other way—creating solutions to thwart criminal opportunity.

Case in point: it took Abagnale only a quick glance to see a flaw in a new ATM prototype a client had asked him to evaluate. The machine had a door that electronically opened for users to retrieve their cash. Frank simply took Super Glue, glued the door shut, then sat back and watched as several ATM customers inserted their card, entered their PIN, and waited for their cash. When the door failed to open, they assumed the machine was broken, hit “Cancel Transaction,” and moved to the next machine. After they left, Frank walked up, broke through the glue, and there was the loot—which is why ATM machines today use open slots for cash delivery, not doors.

Using the same brazen creativity and ingenuity that infuriated financial crime fighters back in the 1960s, Abagnale is now the go-to expert for developing document security products and fraud prevention programs used by more than 14,000 financial institutions. Standard Register Company uses Abagnale-designed security features on car titles, birth certificates, and other documents. He helped develop PrivacyGuard’s credit-monitoring system and the Sanford Uni-ball 207, the only “safe” pen in the world, unalterable by chemicals and solvents, with 20 million sold annually in the U.S. alone. Abagnale & Associates has a client list that reads like a corporate America roll call, from ACE Hardware and Arthur Anderson to VISA and Westinghouse. He has published numerous articles and three books on fraud and identity theft prevention: The Art of the Steal, Real U Guide to Identity Theft, and Stealing Your Life.

In addition to his pro bono FBI work and his secure-document innovations, Abagnale is a highly sought-after public speaker, by all accounts a powerful and captivating one. He unleashes the same charm and charisma that conned bank tellers and convinced doctors and lawyers that a teenage high school dropout was one of their professional colleagues and reels his audience in. His delivery is lickety-split slick, fast and smooth, his anecdotes sobering and savvy. And when he gets the chance, Abagnale slips in a poignant message about cherishing family, about being a responsible, caring person. This, to him, is the ultimate payoff.

“On a scale of one to five, with five being tops, Frank as a speaker is a seven-plus,” claims Greg Litster, a colleague and friend whose company, SafeChecks, boasts a 16-feature secure instrument called the Frank W. Abagnale SuperBusinessCheck. “He’s consistently shown over 35 years that he’s the real deal.” Tom Hanks calls Abagnale’s lectures “the best one-man show you’ll ever see.” After reading The Art of the Steal, Hanks invited Frank to give a fraud prevention presentation to 300 Hollywood actors (folks who are often rip-off targets). The crowd, including Jack Nicholson, Penny Marshall, and John Lovitz, was enrapt. Courtney Love still calls Abagnale’s office with questions (unfortunately, usually at 3 a.m.).

Frank credits his wife, Kelly (pictured in their downtown home), and their three sons with turning his life around: “I was lucky enough to find someone who believed in me. That’s what changed me.”

Can You Catch More Flies with Honey Than Vinegar?

Positivity or optimism is something observed in the field of psychology that refers to two phenomena: That people tend to observe a neutral situation as mildly positive, or that people feel good at any given moment and this is easily observable to other individuals around a person. With 8th graders thats an important factor for school work and social life as the work 8th graders do in school is critical for their grades and it is very important to keep up grades for their future life.

In 8th grade it is often the case that when someone is bullied and thus unhappy or someone that is just being grumpy, that they need someone to talk to so they can ‘unload’ some of the negativity they are carrying. When someone has gotten compliments from an action the person feels good about it and this will be easily visible to other people and then the people that see this will almost always sense some positive ‘aura’ around the person that is positive or a person that has gotten a compliment. The people that have seen this will then begin feeling a positive warmth within them. So optimism is a sort of energy that can easily be passed on from person to person. Negativity will usually repel other people. But people feeling optimistic will often try to transmit their positivity to the negative people. This is an ‘opposites attract’ situation.

Also when you see your life as miserable you will be more tired due to the facts that this miserable thought creates a big lack of energy and you don’t see the good part of life, you enclose yourself in negativity and ignore the positive and thus will lose interest in everything and will become more tired over time. 8th graders who see their life as intolerable and miserable will get more tired than other students and it will also lower their grade because they don’t see the value of doing it.

Negative people have less friends and less happiness. Students don’t like negativity.

5 The Departed (2006)

On the list of all time worst snubs in Oscar history, Leonardo DiCaprio’s role in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed is unquestionably way up there. Based on the Chinese thriller Internal Affairs, DiCaprio stars as Billy Costigan, a troublemaker cop who finds himself in the perfect position to go undercover with Jack Nicholson’s mob boss Frank Costello.

Throughout his career, Leo has built his reputation on his ability to make his weird, opulent, and artistically honed performances both fantastically elaborate and audience friendly, but his subdued performance as an everyman Irish-mafia mole who has trouble coping with his double identity is, to this day, his quiet, secret masterpiece. The Departedis elegant proof that DiCaprio knows how to reign in a performance and smoothly disappear into a character so he can exist equally with his co-stars it is an example of how you don’t need to be impressive to create something memorable and magnificent.

Delusions of grandeur

Money doesn’t appear to be a big motive for Aguirre. Unlike in many white-collar fraud cases, the amount he scammed is in the low thousands, not millions. Acquaintances said he craved something else: attention and respect.

To pull off his elaborate deceits over the years, Aguirre created for himself the veneer of an Ivy League-educated man of business and world affairs with elite political connections all the way to the White House who was chummy with celebrities and important people.

In a failed attempt in 2005 to prove his “significantly reduced mental capacity,” Aguirre presented a letter from his psychotherapist who opined that he suffered from depression, anxiety, narcissistic personality disorder and borderline personality disorder.

The therapist said he based his diagnosis on Aguirre’s “fantasies of unlimited success, sense of entitlement, an intense desire to be successful and admired at the expense of truthfulness, and interpersonal exploitation of others to achieve his own needs and goals.”

The prosecutor in that case, however, said Aguirre's actions showed not a lack of impulse control but "the deliberate acts of a man who knowingly deceives others to make himself feel important." She noted that Aguirre had his mother pose for a photo as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher while using a fountain pen he got from one of his victims.

During his 2006 sentencing, Aguirre told the judge: "I'm fully aware that I need help, and I want help." U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders ordered him to undergo mental health treatment as part of his sentence but said he didn't want to bet on him going straight.

As part of the latest ruse, Aguirre forged a letter supposedly signed by President Kennedy in 1962, as well as a White House seal from the President George W. Bush administration and a photograph of an eagle statue supposedly used by President George H.W. Bush.

He also created a counterfeit eagle statue he claimed belonged to former U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist, court records show.

Federal agents in 2013 seized hundreds of objects from his Dallas home during a search, including 43 wax seal stamps, 68 silver badge emblems and 49 pairs of cufflinks. They also took dozens of metal seals supposedly from the White House, Buckingham Palace, the House of Lords, Queen Elizabeth II and the Prince of Wales.

“It’s the thrill of the hunt,” said his latest victim, William Weakley, a Maryland pen dealer. “He has evidently not learned his lesson.”

To land prominent jobs, Aguirre forged a Harvard University transcript. One of his Linkedin accounts currently says he has a Yale University master's degree. He once charmed Texas conservatives into thinking he was a well-connected Republican activist. His trickery also landed him a job as dean of the Dallas County Community College District. He resigned in 2005 after The Dallas Morning News exposed his fake degree.

Later that year, he pleaded guilty to mail fraud for tricking a pen magazine publisher into sending him 11 pens worth about $17,000 in exchange for free publicity. He did so by boasting about having worked in the White House and being invited to George W. Bush’s ranch near Crawford.

Aguirre said he gave the victim's pens to Bush and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and he forged a thank-you note from Bush to the victim on counterfeit White House letterhead.

Aguirre even fooled a federal judge into giving him probation for the 2005 fraud case by forging his own dire medical diagnosis. His attorney also was tricked into thinking Aguirre had a serious heart and lung condition. When prosecutors discovered the ruse, Aguirre’s probation became prison time.

But while awaiting that sentence, Aguirre wasn’t done. He tricked a London jeweler into sending him samples of cuff links with a fake story about wanting to sell them at an upcoming social function that Britain’s Prince Andrew would be attending.

At the time of his October 2016 arrest, Aguirre appeared to be employed as executive vice president of a New York City private equity firm under the alias Fernando Aguirre, federal court records show. His bio on the Behr Group Holdings website says he lives in Greenwich, Conn., and is sometimes known as the "Rainmaker" for his ability to make things happen.

It says he's worked in the defense industry and was an "invaluable asset" to Republican gubernatorial and presidential campaigns. Aguirre also says in the online bio that he was a former liaison between the U.S. State Department and Mexico who regularly collaborated with the White House and National Security Council.

But it was revealed Friday in court that the website and New York company also are fake.

Aguirre’s release on bond was revoked in March 2017 for keeping information from his pretrial officer, and he’s been detained in federal custody since, according to court records. Aguirre, who has been suicidal before, spent the past six weeks in solitary confinement, according to Friday testimony.

Catch Me If You Can

Juan Moreno
Psychology 1-2, Period 3
March 1, 2013
Catch Me if You Can
Frank Abagnale is a fifteen year old boy who becomes one of the best con artists of his time. But he has some problems that cause him to become like the very young age of fifteen his parents get a divorce because his father can barely provide for his family. When his parents are dividing their belongings he has to decide with which parent he must live with, but instead runs away. With no money he starts forging checks from an airline. But in result of his parents’ divorce he is stuck in mallows stage of belonging because of his lack of family, friends, and affection.

Frank ran away from his home because his parents were getting a divorce and the lawyer gave him the hard-hitting decision of having to choose with whom he would live with. But instead of living in a broken home he chooses to run away from his problems. With only his checkbook he had to persist on his own, unfortunately twenty five dollars was not enough so he started forging checks. He had no family to depend on or help him, he was completely alone, and at that age it is crucial to have the affection of your parents. On several occasions Frank and his father sat down to have a chat and dinner. But where it actually caused Frank to be disturbed and angered is when he confesses of his crimes to his father. Instead of feeling shame or some other negative attitude towards his actions he tells him not to give up and keep going. Feeling that not even his father has a real type of concern for his son and encourages his illegal actions frank goes into a rage. Many psychologists have concluded that lack of parent affection or relations can cause the child to have trust issues or even avoid any type of long term elation with anyone. My inference is that since Frank lacks that type of affection and attention he gets his affection from women and the attention from the FBI agent that is pursuing Frank.

The Bonnie and Clyde of mortgage fraud

(Fortune Magazine) -- In December 2004, Dr. Bruce Brown and his wife, Bridget, got a call around seven in the evening from a man who had seen the sales listing for their Columbia, S.C., house. He asked if he could come over right away. The Browns agreed.

They desperately wanted to sell the property, which had been on the market for six months. Dr. Brown was starting a new job in Augusta, Ga., in weeks. Just days before, they had amended their listing to offer $201,000 in owner financing, "hoping to broaden the pool of candidates," says Bridget. They did.

Within an hour, a man showed up in a fancy sports car and introduced himself as Gary Sullivan. With him was a petite blond woman he said was his realtor. Sullivan told the Browns he owned a temp staffing agency called Labor on Demand but had run up too much credit card debt and needed owner financing to buy a home. The two cased the traditional two-story house quickly and left. Within days, the Browns had a deal.

At the closing Sullivan was charming and self-effacing, recalls Bridget. He chatted about how great it would feel to own his own home and rebuild his equity, how he traveled quite a bit in his job and wanted to slow down, how he hoped to get married and have a family.

"He said he'd just gotten invisible braces on his teeth. He said, 'When you're as short as I am, you don't have much to work with!' I actually felt a little sorry for him."

Then it came time for them all to show identification, a common practice at real estate closings. As Bridget took out her driver's license, she casually mentioned she'd once been an identity-theft victim. Sullivan "suddenly looked at me, very startled. His eyes actually bored into mine. It was jarring," she recalls. Before she could react, one of the lawyers present shouted, "Sold!"

Four months later the Browns returned from a trip to Disney World to find a chilling message on the answering machine in their new home in Augusta. It was from a U.S. Secret Service agent named Andrea Peacock. Peacock informed the Browns that their old house had been bought by a con man - an exceptionally sinister one who had committed dozens, possibly hundreds, of mortgage frauds and identity thefts, netting millions of dollars.

The man who had seemed a bit of an earnest loser at the closing was in fact on the Secret Service's Most Wanted list. His real name was Matthew Bevan Cox, he was 34, and he used more than ten aliases. Peacock ended the voicemail with an unsettling directive: By no means should they approach Cox, since he was considered "armed and dangerous."

Bruce Brown fumed for five days, and then, on a Saturday, he hustled the family into the car and drove the 78 miles to Columbia. As soon as they arrived at the house's driveway, Bridget became terrified. "I told Bruce, 'You shouldn't go in,'" says Bridget. "I thought, he could be a murderer!"

Dr. Brown, a career military doctor who has "seen it all," according to his wife, got out of the car, told his wife to lock it, and carefully approached the front door. Surprisingly, his old key worked.

Brown stepped inside and flipped on the lights. Cox wasn't there. But there were moving boxes, a new couch and coffee table in the living room, and a huge carton that seemed to contain a large-screen plasma TV. The place certainly looked as though someone were moving in - and that was part of the con.

The boxes were stuffed with trash, even the gigantic TV box. Everything had been staged to throw off inquisitive neighbors. "It was like something out of the back lot at MGM Studios," says Bridget. In the kitchen they found a fax machine with dozens of pages spilling out. The faxes would turn out to be evidence: falsified mortgage documents to and from dozens of lenders, title agencies, and appraisers addressed to various Matthew Cox aliases.

The real estate market has never offered such opportunity for graft. Since the housing market started to soar in 2001, mortgage fraud has become the fastest-growing white-collar crime, according to the FBI. Last year crooks skimmed at least $1 billion from the $3 trillion U.S. mortgage market.

Now that the market is slowing, fraud is only rising. As business dries up, there's increasing pressure on lenders, brokers, title companies and appraisers to be profitable. That means loan and title documents aren't scrutinized as carefully as they might be, and courts - many of them so low-tech they resemble Mayberry - can't keep up with the volume of paper.

Then there's the mad rush to sell, particularly by people who paid high prices for homes and suddenly can't afford the mortgages.

It's like a tasting menu for con artists and grifters, so tempting that in some cities drug dealers have turned to mortgage fraud, plaguing lower-income neighborhoods with crooked mortgages rather than crystal meth.

"It's an easier, more surreptitious crime," says Gale McKenzie, a U.S. attorney in Atlanta (and chief prosecutor on the Cox case).

And with a con man like Matthew Cox still at large, any homeowner in the land is vulnerable. "Master con men like Cox are charming, manipulative, cunning. They have an amiable facade, which makes them very adept at getting others to like them," says Louis B. Schlesinger, a professor of forensic psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

For the better part of the past decade Cox has stalked his prey through MLS (multiple listing service) real estate ads. He has studied county courts, looking for ones he could easily dupe with falsified documents.

Schooled as an artist, he is an expert at forging signatures. He knows how to obtain corporate seals of actual banks. He launders money in complex webs of cashier's checks made out to counterfeit names. Authorities suspect he has stolen at least $15 million through fraudulent mortgages, although the figure could be much higher.

Cox's victims have been forced to pay tens of thousands of dollars to lawyers to save their property from foreclosure on unpaid fraudulent loans. They have had to clean up ruined credit. "It's been so stressful, both financially and psychologically," says Bridget Brown.

Schlesinger says classic con men, besides being psychopathic and greedy, are driven by a need to show the world how clever they are. "Their thinking is, 'Look at all these schmucks who actually go to work and earn so much less than I do. I get up at 11, work four hours a day, and make millions.' "

Their crimes are meticulously planned, and not just to elude law enforcement. "They have an overwhelming need to let others know how smart they are," says Schlesinger. "That's why they often leave notes and various clues behind."

Like, for instance, a 317-page hard-boiled crime novel about a serial con artist who becomes a mortgage fraud ace. Federal authorities believe an unpublished book by Cox, called "The Associates," is a blueprint for his crimes.

They say he started writing it while running a mortgage company in Tampa. To research it, he interviewed top real estate lawyers, mortgage brokers, title agency owners and others - telling them he was working on a novel and quizzing them about the ins and outs of real estate cons.

The main character in the book, Christian Locke, is a hard-working Tampa mortgage broker who ends up running his own company. He gets more crooked as the pages turn.

Locke is constantly pursued by beautiful women his advice is sought by real estate pros and con artists. Naturally he gets involved with old-style mobsters when the company he owns helps them obtain fraudulent loans.

The gangsters knock off his partner for cooperating with the feds in an eerily detailed staged suicide involving a Taser stun gun and a Mercedes sports coupe. From then on, Locke is on the run from the Mob, as well as the FBI, the IRS, and the Secret Service, which are trying to pin fraud charges on him. The story Cox spins is chock-full of how-tos:

Christian studied the Florida identification card very carefully for several minutes and realized the name and address portions of the Florida ID and driver's license could be easily sanded off with 220-grade sandpaper. He could then print the new borrower's name and address on the computer in the identical Florida ID fonts, go to Kinko's, make a transparency of the new name and address and paste it over the altered ID. The result was a virtually perfect ID.

Like all great con men, Cox recognized early on he needed a moll, a charming frontperson who exudes innocence and engenders trust. Rebecca Marie Hauck, a perky, petite blond in her mid-30s, fit the bill perfectly.

Cox and Hauck, starting in December 2003, embarked on a crime spree crisscrossing six states, engaging in identity theft, money laundering and bank fraud, according to an indictment filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta.

While on the run with Cox, Hauck assumed at least five identities and forged numerous documents, obtained fake driver's licenses, leased mail drops, rented apartments and opened bank accounts.

The details of their life on the run are the stuff of tabloid fodder: the sinister parting gifts Cox left behind for his victims after vacating a property he'd stolen the flashy sports cars they fraudulently purchased, then abandoned in parking lots the way he posed as a Red Cross worker to steal identities of homeless people ("The homeless just aren't utilized enough," he often quipped) the twisted use of aliases like "David Freeman" when Cox first went on the lam, and "C. Montgomery Burns," the aging moneybags on "The Simpsons" television cartoon.

The papers in Florida like to call Hauck and Cox the Bonnie and Clyde of mortgage fraud. Captured in March, Hauck has pleaded guilty to mortgage fraud conspiracy and bank fraud charges that together carry maximum penalties of 35 years in jail plus restitution of $1.25 million. Now Bonnie has turned on Clyde, trying to get her sentence reduced.

At the Atlanta Correction and Detention Center, off a gritty section of Peachtree Street, surrounded by get-out-of-jail outfits with catchy names like Free at Last Bail Bonds, Hauck, 35, sits in an arraignment room. With its wooden pews, it resembles a chapel. It's chilly in jail, about 60 degrees, she says, so under her standard-issue bright-orange jumpsuit she's wearing white long underwear.

She recently cropped her strawberry blond hair with a men's electric razor she was allowed to use. She says she's popular in prison because she cuts her fellow inmates' hair and doles out beauty tips.

When her attorney, Paula Hutchinson, arrives, Hauck is thrilled that she's brought makeup for a Fortune photo session. Hauck, who is called "Becky" by almost everyone, has no more than a high school education, yet she's quite articulate. She says, "People naturally like me 'cause they say I have the gift of gab. I can talk to anyone about anything."

She breathlessly tells everything she knows about Matthew Cox - things she thinks might lead to his capture: He takes Paxil and Xanax. She believes he still has the Shar-Pei dog, Pinky, they adopted together. His two front teeth are capped. He wears shoe lifts. He constantly Googles himself. She says he carries a gun.

Hauck says Cox has talents that handily accompany his chosen profession, like the ability to dramatically alter his appearance and demeanor. He can play the unassuming guy in jeans and a T-shirt, sometimes with blond, spiked or curled (with a curling iron) hair, and just as easily, the straitlaced banker. Hauck says he frequents tanning salons and has had numerous cosmetic surgeries, including male breast reduction, chin liposuction and a nose job.

Cox, she says, grew up in a strict middle-class Catholic family in Tampa. He was diagnosed with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder as a child, and got an art degree from the University of South Florida. Hauck says his insecurity may account for his need to bloodlessly manipulate people.

"Matthew had a way of controlling me that it's hard for me to explain or even understand myself," she says. One way was buying her stuff: a $3,000 Rolex, thousands of dollars' worth of clothes - and three years ago, a diamond engagement ring. "I loved him, but I can see now how dysfunctional it was. He told me I was ugly, that I wasn't really his type. All that stuff just made me want to please him more."

Hauck says Cox also tried to convince her that theirs were victimless crimes -that no one really ever got hurt, and everyone was in on the con.

Hell, one of the owners of a bank was in my office the other day, and he told me that as long as the borrower makes his first mortgage payment and the bank sells the loan to his secondary investors before the loan goes into foreclosure, he really doesn't give a crap whether the loans contain fraudulent documents or not.

Hauck met Cox on, the Internet dating service, in September 2003. Both were living in Tampa she was new in town. Cox had described himself in his ad as a wealthy real estate pro. Plus, "he had posted images of some of his paintings on his page. I was blown away by his art," Hauck says. "I thought, here's a guy who's both sensitive and successful."

Married and divorced twice by the time she was 30, Hauck had had a bit of a scattered life. She was raised in Chicago and Florida and graduated from high school in Arizona in 1989. She worked various jobs in Salt Lake City, Fresno and Las Vegas - Kmart clerk, actuarial assistant order taker for an adult publisher selling sex toys and magazines.

She had a son, Bryce. In Vegas she got hooked on video poker and eventually racked up $7,500 in gambling debts. She forged checks in her boss's name to pay them off. He found out and axed her. She filed for personal bankruptcy. Her next move with young Bryce was to Tampa, where she got a secretarial job at the greyhound racing track in St. Petersburg.

"Matt Cox seemed the answer to my prayers," she says. On their first date, he took her to his company, Urban Equity Inc. "There were about 20 people working for him, calling him 'Mr. Cox.' He was really running the show. His employees adored him," she says.

Then he took her to a fancy sushi restaurant in Ybor City. There was more to the attraction. "He drove this great Audi TT. He had a fabulous Mediterranean-style triplex apartment." His walls were covered by his Dali-esque murals: One depicted nuns smoking, another in the bathroom showed a priest oddly peering over a shower curtain. "I would say, 'Why don't you make a living selling your art? You could do it!'"

He had other valuable art. One evening as the couple was headed out to dinner, Cox took one of his paintings off the wall and pulled a stack of bills out of the back. He told Hauck he always kept $35,000 in cash there: "He said it was his emergency money." She didn't ask any questions.

Cox was obsessed, naturally, with crime movies. One night they saw the edgy film "Matchstick Men," in which Nicolas Cage plays an ace con who ends up victimized himself by the mother of all cons. It provided a conversation starter.

Cox confessed to Hauck he was on state and federal probation for mortgage fraud. Hauck says he somewhat proudly showed her an article about his company that had recently appeared in the St. Petersburg Times.

"I thought, 'Oh, we all make mistakes. I want to give him a chance,'" says Hauck. It was all too alluring, if dangerous, for the lonely single mom working at the dog track who seemed to crave living on the edge a little too much herself.

[Christian Locke confesses to his girlfriend:] "I got a little to [sic] creative with some of my own personal loan applications. And well, the FBI has subpoenaed the lender files, title company files, bank accounts and God only knows what else. That's several million in fraudulent mortgage loans."

Christian began to laugh and said, "Yeah, I can go to jail."

Cox's probation grew out of a 2002 guilty plea for bank fraud and grand theft. He had started out after college as an insurance agent, but soon noticed that friends in the mortgage business were driving fancy cars and living in posh apartments. He jumped into real estate just as the market started to take off.

At first Cox studied the business, learning the ropes legitimately (and working on his novel), but soon he was lured to the seedy side, shrewdly doing small-time mortgage frauds - typically targeting low-end properties, taking out loans around $100,000. That kept him under the radar.

But after Cox inadvertently sent a forged appraisal to the very appraiser whose name he had forged - a man who happened to be a former deputy sheriff - he was arrested and convicted in 2002.

After his sentencing, Cox's criminal activities only increased. He joined Urban Equity as a partner and allegedly masterminded a scheme to buy 21 run-down Tampa properties and inflate their value using corrupt appraisers and title companies.

One way Cox got the deals done, authorities say, was to hire so-called straw men - people willing to pose or act as buyers. The straw man would tell the homeowner, "I want to buy your house - I'll pay you the full price you're asking. But I need a loan for triple the purchase price to make improvements. Would you agree to up the price just for the paperwork?"

The unsophisticated sellers agreed. Why not? They were getting their price, and heck, the house needed repairs anyway. After the price was artificially inflated, the straw man would take out a loan, pay the homeowner the full price, pocket some cash, and give the biggest cut by far - around 90 percent - to Cox. Cox and his associates netted $2.7 million in fraudulent loans, authorities say.

That alleged scam was big enough to draw the interest of the FBI, which started investigating Cox, and also of a determined reporter, Jeff Testerman of the St. Petersburg Times, who wrote a series of stories about the straw-men deals.

Cox discovered that the newspaper was planning to print a major article on him and Urban Equity on Dec. 14, 2003. "The shit was going to hit the fan," says Hauck. Cox knew he'd be nabbed if he stuck around Tampa.

So just days before the piece ran - it was called "Dubious Deals" - the two took off up the highway in another Audi, a new, $80,000 S6 coupe Cox bought using an alias. Hauck's son was in Vegas with his grandparents for Christmas. Cox left his 5-year-old son, Casio, behind with his ex-wife.

At first the couple had no idea where to go. "Matt had hardly been outside of Tampa his whole life," she says. They drove north to the Atlanta area, barely stopping.

On the road Cox came up with a scheme: If they lived in one state and committed frauds in another, it would be harder for authorities to track them. So they moved into a residence hotel in Atlanta and within a few weeks developed a plan to defraud a homeowner in Tallahassee, a wheelchair-bound former office manager named Theresa A. Knight.

That's when Hauck committed her first crime with Cox: She leased a mail drop at a UPS store outside Atlanta, presenting a fake Florida driver's license in Theresa Knight's name, according to court documents.

That same day, Cox drove from Atlanta to Tallahassee, where he made a visit to the local county clerk. There, he filed a fraudulent satisfaction-of-mortgage form, forging the signatures of Knight and two purported bank officers, showing that Knight's mortgage had been paid off.

Copies of the court-approved mortgage satisfaction were sent to the mail drop Hauck had opened. Now that the property was "free and clear," in real estate parlance, the couple could apply for new mortgages on it. Hauck, still posing as Knight, and Cox received $53,000 at a closing weeks later in Tallahassee. "That's when Matt said to me, 'There's no going back now. You're in just as deep as I am,'" says Hauck.

Swindlers by day, couch potatoes in the evening, Cox and Hauck became hooked on the HBO series Oz, a hard-core account of prison life complete with gang rapes and murders. Cox, says Hauck, warned her that's what jail was like. "He was always trying to scare me so I wouldn't turn us in," she says, adding, "Matt was terrified of going to jail - he was scared of getting raped by another guy."

"I'm not going to prison, Amy. Look at me. A cute little morsel like me in prison? Hell, no."

Back in Atlanta they zeroed in on their next victim. Michael A. Shanahan was a newly engaged finance manager who had spent his nest egg to buy a house, a rental investment property, in Alpharetta, Ga., a suburb north of Atlanta.

Hauck, this time posing as Grace Hudson ("a totally made-up name," she says), showed up on Shanahan's doorstep in January 2004 pretending to be new to the area and an employee of Lloyd's & Associates ("a totally made-up company. Matt said to tell people it was a Lloyd's of London subsidiary").

When she explained that she lacked a credit history - she said she was just divorced and nothing had been in her name - he told her not to worry. "You seem trustworthy," he said.

The couple then pulled the same scam they'd done in Tallahassee. But this time they upped the ante, netting $329,000 on Shanahan's home from three different lenders. With the ill-gotten gains, Hauck visited Alpharetta's Swan Center for Plastic Surgery in March and spent almost $12,000 on liposuction, a tummy tuck, and breast implants. Cox bought a brand-new silver Honda Element.

It wasn't until June that Shanahan discovered that his identity and property had been stolen and that fraudulent loans had been taken out on his home. "Grace Hudson" had been sending him monthly rent checks, so his suspicions weren't aroused. But when he went to check on the house, he found a stack of mail addressed to different aliases. He also found a particularly disturbing piece of art created by Cox: a bizarre papier-machâ statue of a man kneeling on the floor. The statue's face resembled Edvard Munch's masterpiece, "The Scream."

"It was like Cox was saying, 'You sucker.' It wasn't enough for him to practically ruin someone's life," says Paula Hutchinson, Hauck's defense lawyer. By then, Cox and Hauck had vanished again. But this time the Secret Service was on their tail, searching for the couple they knew only as "John and Jane Doe."

Cox and Hauck moved to Charlotte, N.C. Cox commuted to Columbia, S.C., an hour and a half away, to commit more scams.

The Secret Service put together a "Wanted" poster for the couple, using images obtained from fake IDs the pair had used at a bank closing, and the Charlotte television news aired a piece about them. A Florida FBI agent had identified them, and their real names were now being publicized. Cox and Hauck knew they had to escape again.

Late one night, "I told Matt, 'I can't go on anymore, this is it for me!'" says Hauck. He lost his temper, threw her on the floor, and started choking her. She screamed, and a neighbor knocked on the door. He shushed her: "Shut up, bitch, or you'll get us caught!" She says, "I realized then he could kill me. No one knew who I really was, and my family thought I was dead. He'd get away with it."

Soon after, she says, she headed off to Houston in a sparkling new Infiniti FX 35 SUV - a vehicle she'd fraudulently bought. The plan was that Cox would follow after wrapping up some business.

One day in February 2005, Mary Nell Degenhart, a Columbia, S.C., real estate lawyer, met a man known as Gary Sullivan at a loan closing. "He talked a great game. He made you feel like you were dealing with a pro. He had all the right documentation, all in perfect order. Though in retrospect, all fake," she says.

"You could tell he wanted things to go as smoothly as possible so he could just get out of there quickly." At the same time, an abstractor researching records for Degenhart in the local courthouse noticed Sullivan had obtained six loans totaling nearly $1 million on two separate properties within a four-day period. "It was outright illegal," she says.

She arranged for a fraud alert to be sent to Columbia banks, and a few days later, when Cox was walking out of a Wachovia Bank in Columbia, cops nabbed him. They allowed him to drive his own car to the police station. On the way he called Hauck in Houston on his cell phone and said, "You might be on your own from here!"

She says they were both freaking out. At the station he played it cool, showing police another fake ID. When one cop noted that Cox seemed shorter than the 5 feet 9 inches listed on it, Cox joked, "Hey, fellas, you do what you gotta do to impress the ladies!"

Astoundingly, he convinced them he wasn't Sullivan. The police let him go. Degenhart, who mutters something in her Southern drawl about the Keystone Kops, says, "It was unbelievable. Cox had the police laughing at his jokes. He charmed them!"

That night Christian had nightmares of John Walsh profiling him on "America's Most Wanted". Christian tossed and turned while the "America's Most Wanted" phones lit up and calls poured in from around the world.

There was a follow-up nightmare where Christian was shown handcuffed, wearing an orange prison uniform and trying to hide his face from the camera. Walsh said, "Thanks to your tips, we caught this sleazy bastard and tonight, he's behind bars where he belongs."

Cox then motored down to Houston in a new Infiniti sedan. When he got there, Hauck says, he told her he wanted his own apartment, he wanted to break up. They argued, yelling and throwing things. The next morning, when Hauck got out of the shower, Cox had vanished.

Hauck says she took it stoically. She took a new name, Rebecca Hickey, and though still in hiding, she says she went straight. She cocktail-waitressed at night and attended beauty school by day. She got back in touch with her family, letting them know she was okay.

One day in March she was styling a mannequin's hair in beauty school when five federal agents burst through the door. "My classmates were terrified. But I stayed pretty calm," she says. "It was like I was just waiting for this to happen."

Hauck, who will be sentenced on Nov. 15, remains at the Atlanta correction facility (locally referred to as the "ACDC"). Her attorney argues that she was manipulated by Cox. "Becky was totally controlled by Matt, there's no question," says Hutchinson.

Turns out Hauck wasn't the only one. In a Tampa jail sits Alison Arnold, 32, finishing a two-year sentence. Also a single mom and a petite blond, Arnold became Matt Cox's accomplice in Tampa in 2003, right before Hauck, pulling off similar schemes until she was charged with fraud.

Hutchinson believes Cox has worked with yet another small-framed blond since Hauck, possibly in South Carolina. She contends the woman Cox introduced to the Browns as his realtor wasn't Hauck. In fact, Hauck says she caught Cox going on one day in Charlotte. "Matt told me he always needs a woman like me to help him - that people trust women more than men," says Hauck, who adds that he said people's basic nature was to trust, "and because of that, you could easily take advantage of them."

Homeowners scammed by Cox say they'll never be the same. Says Bridget Brown: "We kind of liked the guy. My husband even went out of his way to have termites exterminated before he moved in." Cox forged the Browns' signatures on a false satisfaction-of-mortgage form and got new mortgages. In February 2005, Cox scored as many as five loans on the Browns' house, totaling around $800,000.

Michael Shanahan, who declined to be interviewed, was crushed by the entire ordeal, according to law enforcement officials. When he first approached the police, he had to convince them he wasn't part of the property scam. One problem is that Cox had also stolen Shanahan's identity, using it to obtain credit cards and financing, and open bank accounts.

Meanwhile, Cox, who faces a 42-count indictment carrying a 400-year jail sentence, could be anywhere. Some believe he may have made his way to Cuba - Hauck says he was strangely obsessed with the country. Others think he's still in the U.S., working his frauds as usual.

As Gerald Scott Cugno, a former business partner, told the local paper: "It's a game. He wants to see if he can pull it off." Cugno, who had his identity stolen by Cox, believes he's influenced by Frank Abagnale Jr., the con man played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie "Catch Me If You Can." In the 1960s, Abagnale impersonated a professor, doctor, lawyer and airline pilot while passing $2.5 million in bad checks until the FBI nailed him.

After Cox left Hauck in Houston, he vanished. In "The Associates," after a wild chase during which he manages to somewhat heroically lose the feds and mobsters on his tail, he also abandons a silver Audi TT in Tampa airport's long-term parking, boards a cruise ship, and makes his way to the Cayman Islands, where he plans to stash his millions and live the good life. As he writes:

He was free and about to start a new adventure, a new life in a new country. [He] stared out at the glittering lights and the fading shore line.

Mortgage fraud hot spots Reports of mortgage fraud Reported mortgage fraud losses

Why we lie

By /react-text Yudhijit Bhattacharjee
react-text: 10 Photographs by /react-text Dan Winters
This story appears in the June 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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In the fall of 1989 Princeton University welcomed into its freshman class a young man named Alexi Santana, whose life story the admissions committee had found extraordinarily compelling.
He had barely received any formal schooling. He had spent his adolescence almost entirely on his own, living outdoors in Utah, where he𠆝 herded cattle, raised sheep, and read philosophy. Running in the Mojave Desert, he had trained himself to be a distance runner.
Santana quickly became something of a star on campus. Academically too he did well, earning A’s in nearly every course. His reserved manner and unusual background suffused him with an enigmatic appeal. When a suite mate asked Santana how his bed always seemed to be perfectly made, he answered that he slept on the floor. It seemed perfectly logical that someone who had spent much of his life sleeping outdoors would have no fondness for a bed.

Learning to lie is a natural stage in child development. Kang Lee, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, has explored how children become more sophisticated liars as they age. Darshan Panesar, a research assistant, and nine-year-old Amelia Tong demonstrate functional near-infrared spectro­s૜opy technology, which Lee uses in his studies.

Except that Santana’s story was a lie. About 18 months after he enrolled, a woman recognized him as somebody she𠆝 known as Jay Huntsman at Palo Alto High School in California six years earlier. But even that wasn’t his real name. Princeton officials eventually learned that he was actually James Hogue, a 31-year-old who had served a prison sentence in Utah for possession of stolen tools and bike parts. He was taken away from Princeton in handcuffs.
In the years since, Hogue has been arrested several times on theft charges. In November, when he was arrested for stealing in Aspen, Colorado, he tried to pass himself off as someone else.

The history of humankind is strewn with crafty and seasoned liars like Hogue. Many are criminals who spin lies and weave deceptions to gain unjust rewards𠅊s the financier Bernie Madoff did for years, duping investors out of billions of dollars until his Ponzi scheme collapsed. Some are politicians who lie to come to power or cling to it, as Richard Nixon famously did when he denied any role in the Watergate scandal.

Sometimes people lie to inflate their image𠅊 motivation that might best explain President Donald Trump’s demonstrably false assertion that his Inauguration crowd was bigger than President Barack Obama’s first one. People lie to cover up bad behavior, as American swimmer Ryan Lochte did during the 2016 Summer Olympics by claiming to have been robbed at gunpoint at a gas station when, in fact, he and his teammates, drunk after a party, had been confronted by armed security guards after damaging property. Even academic science𠅊 world largely inhabited by people devoted to the pursuit of truth—has been shown to contain a rogues’ gallery of deceivers, such as physicist Jan Hendrik Schön, whose purported breakthroughs in molecular semiconductor research proved to be fraudulent.
These liars earned notoriety because of how egregious, brazen, or damaging their falsehoods were. But their deceit doesn’t make them as much of an aberration as we might think. The lies that impostors, swindlers, and boasting politicians tell merely sit at the apex of a pyramid of untruths that have characterized human behavior for eons.
Lying, it turns out, is something that most of us are very adept at. We lie with ease, in ways big and small, to strangers, co-workers, friends, and loved ones. Our capacity for dishonesty is as fundamental to us as our need to trust others, which ironically makes us terrible at detecting lies. Being deceitful is woven into our very fabric, so much so that it would be truthful to say that to lie is human.

Lying for self-aggrandizement
Mark Landis, who says he was a failure as a commercial artist, spent nearly three decades imitating the works of famous painters, including this one in the style of folk artist William Matthew Prior. Posing as a philanthropist or Jesuit priest, he donated them to art museums and enjoyed being treated with respect. “I had never experienced this before, and I wanted it to go on,” he says. “I have no feelings of conscience about this. When I was exposed and had to stop, I was very sorry.”
The ubiquity of lying was first documented systematically by Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Two decades ago DePaulo and her colleagues asked 147 adults to jot down for a week every instance they tried to mislead someone. The researchers found that the subjects lied on average one or two times a day. Most of these untruths were innocuous, intended to hide one’s inadequacies or to protect the feelings of others. Some lies were excuses—one subject blamed the failure to take out the garbage on not knowing where it needed to go. Yet other lies—such as a claim of being a diplomat’s son—were aimed at presenting a false image. While these were minor transgressions, a later study by DePaulo and other colleagues involving a similar sample indicated that most people have, at some point, told one or more “serious lies”—hiding an affair from a spouse, for example, or making false claims on a college application.

Lying for fun
Jacob Hall’s desire to become a superhero inspired a tall tale that won him the West Virginia’s Biggest Liar award and a golden shovel at last year’s Vandalia Gathering, a folk festival in Charleston. “My stories would be pretty boring without deception,” says Hall, who intends to spin yarns 𠇏or the rest of my life, if you can believe that.”
That human beings should universally possess a talent for deceiving one another shouldn’t surprise us. Researchers speculate that lying as a behavior arose not long after the emergence of language. The ability to manipulate others without using physical force likely conferred an advantage in the competition for resources and mates, akin to the evolution of deceptive strategies in the animal kingdom, such as camouflage. “Lying is so easy compared to other ways of gaining power,” notes Sissela Bok, an ethicist at Harvard University who’s one of the most prominent thinkers on the subject. “It’s much easier to lie in order to get somebody’s money or wealth than to hit them over the head or rob a bank.”

As lying has come to be recognized as a deeply ingrained human trait, social science researchers and neuroscientists have sought to illuminate the nature and roots of the behavior. How and when do we learn to lie? What are the psychological and neurobiological underpinnings of dishonesty? Where do most of us draw the line? Researchers are learning that we’re prone to believe some lies even when they’re unambiguously contradicted by clear evidence. These insights suggest that our proclivity for deceiving others, and our vulnerability to being deceived, are especially consequential in the age of social media. Our ability as a society to separate truth from lies is under unprecedented threat.
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We all lie, but not all lies are the
same. People lie and tell the
truth to achieve a goal: “We lie
if honesty won’t work,” says
researcher Tim Levine.
Personal transgression
Cover up a mistake or misdeed
Escape or evade other people
Economic advantage
Gain financial benefits
Personal advantage
Bring benefits beyond money
Shape a positive image of ourselves
Make people laugh
Help people
Social or polite
Uphold social roles or avoid rudeness
Hurt other people
Motives are unclear, even to ourselves
Ignore or disregard reality
  “The truth comes naturally,” says
psychologist Bruno Verschuere,
𠇋ut lying takes effort and a sharp,
flexible mind.” Lying is a part of
the developmental process, like
walking and talking. Children
learn to lie between ages two and
five, and lie the most when they
are testing their independence.
Percent telling
more than five
lies in one day
No lies told
One to
five lies
Over a 24-hour period
Lying frequency, by age
Artboard: desktop End ai2html – 2017-05-16 – 12:10

When I was in third grade, one of my classmates brought a sheet of racing car stickers to school to show off. The stickers were dazzling. I wanted them so badly that I stayed back during gym class and transferred the sheet out of the classmate’s backpack into mine. When the students returned, my heart was racing. Panicking that I would be found out, I thought up a preemptive lie. I told the teacher that two teenagers had shown up on a motorbike, entered the classroom, rifled through backpacks, and left with the stickers. As you might expect, this fib collapsed at the gentlest probing, and I reluctantly returned what I had pilfered.
My naive lying—I got better, trust me—was matched by my gullibility in sixth grade, when a friend told me that his family owned a flying capsule that could transport us anywhere in the world. Preparing to travel on this craft, I asked my parents if they could pack me a few meals for the journey. Even when my older brother snickered, I refused to disbelieve my friend’s claim, and it was left to my friend’s father to finally convince me that I𠆝 been duped.
These lies that my friend and I told were nothing out of the ordinary for kids our age. Like learning to walk and talk, lying is something of a developmental milestone. While parents often find their children’s lies troubling𠅏or they signal the beginning of a loss of innocence—Kang Lee, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, sees the emergence of the behavior in toddlers as a reassuring sign that their cognitive growth is on track.

To study lying in children, Lee and his colleagues use a simple experiment. They ask kids to guess the identity of toys hidden from their view, based on an audio clue. For the first few toys, the clue is obvious𠅊 bark for a dog, a meow for a cat𠅊nd the children answer easily. Then the sound played has nothing to do with the toy. “So you play Beethoven, but the toy’s a car,” Lee explains. The experimenter leaves the room on the pretext of taking a phone call𠅊 lie for the sake of science𠅊nd asks the child not to peek at the toy. Returning, the experimenter asks the child for the answer, following up with the question: 𠇍id you peek or not?”

Lying for personal gain
Frank Abagnale, Jr., is now a highly regarded security consultant, but his brazen deceptions earlier in life inspired the 2002 movie Catch Me if You Can. Leonardo DiCaprio played Abagnale, who ran away from home at 16 and learned to survive by his wits, becoming a check forger, con man, and impostor. “I had to be creative in order to survive,” he says. “I do and will continue to regret it for the rest of my life.” Abagnale masqueraded as a pilot, a pediatrician, and an attorney with a Harvard law degree.

Most children can’t resist peeking, Lee and his researchers have found by monitoring hidden cameras. The percentage of the children who peek and then lie about it depends on their age. Among two-year-old transgressors, only 30 percent are untruthful. Among three-year-olds, 50 percent lie. And by eight, about 80 percent claim they didn’t peek.
Kids also get better at lying as they get older. In guessing the toy that they secretly looked at, three- and four-year-olds typically blurt out the right answer, without realizing that this reveals their transgression and lying. At seven or eight, kids learn to mask their lying by deliberately giving a wrong answer or trying to make their answer seem like a reasoned guess.
Five- and six-year-old kids fall in between. In one study Lee used Barney the dinosaur as the toy. A five-year-old girl who denied having looked at the toy, which was hidden under a cloth, told Lee she wanted to feel it before guessing. “So she puts her hand underneath the cloth, closes her eyes, and says, 𠆊h, I know it’s Barney,’ ” Lee recounts. “I ask, ‘Why?’ She says, �use it feels purple.’ ”
What drives this increase in lying sophistication is the development of a child’s ability to put himself or herself in someone else’s shoes. Known as theory of mind, this is the facility we acquire for understanding the beliefs, intentions, and knowledge of others. Also fundamental to lying is the brain’s executive function: the abilities required for planning, attention, and self-control. The two-year-olds who lied in Lee’s experiments performed better on tests of theory of mind and executive function than those who didn’t. Even at 16, kids who were proficient liars outperformed poor liars. On the other hand, kids on the autism spectrum—known to be delayed in developing a robust theory of mind𠅊re not very good at lying.

Lying for country
Valerie Plame, a former CIA agent, worked undercover for two decades. In 2003 her cover was blown and her clandestine career ended when Bush Administration officials leaked her name to a newspaper columnist. She and her husband say it was done in retribution for his claim that the White House had exaggerated intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq. What lesson did she take away from her years as a spy? “Most people,” she says, 𠇊re more than willing to talk about themselves.”
On a recent morning, I took an Uber to visit Dan Ariely, a psychologist at Duke University and one of the world’s foremost experts on lying. The inside of the car, though neat, had a strong odor of sweaty socks, and the driver, though courteous, had trouble finding her way. When we finally got there, she asked me smilingly if I would give her a five-star rating. “Sure,” I replied. Later, I gave her three stars. I assuaged my guilt by telling myself that it was better not to mislead thousands of Uber riders.

Ariely became fascinated with dishonesty about 15 years ago. Looking through a magazine on a long-distance flight, he came across a mental aptitude test. He answered the first question and flipped to the key in the back to see if he got it right. He found himself taking a quick glance at the answer to the next question. Continuing in this vein through the entire test, Ariely, not surprisingly, scored very well. “When I finished, I thought—I cheated myself,” he says. “Presumably, I wanted to know how smart I am, but I also wanted to prove I’m this smart to myself.” The experience led Ariely to develop a lifelong interest in the study of lying and other forms of dishonesty.
In experiments he and his colleagues have run on college campuses and elsewhere, volunteers are given a test with 20 simple math problems. They must solve as many as they can in five minutes and are paid based on how many they get right. They are told to drop the sheet into a shredder before reporting the number they solved correctly. But the sheets don’t actually get shredded. A lot of volunteers lie, as it turns out. On average, volunteers report having solved six matrices, when it was really more like four. The results are similar across different cultures. Most of us lie, but only a little.
The question Ariely finds interesting is not why so many lie, but rather why they don’t lie a lot more. Even when the amount of money offered for correct answers is raised significantly, the volunteers don’t increase their level of cheating. “Here we give people a chance to steal lots of money, and people cheat only a little bit. So something stops us—most of us𠅏rom not lying all the way,” Ariely says. The reason, according to him, is that we want to see ourselves as honest, because we have, to some degree, internalized honesty as a value taught to us by society. Which is why, unless one is a sociopath, most of us place limits on how much we are willing to lie. How far most of us are willing to go𠅊riely and others have shown—is determined by social norms arrived at through unspoken consensus, like the tacit acceptability of taking a few pencils home from the office supply cabinet.

Lying to entertain
Apollo Robbins and Ava Do, who are married and business partners, use sleight of hand to entertain and educate. Robbins is an astonishingly agile pickpocket, perhaps best known for emptying the pockets of some Secret Service agents on a presidential detail. Do is a magician who has studied psychobiology. “We think of deception as the intent to distort someone’s perception of reality,” they say. “It is an impartial tool that can be used for good or bad, to inform or mislead.”
Patrick Couwenberg&aposs staff and fellow judges in the Los Angeles County Superior Court believed he was an American hero. By his account, he had been awarded a Purple Heart in Vietnam. He𠆝 participated in covert operations for the Central Intelligence Agency. The judge boasted of an impressive educational background as well𠅊n undergraduate degree in physics and a master’s degree in psychology. None of it was true. When confronted, Couwenberg’s defense was to blame a condition called pseudologia fantastica, a tendency to tell stories containing facts interwoven with fantasy. The argument didn’t save him from being removed from the bench in 2001.

There appears to be no agreement among psychiatrists about the relationship between mental health and lying, even though people with certain psychiatric disorders seem to exhibit specific lying behaviors. Sociopathic individuals—those diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder—tend to tell manipulative lies, while narcissists may tell falsehoods to boost their image.
But is there anything unique about the brains of individuals who lie more than others? In 2005 psychologist Yaling Yang and her colleagues compared the brain scans of three groups: 12 adults with a history of repeated lying, 16 who met the criteria for antisocial personality disorder but were not frequent liars, and 21 who were neither antisocial nor had a lying habit. The researchers found that the liars had at least 20 percent more neural fibers by volume in their prefrontal cortices, suggesting that habitual liars have greater connectivity within their brains. It’s possible this predisposes them to lying because they can think up lies more readily than others, or it might be the result of repeated lying.

Lying for strategic advantage
Raking in more than $32 million in tournament prizes, Daniel Negreanu has won more money than anyone in poker history. The Canadian-born superstar, who moved to Las Vegas 20 years ago, has traveled the world as an ambassador of the game and appeared on countless televised shows. “If you want to win at poker,” he says, �ption is absolutely necessary.” The trouble comes, he says, when players spend so much time deceiving competitors that “it infiltrates their personal life.”

Psychologists Nobuhito Abe at Kyoto University and Joshua Greene at Harvard University scanned the brains of subjects using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and found that those who acted dishonestly showed greater activation in the nucleus accumbens𠅊 structure in the basal forebrain that plays a key role in reward processing. “The more excited your reward system gets at the possibility of getting money𠅎ven in a perfectly honest context—the more likely you are to cheat,” explains Greene. In other words, greed may increase one’s predisposition to lying.
One lie can lead to another and another, as evidenced by the smooth, remorseless lying of serial con men such as Hogue. An experiment by Tali Sharot, a neuroscientist at University College London, and colleagues showed how the brain becomes inured to the stress or emotional discomfort that happens when we lie, making it easier to tell the next fib. In the fMRI scans of the participants, the team focused on the amygdala, a region that is involved in processing emotions. The researchers found that the amygdala’s response to lies got progressively weaker with each lie, even as the lies got bigger. “Perhaps engaging in small acts of deception can lead to bigger acts of deception,” she says.

Lying to tell stories
Some of the Internet’s most viral videos and photographs have been staged by a secretive artist known as Zardulu, who rarely reveals the fabrications. “Like all myths,” Zardulu says, “mine are established to engender a sense of wonder about the world, to counter our perceived mastery and understanding of it.” Zardulu appears wearing a ram’s head, symbolizing a journey into the unconscious mind, while the hierophant, an interpreter of mysteries, represents the shadow self.

Much of the knowledge we use to navigate the world comes from what others have told us. Without the implicit trust that we place in human communication, we would be paralyzed as individuals and cease to have social relationships. “We get so much from believing, and there’s relatively little harm when we occasionally get duped,” says Tim Levine, a psychologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who calls this idea the truth default theory.
Being hardwired to be trusting makes us intrinsically gullible. “If you say to someone, ‘I am a pilot,’ they are not sitting there thinking: ‘Maybe he’s not a pilot. Why would he say he’s a pilot?’ They don’t think that way,” says Frank Abagnale, Jr., a security consultant whose cons as a young man, including forging checks and impersonating an airline pilot, inspired the 2002 movie Catch Me if You Can. “This is why scams work, because when the phone rings and the caller ID says it’s the Internal Revenue Service, people automatically believe it is the IRS. They don’t realize that someone could manipulate the caller ID.”
Robert Feldman, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, calls that the liar’s advantage. “People are not expecting lies, people are not searching for lies,” he says, 𠇊nd a lot of the time, people want to hear what they are hearing.” We put up little resistance to the deceptions that please us and comfort us� it false praise or the promise of impossibly high investment returns. When we are fed falsehoods by people who have wealth, power, and status, they appear to be even easier to swallow, as evidenced by the media’s credulous reporting of Lochte’s robbery claim, which unraveled shortly thereafter.

Researchers have shown that we are especially prone to accepting lies that affirm our worldview. Memes that claim Obama was not born in the United States, deny climate change, accuse the U.S. government of masterminding the terrorist strikes of September 11, 2001, and spread other 𠇊lternative facts,” as a Trump adviser called his Inauguration crowd claims, have thrived on the Internet and social media because of this vulnerability. Debunking them does not demolish their power, because people assess the evidence presented to them through a framework of preexisting beliefs and prejudices, says George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at the University of California, Berkeley. “If a fact comes in that doesn’t fit into your frame, you’ll either not notice it, or ignore it, or ridicule it, or be puzzled by it—or attack it if it’s threatening.”

Lying for professional gain
Jayson Blair is a life coach, seeking to help people define and achieve their goals. Before that, he was a fast-rising New York Times reporter whose career imploded in 2003 when he was discovered to have fabricated and plagiarized material in dozens of articles. “My world went from one in which I covered the deception of others to being the one doing the deception,” he says, 𠇊nd eventually, searching for answers to questions about why I lied and why others do so as well.”

A recent study led by Briony Swire-Thompson, a doctoral candidate in cognitive psychology at the University of Western Australia, documents the ineffectiveness of evidence-based information in refuting incorrect beliefs. In 2015 Swire-Thompson and her colleagues presented about 2,000 adult Americans with one of two statements: “Vaccines cause autism” or 𠇍onald Trump said that vaccines cause autism.” (Trump has repeatedly suggested there’s a link, despite the lack of scientific evidence for it.)
Not surprisingly, participants who were Trump supporters showed a decidedly stronger belief in the misinformation when it had Trump’s name attached to it. Afterward the participants were given a short explanation𠅌iting a large-scale study𠅏or why the vaccine-autism link was false, and they were asked to reevaluate their belief in it. The participants�ross the political spectrum—now accepted that the statements claiming the link were untrue, but testing them again a week later showed that their belief in the misinformation had bounced back to nearly the same level.
Other studies have shown that evidence undermining lies may in fact strengthen belief in them. “People are likely to think that familiar information is true. So any time you retract it, you run the risk of making it more familiar, which makes that retraction actually less effective, ironically, over the long term,” says Swire-Thompson.
I experienced this phenomenon firsthand not long after I spoke to Swire-Thompson. When a friend sent me a link to an article ranking the 10 most corrupt political parties in the world, I promptly posted it to a WhatsApp group of about a hundred high school friends from India. The reason for my enthusiasm was that the fourth spot in the ranking was held by India’s Congress Party, which in recent decades has been implicated in numerous corruption scandals. I chortled with glee because I’m not a fan of the party.

But shortly after sharing the article, I discovered that the ranking, which included parties from Russia, Pakistan, China, and Uganda, wasn’t based on any metrics. It had been done by a site called BBC Newspoint, which sounded like a credible source. But I found out that it had no connection to the British Broadcasting Corporation. I posted an apology to the group, noting that the article was in all likelihood fake news.
That didn’t stop others from reposting the article to the group several times over the next day. I realized that the correction I𠆝 posted had not had any effect. Many of my friends�use they shared my antipathy toward the Congress Party—were convinced the ranking was true, and every time they shared it, they were unwittingly, or perhaps knowingly, nudging it toward legitimacy. Countering it with fact would be in vain.
What then might be the best way to impede the fleet-footed advance of untruths into our collective lives? The answer isn’t clear. Technology has opened up a new frontier for deceit, adding a 21st-century twist to the age-old conflict between our lying and trusting selves.
Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, a contributing writer, has also written about deception in his new book, The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell. He wrote about baby brains in January 2015. Dan Winters is an award-winning photographer based in Austin, Texas. This is his first feature assignment for the magazine.

Experts Explain Why You’re So Addicted To Scammer Stories

In Ocean's 8, audiences were rooting for Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett and the rest of their crew to sneak into the Met Gala and retrieve their rightful (stolen) diamonds. In The Hustle, out May 10, we're likely to feel similarly about Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson's characters — con women hustling men who easily fall for their tricks because of their own gender bias. When it comes to real-life scam stories, however, our sympathies are usually with the victims. But why are we so fascinated by grifters and scammer stories in the first place?

Take, for instance, the endless discourse and countless memes about Fyre Festival, the luxury music event that was meant to take place in the Bahamas in 2017 but crashed and burned when it turned out that organizers had way overpromised on almost everything. There was only one failed attempt, but now the name of the disastrous music festival has become synonymous with scams and sh*tshows. Recently, a Jewish weekend retreat was coined "Passyover Fyre Fest" by Forward, who reported that hundreds of people were left stranded in Florida when organizers couldn't pay for goods and services. In Virginia, the rescheduling of the 2019 Nova Mac and Cheese Festival had one customer saying "I feel like this is the new 'Fyre Festival,'" which WLJA quickly spun into a headline.

Fyre Festival has become part of the lexicon in a major way thanks to its presence on social media and the two documentaries delving into the specificities of its demise. But its continued popularity is largely due to America's fascination with the monied attendees who were enticed into buying into a "luxury" experience that became a nightmare. Those of us who hadn't committed to going watched the fallout both in real time and later on screen, doing our own continued research and following threads on the specific parts of the scamming that were of interest. The public was, perhaps, looking for clues as to how this could have happened in the age of TMI. How could so many people be bamboozled?

It's not just Fyre Festival that has Americans glued to updates and aftermath. Much like the true crime craze that spawned Making a Murderer, Serial, and Dirty John, true scam stories have grown into their own popular genre. In the last year alone, the story of author Lee Israel's elaborate bait-and-switch scheme was made into the Oscar-nominated film Can You Ever Forgive Me? Elizabeth Holmes' alleged lies about her medical company, Theranos, became an ABC podcast, an HBO documentary, a forthcoming feature film starring Jennifer Lawrence (via People), and a Hulu series with Kate McKinnon and Shonda Rhimes is turning the story of the "Soho Grifter," Anna Delvey, who was just found guilty of conning "friends, banks and even an executive in charge of a private jet company out of over $250,000 in cash, goods, and services," according to Time, into a new Netflix series. Producers and studio execs aren't just spinning these true stories into consumable pop culture without a willing audience, though. It's our insatiable curiosity about who scams, who gets scammed, and why that keeps us invested and the adaptations coming.

Lo, 24, says she's always been a fan of scam stories, but started following them more closely when, in 2017, Zoella, a British beauty YouTube personality, pedaled a luxury "12 Days of Christmas Advent Calendar" that was promised to contain enviable home and lifestyle products, but turned out to be full of cheap items that weren't worth the $66 price tag.

"I just couldn't believe the audacity of it," Lo says, adding that she started looking further into YouTube and internet personalities like Caroline Calloway who, Business Insider reports, held "'creativity workshops' for her followers that were criticized as poorly run and derided as 'scams.'" The events were compared to (what else?) the Fyre Festival.

"The Caroline Calloway 'scam' kept me hooked for ages," Lo continues. "Probably because I couldn't, and still can't, work out if she is a scammer mastermind of just an incredibly self-aggrandizing privileged white girl who doesn't realize how much she's ripping people off."

Lindsey, 30, says she's been enthralled by stories about women like Holmes and Delvey, but also by Keith Raniere, whose NXIVM cult, alleged to have involved blackmail and sexual abuse, will be the focus of of a docuseries this year.

"There’s something captivating about the ways scammers lure people in the combination of entitlement and denial stands out to me," she tells Bustle. "I’m invested because I want to see how long people can balance these contradictory outlooks before being caught."

On the expert side, clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show, Dr. Joshua Klapow, says we are drawn to scams for some of the same reasons we are drawn to looking at an accident when we pass it on the highway.

"We are vicarious learners," Dr. Klapow tells Bustle over email. "We learn not just by experiencing things directly but also by watching others experience."

Scams represent a kind of danger, he explains. "Maybe not life threatening, but a danger. By watching these stories we are coming closer to the very thing that could harm us. It’s almost a hardwired way of learning. We are drawn to them because they allow us to see what might happen to us without having to actually endure the pain of being put through a scam."

Scam story fan Ashley Louise, 31, agrees. She says she thinks there's an interest in the likes of Holmes and Fyre Fest creator Billy McFarland because they were self-styled entrepreneurs whose actions were allegedly putting people in danger.

"I think a lot of their behaviors — fake it to you make it, embellish (lie!), close the deal, figure out how to get it done later — are all pretty typical behaviors for a segment of [venture capitalist] folks raising money and trying to aggressively grow their businesses."

"These two are the most interesting to me because they just seem to operate in a totally different reality," 27-year-old Kate says of Holmes and McFarland. "They fundamentally didn't seem to understand that what they had done was wrong until they were punished for it. You can even see shades of it with these college admissions scam parents. When you have that kind of money, blind confidence, and whiteness, illegality feels relative. And it also makes people much more likely to believe you. I think that's a pretty scary thing and it's the root of so many issues in this country. It feels like a social responsibility almost to figure out how these people got as far as they did."

"I think the negative is it gives a very poor message, which is to say that we're rewarding bad behavior," says Dr. Pamela Rutledge, Director of the Media Psychology Research Center, of our hunger for scam stories. She says the reason we as viewers are so interested in the way that these cons play out is that scammers are also storytellers.

"All of those [movies] where the villain is now the hero and is someone who is charismatic, they had to have a really good story to pull the thing off," she says, speaking over the phone. "In the narrative, whoever was cheated had it coming, or has money to spare or something, so if you trick a bunch of rich people, that's OK — they had it coming. If you cheat a bunch of venture capitalists, that's OK — we're currently not very high on venture capitalism. And we're also interested in — just like you're interested in the best singer, best dancer, the best something, these are people who pulled off something sort of extraordinary. How did they do that?"

Dr. Klapow says that part of the appeal is the need to figure out how and why others were fooled so we can keep ourselves from falling prey to the same kinds of scenarios.

"Humans need certainty and rules in their world in order for them to feel most at peace," he says. "Scam artist stories are stories that say the world is not certain, it is not rule-following and that bad things can happen to us. When a scam artist story ends with the scammer being caught, we are validated and frankly comforted that our world is right, and orderly."

Dr. Rutledge says audiences are as innately curious about how scammers can be successful as they are about why those who were scammed fall for them in the first place. "You want to reassure yourself that it couldn't happen to you," she says. "Your fascination has to do with, at some level, the relevance to yourself and your basic survival instinct — what does this have to do with me and would I be vulnerable for this? So you're very interested in these outliers because you need to determine your own risk level. And of course everyone thinks they couldn't possibly be conned."

The fascination, then, is not only with the people who fell for the frauds, but with the frauds themselves, we either consciously or subconsciously attempt to avoid our own pitfalls in the future. But Kaplow sees a dehumanizing downside to the trend.

"The only negative really is the degree to which we relish in seeing others harmed. If that is the primary draw then it feeds an unhealthy apathy about the world and other humans," he says.

"It helps to calm [our] anxiety by dissecting these people or even fetishizing them because it seems to create a sense of control, or the ability to say 'I would never behave X way in this situation, so I'll be safe' or 'I would never fall for that, I'm too smart for that,'" Kate posits. "Which of course is totally bogus."

Of course, there's also the entertainment aspect. When true scam stories are turned into content, those behind the camera and in the editing room are looking to tell a compelling story. Thanks to the TV version of a viral documentary feature hit, MTV viewers can watch one play out weekly.

"The movie Catfish really opened up a love of scam stories for me because it framed this elaborate scam as a thriller, which is really kind of the format they've all adopted now, even though ultimately it kind of just has a sad ending," says 29-year-old Marie.

The appeal of fictional scammer stories like The Hustle and Ocean's 8, meanwhile, also incorporate the fact that, in the past, on-screen depictions of scam artists have often been relegated to the men: Catch Me If You Can's Frank Abagnale, Jr., for one, and Bernie Maddoff, who had a mini-series, an HBO movie, and a documentary dedicated to his Ponzi scheme. It's only been in the last year or so that women scammers have gotten more play, from Melissa McCarthy's depiction of Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me? to the continued prevalence of Holmes in media and popular culture.

Ashley says she's looking forward to Hollywood's versions of the Holmes and Delvey scandals, partly because she thinks they'll be, well, entertaining.

"One thing that has so far frustrated me with the Theranos coverage is that it's felt very focused on the science and very cut and dry business stuff, and what I'm really here for the saucy bits," she says. "There must have been tons of crazy stuff going on — apparently she's obsessed with costume parties — and that's more of the details I want."

Kate, meanwhile, is fascinated by how quickly Hollywood jumps on these stories these days.

"There's something to be said for the way we almost immediately allow these figures to enter the cultural imagination. Anna Delvey has made requests from prison that Jennifer Lawrence or Margot Robbie portray her. She has a courtroom stylist. This girl knows her star is still on the rise even behind bars," Kate says. "Here we are in 2019 with a new JT Leroy film! And it's only a matter of time before we get probably Jake Gyllenhaal in the Dan Mallory biopic. Holmes, McFarland, and Delvey are getting their comeuppance legally, to be sure, but culturally? Mixed messages at best."

These mixed messages, Dr. Rutledge says, are being spread because when we're investing time, energy and money into stories and entertainment about these crimes, we're raising the con artists profiles and potentially providing them profit.

"When you see Shonda Rimes buying the story of a woman who cheated out banks and all that stuff, you have to say 'Is it appropriate for people to benefit when they've caused damage? Is it morally ethical or morally appropriate to promote a story without also showing the consequences?'" she asks.

Kate explains that she also sees a connection between the interest in true crime and true cons, one that isn't always so positive.

"I keep thinking about all these upcoming projects and our excitement for them compared to the response to the upcoming Ted Bundy film. Obviously, Bundy's crimes are on an entirely different level of psychopathy and tragedy and I agree should not be made salacious, but scams are not victimless crimes. A man killed himself as a [Editor's note: alleged] result of Elizabeth Holmes' bullying and liesand others made life-altering medical decisions. Families lost life savings because of Bernie Madoff. Madoff himself lost his son to suicide," she says. "So I think the question going forward is where do we draw the lines when giving these people notoriety, and what does that notoriety look like, since that's the thing all of them, serial killer or serial scammer, are after in some way or another."

With all the controversy, there are some positive things we can learn from giving so much time and energy to learning about scams and those who pull them. Dr. Klapow offers that these stories can teach us not to be cynical, but to be more engaged and aware.

"We can learn that the world can be unpredictable, that we need to be aware and not overly naive, that bad things can happen to good people, and that we can trust, but not trust blindly," Dr. Klapow says. "These are all protective lessons that help keep us safe in our world. Also to the extent that the scam artists get caught — our unconscious desire to have justice in the world is fulfilled."

Investing in fictional scams is fairly safe. Still, Dr. Rutledge suggests we consider the ramifications of giving our attention and energy to certain con artists, and consider who's inevitably benefitting from that attention and energy.

"We should not be so in love with the story of how it happened," she says, "that we forget about the real world outcome."