Some people play golf on the weekends. I hunt con artists.
But it wasn’t always that way.
I used to think I could never get scammed. I’m way too smart for that. I’ve got a degree from journalism school. And I read tons of newspapers and books. I know what’s going on in the world. There’s just no way a scammer could outsmart me, right?
Because con artists don’t outsmart you. They “out-feel” you. They use your emotions to gain entry into your life so they can rob you.
In 2017, I became the victim of a professional con artist, a woman named “Mair Smyth,” who very quickly burrowed deep into my psyche and systematically scammed me out of almost $100,000 using a sophisticated series of confidence tricks.
I’m a gay man, so she couldn’t use sex to ensnare me. Her lures were much more creative and sinister.
I would end up falling for one of the oldest cons in the book: the inheritance scam.
But this scheme wasn’t cooked up by some Nigerian prince soliciting my help through an email. I was actually charmed into submission by a charismatic, exciting woman who injected herself into my life and became my best friend for four years. But in reality, she was an international con artist on the run from the authorities and hiding out in my apartment building.
After I realized she scammed me, I spent the ensuing two and a half years bringing my con artist ― kicking and screaming ― to justice, while uncovering 45 of her other victims all over the world who she tricked out of more than a combined $1 million.
My story got tons of international press coverage.
I even produced a podcast about it for iHeartRadio called “Queen of the Con: The Irish Heiress.”
Soon, hundreds of victims of other con artists ― inspired by my tale of triumph and vindication ― began contacting me through my website asking for help bringing their con artists to justice.
So I started helping them. It’s become a hobby of mine ― kind of a pastime.
Really ... an obsession.
I’m now investigating a few dozen cases circling the globe, involving some of the most despicable con women and con men “working” today. And at this point, the most important thing I’ve learned is: Professional con artists are all pretty much the same. They all use the same playbook. The same age-old set of scams. The same architecture of lies and manipulations. Only the names and places change. But if you know what the signs are early on, you can avoid falling into their trap.
And if you don’t, you won’t.
Con artists are everywhere. They’re living among us. Cleverly and convincingly masquerading themselves as a new boyfriend or girlfriend in your life. A new neighbor or co-worker. A new best friend.
They look just like regular people. But they’re not.
Below is a list of red flags common in every con I’m currently investigating. These were also the red flags that my con artist waved at me with reckless abandon ― and that I completely missed.
1. Too Kind, Too Quick
Someone new in your life is insanely kind and giving. They always offer to pay for things. They give you gifts. They always try to help you for no apparent reason other than they’re just really nice. Sound too good to be true? It might be. A con artist’s first mission is to become your friend so they can gain your trust. That way, one day, you’ll do things for them that you wouldn’t do for a stranger. Getting into your good graces ― and your life ― establishes trust, which is exactly what they need to move forward with their con.
2. I’m Better Than You
Professional con artists are narcissists. They’re always telling you how great they are. How much they’ve accomplished in their amazing life. How they’ve triumphed in the face of adversity. My con artist, who worked for a luxury travel agency in Los Angeles, used to tell me that she was the No. 1 seller in the United States of vacations to the Pacific Islands. She claimed that the president of French Polynesia would fly her out every couple months to inspect all their five-star hotels to make sure they were up to snuff. None of that was true. And my con artist was eventually arrested and convicted of scamming $200,000 from that very travel agency.
One of the things present in every con case I’m working on today is bravado. In order to engender confidence, they need their marks to think highly of them and be impressed by them. The quickest way to speed that end is to brag about themselves. To tell you how incredible they are ― and how fortunate you are to know them.
3. Drama, Drama, Drama
Look, bad things happen to everyone. People get cancer. People have children who suddenly die. People have crazy family members who are out to “get them.” But all those bad things rarely happen to the same person at the same time ... unless they’re a con artist making up all this drama in their lives to manipulate and prey on your emotions. They use them to suck you into their craziness and exploit your kindness and good nature. If there’s a new person in your life broadcasting a steady stream of soap opera-esque drama, change the channel.
4. Legitimate Day Jobs
Most professional con artists have, or had at some point, a legitimate day job. And they use the reputation of those jobs to give them the patina of legitimacy in their scams. They’re mortgage brokers. They work in the mayor’s office. They’re investment analysts. They’re foreign exchange traders. They’re travel agents (mine was). They work for a giant cell phone company. You think, There’s no way they’re con artists. They have amazing jobs. But that is their plan. They want you to think that, let your guard down and believe their lies. Don’t. Their day jobs are just a cover, a side hustle. Their real job is conning you. So the next time you think, “They could never be scamming me, they have an amazing job,” think again.
For a con artist to successfully scam you, they need to be able to lure you away from people who might talk you out of going along with their con. Unfortunately, it’s remarkably easy to do. My con artist tricked me into believing my neighbor was a criminal on the run from authorities in Canada. So I avoided her like the plague. She then convinced my neighbor that I was mentally ill. So my neighbor avoided me. My con artist scammed us both using different stories and we were none the wiser until well after the money exchanged hands. So if someone new in your life doesn’t want you talking to this person or that person... don’t go along with it. Being told not to talk to someone is about the biggest red flag there is and it’s a very effective tool for a “working” con artist to isolate you and keep you in the con.
The next time someone shows you a text or an email and claims it’s from so-and-so, be suspicious. Con artists scamming in the digital age create Google Voice accounts and email accounts in other people’s names to text and email themselves, so they can show you those texts and emails to get you to believe whatever story they’re laying out. My con artist tricked some of her victims into believing she was best friends with Jennifer Aniston using this technique. I’m a TV producer in Los Angeles so it’s very possible that someone in my circle is actually friends with Jennifer Aniston. My con artist cleverly made it appear that Jennifer Aniston was always texting her. And she’d show the victims those texts in a “look what Jen is texting me now” kind of way. Sometimes she’d even appear to be annoyed by it and all of her victims bought it. By using this digital spoof, a working con artist can convince a victim they’re friends with anyone and construct a believable ― but completely false ― story around it.
My con artist tricked a couple of real estate investors into wiring her $60,000 because her daughter supposedly needed life-saving surgery after a late-stage cancer diagnosis. In another case I’m working on, the victim wired her new boyfriend hundreds of thousands of dollars to help him out of a jam when a foreign government was holding his property hostage. Long story short: Never. Send. Wires. Period. If someone asks you to wire them money, there’s a good chance it’s a scam.
8. Beak Wetting
In a lot of investment scams and a lot of love scams, the con artist will actually give you a little money upfront. They’ll let you “wet your beak.” My con artist paid me back the first $4,200 I ever loaned her the very next day. That move gave me the confidence to loan her more. That was her plan. The term “con artist” is short for “confidence artist” because these individuals gain the complete and utter confidence of their victims ― and then weaponize it against them.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have never gotten scammed. I would have seen all the red flags waving wildly from a mile away and I would have crossed the street when I saw my con artist coming.
The problem was, I never really believed con artists existed. I mean, yes, I knew there were tons of email scams and phone scams where people try to trick you into sending them money. But real people in my life who could be con artists? I didn’t believe that could ever happen. But I was wrong. Don’t make the same mistake I did.
Johnathan Walton is host of the hit podcast, “Queen of the Con: The Irish Heiress.” He’s also a Reality TV producer by day and a justice-seeking vigilante in his off hours. His experience putting his own con artist in jail has awoken him to a new calling in life: helping other victims hunt down their con artists in the name of justice and closure and healing. He can be reached through his website, JohnathanWalton.com.