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Planet Con – from Bernie Madoff to the Masked Scammer, how the world’s grifters exploit our optimism bias


Marianne Thamm has toiled as a journalist / writer / satirist / editor / columnist / author for over 30 years. She has published widely both locally and internationally. It was journalism that chose her and not the other way around. Marianne would have preferred plumbing or upholstering.

Slick swindlers exploit human psychology in their cons – and nobody is immune to their dark arts, not even CEOs and politicians, who have been milked of tens of millions of dollars around the world.

There has to be some portal in the human brain which, when activated, primes the mental landscape to circumvent common sense and fall for a con, a scam, a rip-off.

Like the cannabinoid receptors in our body that embrace the molecules of THC and CBD in marijuana – however it finds its way into the bloodstream – grifters, too, work on emotional Velcro.

And the bigger the fraud, it seems, the more likely some are willing to be swindled and bluffed. Press the magic buttons and Open Sesame.

Those who steal have been the bane of human existence since our realisation that we could walk upright and carry a club some three million years ago.

That is why we learnt to carry the club in the first place. There was always someone with a burning desire to have what was not theirs.

The bigger the con the better

These are the people who literally have zero conscience and who are able to con, as we shall see, even world leaders out of their money. And we are talking huge amounts here.

Examples abound.

Reach for the remote to find jaw-dropping accounts like The Tinder Swindler or the doccie on the King of Ponzis, “the Monster of Wall Street”, Bernie Madoff, who shook at least $20-billion off those who trusted him with their investments.

Closer to home there is murderer and rapist Thabo Bester, who, while serving a life sentence in the Mangaung maximum security prison, ran a scam media empire and hosted – from his cell – an event that drew Hollywood A-listers as guest speakers.

Recall how Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos, with her peroxided hair, welcome-to-the-vortex stare and somnolent baritone, and looking like a sausage wrapped in Steve Jobs black, charmed the great and the good.

Holmes successfully milked famous and supposedly savvy investors, including Walmart’s founding Walton family, Rupert Murdoch and former US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Who can forget Anna Delvey, born Sorkin in Moscow in 1991, who, posing as a European heiress, managed to con her way through New York, running up huge hotel bills and scamming huge amounts off friends who paid her bills?

Look into my eyes

How did they all do this? Theatre? Persuasion? Smoke and mirrors? Psychology?

The experts say these grifters tune into our “optimism bias”, a belief, apparently, that bad things won’t happen to us. This is viewed by some as “an illusion of invulnerability”.

Ignorance and a lack of access to knowledge is the greatest doorway to everyday grifting in South Africa.

This enables criminals who are so good they are able to intercept and update the banking app on your phone, which will then lead you to a mirror website. There you will be milked for your information.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Banking scam — international crime syndicate targets South Africans using smartphones

Typing and sending off your details, you will get the feeling, this ain’t right. And, sure enough, minutes later your bank account is hoovered. This kind of con relies on the same sleight of hand, albeit more subtle.

For many finding their way around constantly updated technology, the pitfalls appear considerable. The same goes for the marketplace on the internet. At least we all know to check reviews of all businesses online. We all know that, right?

Chikli was so badass he fashioned a latex mask of the then French Minister of Defence, Jean-Yves le Drian, which he donned during online calls with his targets.

When it comes to the rich parting with gigantic amounts after being persuaded by clearly dodge operators, however, other tricks are deployed.

According to Singapore’s principal psychologist in the Police Psychological Services Department, Carolyn Misir, scammers leverage cognitive biases. These are “mental shortcuts” that humans use.

Visceral cues, which evoke emotions such as greed or fear, turn the victim into a willing one.

The King of Con

The King of Con has to be the Franco-Israeli Gilbert Chikli, the focus of the Netflix documentary The Masked Scammer, who convinced members of the French elite, including politicians, a religious leader and CEOs, to part with around €80-million in a series of daring scams.

During his long criminal career, Chikli also targeted American Express, Accenture and Disney. A playboy, he inevitably left a necklace of broken-hearted and vengeful lovers along the way.

Now 56, he began life in the run-down district of Belleville in the northeast of Paris. A good-looking kid and then handsome youth, Chikli learnt to con and steal at a young age. He was a great pretender.

Chikli was so badass he fashioned a latex mask of the then French Minister of Defence, Jean-Yves le Drian, which he donned during online calls with his targets. And it worked. Thrice.

Read more in Daily Maverick: How scammers like Anna Delvey and the Tinder Swindler exploit a core feature of human nature

Posing as the minister, and leveraging an “Isis threat to France”, Chikli convinced the educated and the wealthy to part with their money.

He promised that the French state would reimburse them as it could not be seen to be paying ransoms. At the time, French citizens had been captured in Mali. In essence, Chikli used terrorism to scam his victims.

No South African would fall for this, surely? Government will pay you back later? Pah.

Believing in a secret government operation, the elite stepped up to help the French state.

In 2016, Chikli even convinced the Aga Khan, Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, to transfer £17.5-million to Poland and China. By the time the Aga Khan caught on, £6.7-million had vanished.

Turkish businessman İnan Kıraç sent £36.5-million to Chikli for what he thought was ransom for two journalists held hostage in Syria.

Chikli’s explanation for why people fall so easily for scams is simple.

“They’re stupid,” he says in one clip in the documentary. He is currently serving an 11-year sentence in France. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


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