Can You Spot a Swindler?

E. Louise

How good are we at spotting red flags in others? I ask because, by now, many of us have caught wind of the local event planner accused by a Miami couple of fraud, in the news last week. He was hired to plan their wedding, and allegedly went at scamming them six ways to Sunday—all of them interesting. The police report I read, for example, alleges the couple agreed to hire X Band for $4250, then he turned around and hired Y band for $1800. Couple was charged for the more expensive band. Same thing with photographer. The couple also alleges he helped himself to the husband’s credit card the minute the two left for their honeymoon. And there’s more, but it basically amounts to Ponzi crashing this couple’s dream wedding.


I’ll let the court decide whether this man did or didn’t, whether he misspent or the couple misjudged.


The more interesting part is the way folks around here reacted. I was in a bar the day the news broke, a neighborhood-type place where most everyone had a take on the story, from a local hairdresser to a restaurateur—all of whom know him personally. Let’s just say nobody had to be picked up off the floor over shock at the charges.


I’d only met him once. A friend I was with saw him heading over to us to chat, and subtly leaned over. In a sing-songy voice, she said, “Care-ful…”


Safe to say that if anyone says that about you as you're walking up to greet them, you might need to rethink your... well, whole personality? Shit. Either that, or stop wearing all those red flags on your sleeve. They're creeping people out.


In that case, lots of folks recognized that he "just ain't right." And we insulated ourselves accordingly. Problem is, I think more often, we look for these scams in far-off places (the telemarketer nosing around for your bank account number, the politician we’ll never meet) and miss them in our own circles. 


Let me back up. I’ve been accused of overusing the word “sociopath.” I can’t help it. A) I’m somewhat fascinated by this idea that some people have zero conscience, nil, none and B) at dinner about six months ago, a friend clued me in to this book, The Sociopath Next Door. The author, clinical psychologist Martha Stout, claims one in 25 people are sociopaths.


One in 25. If true, that's shocking. Stout's point is, they don’t just exist in Benson and Stabler’s interview room on SVU or three neighborhoods over where everyone talks about the guy who’s a little “off.” And they're not necessarily walking around with someone's cold dead finger in their pocket.


They’re actually a lot like you and me. Except more charming and missing a conscience. They know right from wrong, she says. They just don’t care. Here’s some other personality markers she lists:





Risk taking

Inability to resist temptation


Lack of interest in bonding with a mate.


I know, fascinating, right?


Granted, once you read this book, you’ll start suspecting everyone you know (an old neighbor, ex-boyfriends, your mom…). I'm kidding, of course. My mom definitely isn't. Except while watching college basketball—that's insanity and someone should take away her knitting needles until after the season's over. I don't know how many different ways I need to say this to make it happen.


I think we miss red flags because, when someone stands among us, we assign expectations about the way he or she should act. In short, we assume they're like us, operating with emotion, concern, conscience. Sure, we make mistakes. We lie, we cheat, we do things that hurt others.


The difference is, most normal people suck at these things. I know I do. My lies are pathetic—I had to give up, quit. But sociopaths, they seem to fly right through these hurdles, unfazed. On to the next thing. 


What do you think? Do you know anybody like this? If we believe Stout, the answer's gotta be yes.


Here’s some more cool insight from the author, via Kate Simon in Interview magazine.