Robbers Like Us

The (Bad) Cons That Men Do
& One Hell of a Clever Woman

They say what creates a thief is opportunity. But most con men would beg to differ. If you let a seasoned pro tell you what it takes to be a successful robber, soon he’ll sound like a piano virtuoso, an operatic tenor, a commanding maestro. Better keep an eye on your wallet.
In reality, for every Ronald Biggs, who, along with 14 others, stole from a train almost $70 million in today’s dollars in 1963, and spent the best of his life in Rio, there are a hundred Andrew Toothmans, who broke into a Kentucky store and came out naked, covered in peanut butter.
And for every Parachute Jumper, the unknown daredevil who jumped off a night flight over the frigid wilderness of the Pacific Northwest in 1971, with a cool $200 thousand in his pocket, there are hundreds of João Pedro dos Santos, who tried to open a banking account in Brazil using an ID on his name with a picture of actor Jack Nicholson.
But there are very few Sarah Jane Cochrane-Ramseys out there (and down under), we’re sure. The Australian woman became an instant legend, managing to turn the tables in the well-known brotherhood of Nigerian scammers, by swindling one out of $30,000.
Fact is, in all crafts, there are highly-skillful artists and ridiculously inept blunderers who’d do everybody a favor switching professions. Point taken. But if you resort at robbing people for a living, but keep failing at it so spectacularly, a simple change of trade may not be enough to get you anywhere.
It’s another story for those who succeed. Even when they’ve never heard of Victor Lustig and his 10 Commandments for Con Artists, those are the ones who show a particular streak of sociopathology as to make them both incredibly skillful at deceiving everyone around them, and often times, very likable chaps too.
Some professions are actually text-book examples of such double standard. Wall Street is full of financial wizards whose amorality and disregard for rules are routinely rewarded with obscene personal wealth. Politicians and security experts too, with the added aspect that they can be either legit or criminal or both. And technology hackers are always looking for opportunities within the industries they hack.
Such is the nature of the beast, that often society is eager to incarcerate the inept and reward the clever. Persecute the meek but let the friend-of-a-friend walk. Go after the messenger but ignore the message. These days, there’s one too many foxes guarding the chicken coop; too many lamb-attired wolves for comfort. And many more snakes slithering in the grass we step on.
For this seems to be a time that one almost feels sorry for many a thin-skinned, garden-variety thief, who should have known better not to mess around with such a high-risk, albeit not devoid of temptations, occupation. For those left with an intact moral compass, though, it makes little difference whether one gets caught or a free pass. At the end of the day, we hate both for thinking that they could, even when failing, and for actually succeeding.
“He was an outstanding young man,” someone close to Toothman said of him, but we’re glad they used the past tense. What’s not clear, though, is what was he trying to rob inside the grocery store, and how come he emerged covered in chocolate and peanut butter and wearing nothing but black boots? It no longer seem to matter. His family is brokenhearted, for sure, but at least where he’s going to he won’t be allowed to use even those boots.
The Brazilian forgery amateur may have won this senseless race, though. Not just for having picked, as his official photo ID, a picture of one of the only three-time Oscar winners in the same month of the academy ceremony. But, at 41, Santos doesn’t resemble the Jack’s world-known mug he used on the ID one tiny bit, and is, actually, more than 30 years his junior. Oh, by the way, his banking application was rejected.
By now, a huge percentage of Americans have been informed about their good fortune: someone needs to get rid of an enormous amount of unclaimed cash and all they need is a valid U.S. banking account, so they can transfer the funds. It turns out, we’re not the only ones who’ve been targets for years by what most law enforcement agencies believe comes from some kind of variation of Nigerian cons’ trademark get-rich-quick scheme.
Well, Cochrane-Ramsey decided she was not only not fall for it, but in fact would make a little extra cash out of her anonymous would-be racketeer. One way or another (or you think we’re giving you details of how she did it?), she convinced them to send her the money, which she promptly moved away from the account she’d set for the transaction, and not only the eight percent they’d agreed she would get to keep.
She was, however, arrested and prosecuted by Australian authorities, since it became clear that she’d used some of her own less-than-noble tactics, to retain the illicit cash. But victims from all walks of life have applauded her gutsy counterpunch, no doubt, thinking about all the money they one day dreamed it’d come nice and easily for them. As Judge Judy would put it, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. But tell that to the Nigerian guy (who remains at large).
The Talent Mr. Lustig was an Austrian-Hungarian immigrant who dedicated would-be robbers and entrepreneurs of the criminal kind have been studying for years. He became legendary even during his lifetime, for having talked his way into gangster Al Capone, gained his trusted and swindled the sanguinary Capo out of five grand. And more: he was not killed by him (or anyone else; he died in prison of pneumonia in 1947).
It’s unclear whether he’d heard of New Yorker George C. Clarke, a man who spent his life trying to sell public landmarks to the unaware, and even succeed at times. But before arriving in Chicago, Lustig tried his hand at the scheme twice, managing to ‘sell’ the Eiffel Tower once, and evading altogether jail time, when he was exposed trying to sell it again.
His greatest contribution to the arts of evil and conniving skills, though, was his 10 Commandments of the Con Artist, a masterpiece of razor-sharp observation of the human folly wrapped in a set of highly-evolved and subtle tips to explore the gullibility of strangers.
* Be a patient listener (it is this, not fast talking, that gets a con man his coups). * Never look bored. * Wait for the other person to reveal any political opinions, then agree with them. * Let the other person reveal religious views, then have the same ones. * Hint at sex talk, but don’t follow it up unless the other person shows a strong interest. * Never discuss illness, unless some special concern is shown. * Never pry into a person’s personal circumstances (they’ll tell you all eventually). * Never boast – just let your importance be quietly obvious. * Never be untidy. * Never get drunk.

Ronnie Biggs was not even the leader of the famous Great Train Robbery. That was a never-identified character known as ‘the Ulsterman.’ But Biggs was the one whose face became known worldwide. That didn’t prevent him from escaping to Brazil, where he lived for several decades as a minor celebrity and from where he only returned to England voluntarily in 2001. He was released for medical reasons a few years later and has faced several health ailments. He recently apologized for the robbery, but the money stolen was never completely recovered.
The mystery of ‘DB Cooper,’ the robber who extorted $200 thousand from the FBI and dove in the dark from an airliner to never be found, remains unsolved. Recently reports attempted to identify him but proof remains elusive. The marked money has never resurfaced anywhere in the world, either, except for a small amount found buried on the banks of the Columbia River. Even though the bureau has speculated that he could not have survived the harsh conditions of the border between the Washington and Oregon states area where he presumably landed, his case is officially still open.
In both cases, there were factors such as planning, drive, a huge amount of luck, and happenstance that may have been crucial for them to succeed. But it’s questionable whether it’d be worthwhile for anyone without the specific kind of mindset and personality needed to undergo such a gruesome enterprise to what is, after all, moderate chunks of cash. To be honest, living as fugitive, even in Rio de Janeiro, would never do it for us. And knowing that there’s a whole government agency eager to close a file on us would only make most people, well, confess? Or maybe not.

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