10 Tips for Telling Fact From Fiction

Know the Techniques Deceptive People Use
Frank Abagnale speaks onstage at the event "Catch Me If You Can: Frank Abagnale 10 Years Later" during the 2012 SXSW Festival. Bobby Longoria/WireImage/Getty Images

Hoaxers and con-artists, oddly, are eager to divulge their secrets, as evidenced by the number of them who've either written memoirs or given extensive access to interviewers. Some of these books -- ranging from Robert Crichton's 1959 classic "The Great Imposter," a biography of con artist Ferdinand Demara, to "Catch Me If You Can," a 1980 memoir by reformed impersonator Frank Abagnale, Jr., have even been made into Hollywood movies [sources: Williamson, Shone].

These stories can serve as virtual how-to psychological manuals on pulling off brazen deceptions, even if the operational details are a bit too dated to be useful. These documents also are a great asset in protecting yourself against such chicanery, because if you study them, you can reverse-engineer the con artist's bag of tricks and think through the skeptical investigator's techniques for exposing them for what they are. It's also possible to educate yourself by reading cautionary manuals, some of them written by fraud investigators and journalists who are willing to impart what they've learned from catching crooks. One such book is financial journalist and radio host Steve Weisman's 2008 book "The Truth About Avoiding Credit Scams: The Essential Truths in 20 Minutes," which provides detailed descriptions of lottery scams and other schemes that con artists try to use, and how to spot them before you fork over your hard-earned savings [source: Weisman].

Author's Note: 10 Tips for Telling Fact From Fiction

I've long been fascinated with con artists and the art of deception, ever since I saw the 1990 movie "The Grifters," which was based upon a book by the great pulp novelist Jim Thompson. And as a journalist, I've had a number of opportunities to talk with real-life con artists. The most notable of them was Richard Bailey, whom I profiled for GQ magazine back in the 1990s, when he was arrested and put on trial on charges connected with disappearance of Chicago heiress Helen Brach. Bailey, who made his living for years romancing and swindling wealthy women, had a certain irresistible homespun charm, even as he spun lies so outrageous that it's hard to imagine anyone believing them. He passed off a snapshot of himself standing next to Morgan Fairchild, for example, as proof that he'd had an affair with the famous actress -- a claim that my subsequent call to her publicist quickly refuted. When I pointed out the fib, though, Bailey was surprisingly good-natured about being busted. For him, apparently, it was no big deal, and he just kept on spinning his stories despite it.

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