Con artists are the magicians of film - we suspect the double-cross is coming yet we get duped while admiring the illusion. Like spies, cons come in disguise, seducing us with diabolical promises and secret, coded language. If you’re in the game, you need to speak the lingo.
An empty office decorated to resemble a place of work.
Blowing off the ‘mark’
Ditching the victim as quickly as possible, ideally long before the target realizes they’ve been fleeced.
A fabricated, online identity supported by fake photos and imaginary friends.
In Rosamund Pike’s black comedy I Care a Lot, court-appointed guardian Maria is on the hunt for a ‘cherry’, a wealthy retiree with no heirs or relatives poking around. The mark turns out to have a few secrets of her own, however.
A con artist who gains the confidence of his mark to manipulate them.
Giving the mark a taste of the profits with an initial scam, gaining trust with a ‘convincer’ to feed the victim’s appetite for more.
Faking the death of one of the con artists by, for example, having the con bite down on a tablet filled with chicken blood to make it appear they’ve been shot.
Shaw (Paul Newman) calls out Kelly (Robert Redford) in The Sting for gambling away all of his money in one evening. Kelly dismisses Shaw’s fear that he attracted the attention of police: “I checked the place first. There were no dicks in there.”
Bit players who pick up roles in the con such as betters who block the mark from placing a bet in time before a horse race to whet the victim’s appetite.
Con artists who buy cooperation from friendly police officers or have political connections to ensure a scam runs smoothly. The fix might also include bribing judges and bank officials. When the ‘fixer’ ensures the ‘fix’ is in place, the sting can proceed.
Government men, particularly FBI special agents.
Stealing another person’s identity, usually to commit fraud.
Insider or inside man
A key player in the con, the insider often minds the 'big store' to receive the roper and the mark. The insider’s job is to ensure the set-up and setting appear legitimate to the victim.
Kansas City shuffle
A bait-and-switch confidence game using subterfuge, often playing on the mark's arrogance. The con was explained by Mr. Goodkat/Smith (Bruce Willis) in the movie Lucky Number Slevin: "They look right. And you ... go left."
Holding an advantage in a situation. In the TV show The Leverage, a grifter, a hacker, a thief and a retrieval specialist work with an ex-insurance fraud investigator to right wrongs: “The rich and powerful take what they want. We steal it back for you. Sometimes bad guys make the best good guys. We provide ... leverage.”
Little blind mouse
In the long con, not everyone is in on the game, ensuring some of the players act instinctively as events unfold. In Focus, Margo Robbie is the ‘little blind mouse’ who begs Will Smith’s character not to gamble
Also called the 'big con', the long con is a complex caper where the mark is strung along until the victim offers up their money, often willingly, expecting to get much more back in return.
The person in charge who manages the finances and divides up the proceeds of the con.
The mark is the victim, often lured in when he/she makes a small amount of money on a scam designed to earn the mark’s trust before the big ‘sting’.
On the grift
Playing the mark.
On the square
The opposite of the grift. Working legitimately.
A small-time swindler.
“You’re one to talk,” Roy tells Lilly in The Grifters. “Still running playback money for the mob?” Lilly (Anjelica Houston) runs a playback scheme - she gets paid to bet money on a long shot at the horse races to lower the odds and protect the mob from large payouts.
Playing a man against the wall
Conning someone in a real-life setting such as a restaurant or hotel room.
Playing the con
Gaining the victim's confidence through empathy or attention.
Pump and Dump
In The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner run a pump-and-dump scheme, artificially inflating (pumping) a stock price through misleading positive statements before selling it (dumping it) to make a profit.
Putting him/her on the send
Another term for the 'long con' or 'big con', it is a form a theater staged for the benefit of lulling the mark into a false sense of security, using a ‘cast’ of players who may act as police officers, painters or other supporting actors in the scheme.
Putting the fix
Locating a wealthy victim likely to part with money, such as Betty (Helen Mirren) in The Good Liar. But con artists don’t just do it for the money, Vincent (Jim Carter) explains in the movie: “It’s the game. It’s the adrenaline rush.”
The scam, organized crime in general.
Malicious software or malware that prevents people from accessing their computer files, systems, or networks. A ransom is demanded for the return of the files.
A police informer or an undercover officer. In Reservoir Dogs Mr Orange (Tim Roth) plays an undercover officer with the Los Angeles Police Department posing as a criminal.
The person who gains the confidence of the mark with the aim of roping them into the scam and introducing them to the inside man.
Also known as ‘salting the mine’, a scam in which gold or gemstones are placed in a mine to dupe the mark into buying shares in a worthless mining company.
There are two backdrops to any con, either real-life (restaurants or hotels) and 'the big store', where an empty office is decorated to appear to be a real-life setting.
A confidence game or fraudulent scheme to swindle a person or company.
Cheats or swindlers, especially at cards.
Opportunistic scams arise quickly, offering an irresistible chance to take the mark for all of their money.
In The Spanish Prisoner scam, the mark is often asked to put up their own cash to retrieve a much larger sum that’s hidden or held in another country. The mark may decide to play along in order to double-cross their partner, but they’ve already fallen victim. There’s no money to steal. They’ve been duped.
Myra realizes Roy (John Cusack) is working the tat when she sees him trying to con sailors in The Grifters.
Toledo Panic Button
The ‘Toledo Panic Button’ tactic, which Will Smith explains in Focus, is when you ‘shoot’ your partner to show loyalty to the mark. The shooting is sometimes faked, but the mark believes it is real.