The word grifter may sound like slang terminology, but it is an American word for someone that deceives others out of property. The simplest way to describe a grifter is as a con artist. A grifter can also be referred to as a swindler, a scammer, or a cheater. Grifters often prey on those at their weakest points, manipulating real human emotions in devious ways.
Grifting has become much more prevalent in recent years, as the more technology adapts, the easier it is for others to set up scams. With privacy concerns at an all-time high, knowing how to detect a scam is more important than ever before. Here, we’ll go over what a grifter is and talk about the best practices to detect a scam before you get caught up in it. We’ll also cover famous grifters and examples of grifters in entertainment.
Definition of Grifter
The word grifter is the noun form of the verb grift, which means obtaining money or property illicitly, as in a confidence game. A confidence game, or con game, is when a grifter gains the confidence of their victim and then swindles them out of money. Examples of the deception could be cheating at a game or having funds diverted to their account.
The word grifter is an early 20th-century American invention that is thought to be derived from the word grafter. Some definitions of grafter will appear to be identical to grifter, but in the United Kingdom, grafters are known as those that work hard. It is commonly believed that the word grifter is a combination of grafter and drifter.
In 1904, the St. Louis Republic wrote the following to contrast grafters and grifters
“We now have both grafters and grifters. Grafters, as everyone knows, are those who separate us from our earned or unearned increment in the ordinary course of business. Grifters do not pursue the ordinary channels…grifters keep out of the legitimate channels of commerce and resort to unique and extraordinary practices. Grifting is far more sensational and spectacular than grafting, and commands less respect.”
The Pemiscot Press out of Caruthersville, Missouri, wrote the following 11 days after the St. Louis Republic article in 1904. This excerpt appears to be referring to grifters who were brought in to face judgment from the law:
“Some of the grafters that have been run in here this week may turn out to be “grifters.” If they do not, it will be humiliating, we think, for it is no longer popular to catch boodlers or grafters, but grifters, as they are the latest discovery in the criminology catalogue.”
Sometimes the word grifter is meant to refer specifically to shady carnival workers, as carnivals were an early venue for grifters to find and swindle their marks. In 1908, the Daily Republican out of Rushville, Indiana wrote the following:
“All the big grafters—or more properly speaking, ‘grifters’—were at work in the side show, where the ‘easy marks’ throng.”
In some uses, a grafter can be a more legitimate version of a grifter. The result may be similar, but a grafter can use a position of legitimacy to get the job done. The phrase “graft and corruption” is often assigned to corrupt politicians.
What is the Penalty for Grifting?
Grifting, scamming, and swindling are all forms of fraud. Fraud is often punished as a felony, which means that you can receive over a year to multiple years in prison if convicted. Fraud is also punishable in both criminal and civil cases. In a civil lawsuit, the burden of proof is lower than in a criminal case, and the punishment that often results is full restitution along with monetary damages.
How to Detect a Grifter
The first advice in detecting a grifter goes back to the age-old saying, “if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.” Get rich quick schemes are a common form of grifting in which people are swindled out of money for an illegitimate investment.
Con artists are often so good that you never see them coming or realize you are the target of a long con. Maria Konnikova, the author of The Confidence Game, had this to say in an interview with The Atlantic regarding how a certain con artist’s biographer was being conned while writing his book:
“I stopped talking to con artists I was writing about, about halfway through the research process, because I realized that the same thing was happening to me. When I actually spoke with them and met them, I was no longer objective because they’re so good, so charismatic—you really start identifying with them and thinking, ‘Oh, they’re really not so bad.’”
Konnikova describes a “dark triad” that most con artists share:
- Lack of Empathy—Their brains work differently from yours, as emotions don’t mean a lot. Everything about your brain that would engage you emotionally brings out a coldness in scammers.
- Narcissism—This is defined as selfishness with a sense of entitlement. A narcissist has an exceedingly high opinion of themself.
- Machiavellianism—The ability to manipulate people while lacking a moral code is Machiavelliansism.
You can spot a grifter if you carefully consider their actions. Scammers will generally be friendly and considerate. Their well-mannered actions are meant to disarm and charm you into feeling a personal connection. Beware of stories of someone being down on their luck, which will lead to an eventual request for assistance.
A scammer may pressure you into taking quick action, which does not give you enough time to fully consider the offer or discuss it with others that you trust. Also, be on the lookout for someone making claims of guaranteed profit. There is no such thing as a surefire investment. Again, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
A grifter will commonly impersonate a person of authority. Be on the lookout for someone impersonating a member of your bank or a branch of the government, such as the IRS.
Seven Signs You’ve Been Targeted by a Grifter
The quickest advice for someone that wants to be able to detect a grifter is to always be skeptical. If someone has approached you in a conversation that you did not initiate, always have your radar up for a potential scam. Below are seven telltale signs of a con artist on the prowl:
Does Not Respect ‘No’ as an Answer
If you’ve said no to an offer from someone and they discount your response by continuing to convince you of their proposal, alarm bells should start going off in your head. A grifter craves control of a situation. By ignoring your ‘no,’ he or she is attempting to maintain control or is refusing to give up their control of the situation. Disregarding an initial answer of ‘no’ is one of the most telltale signs of a scam artist.
Help You Did Not Ask For
There are many people you will encounter on a daily basis who truly are being nice and may offer a helping hand. But consider your situation before accepting help from a stranger. Some grifters will perform a service for you but then want payment in return.
Asking for a Small Favor
If someone asks you for something and you say no, but then they follow that up with asking for a smaller favor, you are more likely to say yes. Once you’re stuck with the small favor, it may evolve into the big favor over time, which is what the con artist is counting on.
Charm can be harmless, but charm can also be the easiest way for a con artist to gain your good graces. We are all wired to be flattered when someone speaks nicely of us, and in human interaction, people generally want to trust one another. But when you notice excessive charm, your grifter radar should start going off in the back of your mind. When you can anticipate a con coming, it can save you from falling into a grifter’s trap.
A grifter may try to distract you from the fact that you two don’t know each other or throw you off the scent of what they’re after by piling on the details. Giving excessive details is a telling sign that you should think twice about trusting that person. Gavin de Becker, the author of The Gift of Fear, has this to say about too many details:
“When people are telling the truth, they don’t feel doubted, so they don’t feel the need for additional support in the form of details. When people lie, however, even if what they say sounds credible to you, it doesn’t sound credible to them, so they keep talking.”
Forcing the Term “Team”
According to de Becker, forced teaming is one of the more sophisticated forms of manipulation. Examples of forced teaming can be: “Now we’ve done it!” or “We make a great team!”
By teaming together, you feel more connected to the grifter and feel that you’re in the same boat together. It also can be difficult to deflect forced teaming without sounding rude, which only plays to the grifter’s advantage.
Anytime you hear the words “I promise,” your grifter radar should go off. No one can truly make a promise about any product or investment. When you hear these words, they are revealing that someone is trying to convince you of something, and instead, you should believe the opposite.
A loan shark is a moneylender who charges an exorbitant rate of interest, usually under illegal conditions. Loan sharks start crossing over into the territory of grafting, as some legitimate business can be considered loan sharks. An example of a legitimate business that acts as a loan shark by the definition of the term is a company that offers payday loans.
What are Payday Loans?
Payday loans prey on those that need money quickly and do not consider the long-term impact of the debt they’re taking on. The loans operate by offering someone their paycheck earlier than they would have normally received it. Payday loans are a legitimate business, but one that should be avoided even in desperate times.
In 2015, Pew Charitable Trusts conducted a survey on payday loans, which revealed that 12 million Americans take out a payday loan each year. Those 12 million Americans have then had to pay $7 billion on fees for those loans. Payday loans will also deceive customers of the actual interest rate by disguising hiked rates in the form of fees. Effectively, the interest rate on those loans was between 300 to 500 percent APR (annual percentage rate).
Compare those rates to the highest credit card interest rates you will see around 36 percent, and you immediately wonder how payday loans are legal in the first place. It’s also worth noting that a credit card with a 36 percent interest rate is specifically targeting those with bad credit who may not be approved for a credit card with a lower APR.
Cheaper yet is a personal loan from a credit union or bank, which may cost between 10 and 25 percent APR. However, while some may not be aware of these additional options, others may have already been turned down for one of these loans, and a payday loan becomes the only option in sight.
If you need money to pay the rent and fear eviction, consider other options before taking a payday loan. It’s worth asking your landlord for an extension rather than resorting to a payday loan that will leave you in much worse shape soon after your bill has been paid.
Payday loans have gone under recent regulation and sometimes prohibition by certain states in recent years. In addition to the District of Columbia, here are the states that have prohibited or heavily regulated payday loans:
- New Jersey
- New York
- North Carolina
- West Virginia
In their place, new loan ventures are being offered that continue to gouge consumers with no other option, although not quite as egregiously as a typical payday loan. For example, OppLoans offers loans ranging from $500 to $4,000, with an APR between 99 and 199 percent. Terms of the loan range from six to 36 months.
However, in 2018, the federal Office of the Comptroller of the Currency declared that banks could write loans for any amount under $5,000 and not be subjected to typical underwriting rules. By not holding banks to the normal underwriting standards, loans can be issued to those with below-average credit.
Despite payday loans being outlawed in many states, the majority of the U.S. still offers this type of loan. The Community Financial Services Association of America estimates that there are 18,600 payday loan locations throughout the U.S., and those companies have loaned out around $38.5 billion to 19 million households.
Illegal Loan Sharks
With the reduction of official payday loans, illegal loan sharks have more of a chance of preying on needy borrowers. Illegal loan sharks are often operated by organized crime. When a borrower defaults on their loan, the lender may threaten violence or blackmail the borrower into coming up with the funds.
Similar to payday loans are title loans, which have high-interest rates and short terms, making it challenging for borrowers to pay back. A title loan is a “secured loan,” which means that the borrower can obtain a loan by offering something of value as collateral. If the person defaults on the loan, the lender can seize the asset used to secure the loan. Often, the collateral is the title to a car or a future cash payment owed to the borrower.
Famous Grifters and Grifters in Entertainment
Many of the famous swindlers have had books, movies, or streaming documentaries that detail their crimes. Here are a few you may recognize:
Soon to be the subject of a movie titled Bad Blood starring Jennifer Lawrence, Holmes is the ex-CEO of Theranos, a medical testing company. Holmes claimed that her company could run hundreds of tests from a small prick of blood, but that was a lie. Holmes is currently under investigation for fraud, and you can watch how she went about her scheme on the Netflix documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley.
The subject of the new Netflix series Inventing Anna, Sorokin, a Russian immigrant to Germany, fooled many into believing she was a European heiress. She came into prominence when New York Magazine published an article about her high-society life, which spurred on more publications to do their own pieces on the grifter. Anna is currently in prison at Rikers Island for fraud charges.
Anthony Gignac was born in Columbia but moved to Miami, Florida, where he convinced people he was a Saudi prince. Gignac repeatedly swindled Miami residents, a place known as the “capital city of fraud.” Gignac plead guilty in May 2018 of identity theft, impersonating a foreign government official, and fraud.