Why do people think you can't con an honest person?

I’ve heard multiple times that “You can’t con an honest man”, usually from people realizing that some confidence tricks work based on the dishonesty of the pigeon. However, I also got through watching Paper Moon this afternoon, which is all about a short con based on the pigeon being honest enough to pay for a bible someone else had purchased. There are multiple short cons like that I can think of (depending on what you think of as a ‘con’*) so I’ve never really understood where the saying is coming from. Was it in a movie or a novel? How does it survive in the face of so many honest pigeons being taken?

*(Is a homeless person begging for ‘gas money’ running a short con? Certainly someone selling ‘magazine subscriptions’ is. The people who play tricks with change are as well, but I don’t know how common that ever was. The people who fill transmissions with sawdust are as well.)

Is the fake magazine subscription thing a con or a scam?

Everything I’ve seen in popular culture about long cons, specifically, require a dishonest mark. The con’s level of success depends on the level of greediness of the mark.

The conmen in Hustle often “con” their friendly barkeep but I think they’d tell you they were tricking him not conning him. Or if they were conning him, it was because the barkeep hoped to gain something from the transaction (albeit usually he wanted to gain the slate money owed to him.)

The saying was made famous in the title of a W.C. Fields movie. 1939’s You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man was followed by 1941’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.

By your definition an Honest Man can sometimes be a Sucker. In the way Fields used it an Honest Man is simply not someone trying to put one over on you. You can take advantage of an Honest Man or trick him by playing to his honesty, but neither of these seem to be relevant to the type of cons, cheats, and grifters than are at issue.

Maybe it’s just an acknowledgment that there are more than one type of con artist and more than one type of con, and that those in the game have a hierarchy of which they consider to be important.

I told you you might not agree with my definition of the word ‘con’. If the bible con is a con, then the magazine one is, I think. They’re both getting someone to pay for something that isn’t coming.

Anyway, you make a good point about long vs. short. It does seem reasonable that long cons would rely more on the pigeon’s cupidity. A counterexample is the romance scam, where the pigeon falls in love with the con and allows the con access to to finances.

Another example of a con that relies on the goodness of the pigeon is the fake charity. That can be worked long or short.

As opposed to “cheat” “deceive”, etc.

When I hear the “can’t con” proverb, I think of the classic cons in which the mark (never a "pigeon’) is trick into thinking HE is the one cheating/getting something not legally his.
“hey buddy - wanna cheat your customers?” “wanna share a cut of this wad in this wallet I just happened to find just as you walked past?”
An honest person would decline both - and not lose a cent.
The “read the obits, find a newly-minted widow, emboss the family name on a cheap bible, attempt to deliver it C.O.D., explaining it was ordered by the deceased” is a cheap deceit - to call it a “con” misuses the term - it is, after all, short for “confidence” - an ongoing trust - a good con is a work of art - you gotta admire the artistry involved, and the “just desserts” involved.
p.s. - “hey buddy, we were delivering these expensive speakers, and have a pair left over, want 'em real cheap?” is legitimately classified as a con, albeit a low-class, unimaginative one.

usedtobe: You’re merely trying to define your way out of this and your examples aren’t even consistent with your attempted definition: Your examples are all short cons but your definition looks more like a long con, never mind the fact I’ve already given an example of a long con that can cheat an honest person.

Whatever else I’m doing, however badly, I’m not trying get out of anything…

Well, I don’t think anyone takes this saying as the gospel truth of anything. I’m sure everyone recognizes that it is certainly possible to con an honest person, just less likely.

Every con plays to the victim’s desires. Sometimes those are vanity- like with vanity publishing and modeling scams. Sometimes it’s charity, like with fake charities. But most scams play to greed, probably because it’s one of the more common human desires.

When playing to greed, most scams offer a great return on a small investment. Most people recognize that this isn’t possible, so a lot of scams explain this by making up a story where the transaction is slightly illegal or otherwise sketchy. This has the additional effect of making the scamee less likely to report the scam- they don’t want everyone to know they tried to take part in something shady.

And, well, honest people are less likely to bite.

There’s an excellent program here ‘The Real Hustle’, in which skilled con-artists show how people can be tricked. They’ve even done it in Las Vegas!

They do the con first with hidden cameras, but then give the money back.

Their cons fall into two main categories:

  • appeal to greed (fake auctions; selling ‘stolen’ goods…)
  • fake ‘authority’ (impersonating police / delivery driver / parking attendant…)

The latter are the only ones that work on honest people.

Perhaps it should be made clear that the Real Hustle team are not actually “skilled con-artists”. Alex and Paul are stage magicians who know the con-artists’ tricks. Jess is an actress. As far as I know none of them have criminal records.

Though I think that programme takes quite a few risks which could put them on the wrong side of the law. I remember one case in which they tricked a homeowner into leaving his home while the team emptied his house. When he got home all his furniture was missing. He could hardly have been blamed if he had gone straight to the police. The team seem to rely on the mark taking it all in good part once it’s revealed they aren’t real crooks and they’ll get their property back.

It’s just a myth. Conmen don’t like to admit they steal money from innocent victims so they propogate the story that they only con people who are themselves dishonest and therefore “deserve” to be conned. I’ve seen a similar myth about hitmen which claims they only kill people who deserve it.

I’d agree it’s not technically true, but you cannot deny that it’s EASIER to cheat a cheat than an honest man. It’s one of the reasons long cons work.

The obvious example of honest people being conned is pyramid schemes. A pyramid scheme is just a confidence scam. Amway is comparatively honest as compared to the really bad ones. For a classic example of a massive scam, look at PRSI. The PRSI con (and my reliable Uncle John got scammed by it, so I knew about it, and told him it was a scam, and he did not listen, as per usual) relied on the mark being ignorant, not dishonest.

If you understood basic commerce or technology, or were even a bit skeptical, it was an awesomely amateurish scam. If you didn’t, the promise of riches could fool you.

Since when is it dishonest to be greedy? Also, a good percentage of con victims are old people. I’m sure plenty of them are dishonest, but most are honest but gulllible. I think the majority of cons out there aren’t necessarily deals that sound too good to be true, but simply cons that sound like good deals to those who aren’t wary.

The phrase “You can’t cheat an honest man” was doubtfully ever intended to be an Absolute Law. Some of the most celebrated cons (the pigeon drop comes to mind) do in fact take advantage of people who think they’re going to profit shadily, if not illegally.

We’ll have to alter the truism to “It’s a lot easier to cheat a dishonest, stupid or careless person”. :smack:

I think the romance con can have an element of dishonesty, in a sad way. The mark is being dishonest with herself in that handsome, charming, accomplished strangers (how the conman represents himself) rarely do fall head over heels in love with plain little nobodies. [switch gender pronouns as needed]

This might be extended to some of the other too good to be true cons. If you are honest with yourself, you realize that, as a high school graduate in a small midwestern town (or whatever your ordinary circumstances are), you are unlikely to come across an easy path to financial independence. The marks con themselves into believing that they are smarter or luckier or more virtuous, or at least more similar to these rich, charming strangers, than their ordinary peers.

Honesty to oneself might be taking the original saying farther than intended, but it resonates with me, anyway.

Most cons are done on the elderly, who respond well as they are lonely and sometimes senile. The crap aout con-men playing on the wealthy and greedy is just another con. I am talking real cons here, the Canadian lotery scam, the Nigerian scam, and the old “you have won a prize but you have to pay us a little scam”.

There is a con going around Japan (and Taiwan and other Asian countries) called the “ore ore” con. This article is from several years ago, and the amount of money taken became much higher, into the tens of millions of dollars.

this is a clear case of conning honest people.


Do 419 scams qualify as ‘con’? There are examples of honest, naive people falling for those - and they’re not all presented as dishonest bank employee wants help laundering embezzled millions - some of them are rich, dying widow seeks to employ trustee of charitable legacy.

Still, the hook is there- “I will give you a large amount of money for a small investment.” Most people know that isn’t possible to do honestly, so most of the people who fall for this are either dishonest or terribly naive.