Role plays: what it takes to be a successful impostor

From airline pilot to lawyer: Frank Abagnale claims to have assumed no fewer than eight identities. But where is the fine line between lying and breaking the law? We spoke with con artist expert Sonja Veelen to find out.

I sometimes pretend to be a certain Roxy Rodriguez when the barista at Starbucks asks me my name. Does that make me a con merchant?

No. But if you tell your bank you’re Queen Máxima and cheat your way into a loan, that would be fraud.

So where does one cross the line between being a liar and a con artist?

The boundaries can often be blurred. You are definitely crossing the line and can get into legal trouble if you start using deceitful methods, like if you fake documents or assume false titles. Pretending to have significantly more resources – like knowledge, education, money or social influence – than you really do, and thereby deceiving another person, also falls under imposture. If a conman harms a patient because he has no medical knowledge whatsoever, he clearly crosses every possible legal and moral boundary.

Former confidence trickster and check forger: Frank Abagnale now runs a financial fraud consultancy company

Can I just become a con artist or do I need to have a particular disposition for it?

You definitely need to have certain personality traits. An impostor has to have excellent self-control, be able to stay calm in dicey situations, stick to his role and exude an absolute air of calm. Some fraudsters say that they managed to be released or flee police custody shortly after questioning, just by sticking consistently to their role. A poised manner and lots of self-confidence are therefore crucial. You also need to be able to adapt to the most different surroundings in no time at all, just like a chameleon blends into its environment. It certainly doesn’t hurt if you’re good looking and charming. And you also need some criminal drive. A con artist usually won’t get anywhere if they shy away from breaking the law.

To what extent do lies affect an impostor’s identity? Could they have identity issues because their different identities blur into one?

Fraudsters often say they weren’t playing a role – they became the role. That describes an extreme type of adaptation that occurs intuitively and might be key to their success. If someone believes their own lies, that’s what they exude. It’s a brilliant trick, really. Of course when an imposter pretends to be a doctor, they’re aware of not being a real doctor. But day-to-day, they carry across their impostor habits into their role as a doctor. In that regard, it’s plausible that those who report not to experience a conflict of identity really don’t. They’re more likely to face dilemmas related to their roles since they need to make sure that people who know them in one role don’t meet them in another conflicting one.

There are countless examples of people like Frank Abagnale, who managed to pull off pretending to be – among other things – a pilot and whose life was even inspired the film “Catch me if you can”. What’s the key to getting good at fooling others?

The easiest thing is to deck yourself out in things connected to the role in question. Take uniforms and the case of the “The Captain of Köpenick” for example. Generally, work clothes like a judge’s robe or a doctor’s white coat are useful because they make us believe that we know whom we’re dealing with. If you see a tall guy getting out of a Bentley with a shiny Rolex around his wrist – you’d probably believe it if he said he was the chairman of a large bank, right? Appearing confident and relaxed can be very convincing. Manipulating people on an emotional level by complimenting them or establishing fake common ground works extremely well too. Car dealers and insurance agents are experts at that.

So why do we believe them although they manipulate us?

Impostors generally abuse the trust needed in order to navigate a complex world. They use a high degree of manipulation, which is hard to identify if you’re not expecting it. Humans are pretty much blind to things they don’t expect. That “blindness” is strengthened when they’re offered something they really desire: Marital cheaters offer love, fraudsters money and those who lie in job applications present the perfect employee.

Why do people sometimes choose to take on another identity, like when I become Roxy at the Starbucks counter?

Your case seems to be more of an innocent gag. But often when people switch into another identity it’s to reach a certain goal which would ordinarily be out of reach. In cases when it’s illegal to play that role, some people decide to it anyway. Take women who live in restrictive societies, for example – they might be driven to pretending to be men. Or medical students who practise as doctors despite having failed their exams and greedy so-and-sos who employ tricks to get people to empty their pockets. But false identities can also simply be used as a disguise – a common practice among spies.

Sonja Veelen is a doctoral candidate and research associate at the Philipp University of Marburg. She is the author of ‘Hochstapler: Wie sie uns täuschen’ [Impostors. How they fool us].

This interview was published at:  DW Life Links