The Mind Of The Mark : Rough Translation If you're the kind of person who thinks you can't be conned, that assumption may make it harder for you to recognize when you actually are being scammed. We speak with professional poker player and author Maria Konnikova about how con-artists get inside the stories we all tell ourselves, about ourselves. Then we go to an international multimillion dollar scam in Costa Rica, where a master of the con meets his match... the IT guy.
NPR logo

The Mind Of The Mark

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/746407667/748837160" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Mind Of The Mark

The Mind Of The Mark

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/746407667/748837160" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

GREGORY WARNER, HOST:

You're listening to ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. A few years ago, Maria Konnikova decided to write a book about scams, confidence games - you know, cons. Maria has a Ph.D. in psychology. She writes for The New Yorker, and she's now a professional poker player. So she dives into this world of con artist techniques - the cold read, the bait-and-switch. But pretty soon, she gets this uncomfortable feeling. The way these stories go...

MARIA KONNIKOVA: It's the con artist. You are an artist. You are the aristocrat of crime.

WARNER: ...The con artist is the hero of the story.

KONNIKOVA: And then there's the mark. They're not the victims. They're the marks.

WARNER: The mark - formerly known as the apple, the egg, Mr. Bates, Winchell. He's the punchline, the butt of the joke. Maria thought that there is another side to this story that is not being told, the story of the victim. Because when you start peeking into the mind of the victim, which is to say, into all of our minds, there's a lot that's happening.

KONNIKOVA: One of the things you realize when, you know, you study con artists is that we're conning ourselves all the time about who we are, about our stories. And con artists just pick up on that. They figure out how we're conning ourselves. That's one of the reasons why we're so susceptible.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: I'm Gregory Warner, and this is ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR, the show that takes you to far-off places with stories that hit close to home. Today we are going where con artist stories don't usually go. That is, into the mind of the mark. What are these stories that we're telling ourselves?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He's dripping with sweat. It's 90 degrees. It triggers my compassion for this guy, and I offer him a drink.

WARNER: We put out a call in the podcast for you, our listeners, to tell us about a time when you were conned.

KATHY DARROW: I feel like I'm pretty good at recognizing a scam when I see one.

WARNER: Hundreds of you responded with all kinds of stories.

JULIET GAGNON: I'm autistic. I'm also trans. So the scammer was targeting a specific demographic.

WARNER: All kinds of cons.

JOHN PORCINO: I thought, he could be conning me.

LISA LEICK: You know, I had my hopes up. It was, like, the dream job.

JAY BELSKY: That turned out to be a big, giant lie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Today we're going to dive into two of your stories - one from Chicago, one from Costa Rica - both that take us inside the mind of the mark. And our first story, thinking of yourself as a person who cannot possibly get conned - that may be what sets you up to be conned. And then we go to an international, multi-million-dollar scam where a master con meets his match, the IT guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: How'd you guys meet?

RICK O'MEARA: We met through a mutual friend of ours.

WARNER: Rick O'Meara and Reina Santiago fell in love. And in 2013, they decided to get married.

O'MEARA: You know, we had never had a destination wedding before. We had concept of that.

WARNER: They wanted someone to help them with the details. But every wedding planner they met...

REINA SANTIAGO: Even more expensive than we thought they were going to be.

WARNER: Until they walked into a little office on Belmont Avenue in Chicago, where they lived.

O'MEARA: Yeah. It was a beautiful shopfront. I mean, there was, like, this gorgeous wedding mural painted on the wall, and stuff.

WARNER: The woman behind the desk is Lakeisha Brown, and her price is half of anything they've been quoted. She explains she could adjust to their smaller wedding. Maria Konnikova, the writer, says that we are more vulnerable to a con when we're going through a major life change, like a wedding. We're feeling overwhelmed and out of our element. And most cons start with some kind of lucky deal, some kind of thing that makes us feel special, like a wedding planner discount that fits our budget.

SANTIAGO: And for me, like, I'm a little more of a suspicious person.

WARNER: Rina is suspicious as a rule. For example, she's a graphic designer, and she will hide a little watermark inside a logo she makes, just in case a co-worker tries to pass it off as theirs. So she goes online, and she finds all these reviews about this wedding planner.

SANTIAGO: Recommendations on WeddingWire, and The Knot, and Yelp and...

WARNER: They're all glowing. They go back years. Rick and Reina start working with Lakeisha. She's thoughtful, not too pushy.

SANTIAGO: Almost like an aunt.

O'MEARA: Yeah. She's, like, your fun aunt, I guess.

WARNER: And she chooses the perfect wedding venue in the Dominican Republic.

SANTIAGO: It's beautiful and tropical, and it's very reasonable. So, like, we looked at each other, and we're like, wow, we picked the right planner. And it just seemed perfect. It was a no-brainer. We, like, booked it that day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: They send Lakeisha nearly $5,000 for her fee and the bookings. She emails back receipts from the hotel. The hard-to-get photographer is locked down. The date is set - and then something odd.

O'MEARA: She asked for everyone's down payments.

WARNER: All the guests - money upfront for everyone's hotel room.

O'MEARA: And at the time, I thought it was a bit odd because we hadn't actually sent out official invitations.

SANTIAGO: I remember my mom specifically telling me, you know what, I don't like this. This - like, this seems weird.

WARNER: When they call Rick's mom, she has a question - which room am I in? Am I close to you guys?

SANTIAGO: So I called Lakeisha, and I asked her. And she said that they - we didn't have room numbers. And I thought that was really strange.

KONNIKOVA: And so then you should, say wait a second.

WARNER: Something's wrong here.

KONNIKOVA: Something's wrong.

WARNER: Maria Konnikova says that this stage of the con is when things veer off-script or start to feel weird and break down. It's actually called the breakdown.

KONNIKOVA: Then the con artist says, is that how little faith you have in me? That the moment one thing goes wrong, you think that I'm a terrible human being? You think that I'm out to fool you? OK. Fine. Fine. Leave. It's fine. I - here. Take all your money. I can't believe this, but go ahead. And then what happens to you, the victim? You say, no, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry that I don't have faith in you. I'm so sorry that I doubted you for a second. Here, take even more money (laughter).

WARNER: I asked Reina in Chicago, why didn't she just call the hotel herself to ask them about the room numbers or their deposit policy?

SANTIAGO: Yeah. I guess I didn't want to make the call because I felt like I was distrusting her. She had done so much work for us.

WARNER: Lakeisha had been there for everything - for choosing the dress and planning the ceremony and tasting the caterer's hors d'oeuvres. But it wasn't just that. There was something even deeper that was going on. It's that Reina thinks of herself as suspicious, as a rule, and Lakeisha had passed her test.

SANTIAGO: So I was like, OK, this is a little weird here, but I've already done my research so I shouldn't be worried.

KONNIKOVA: In that moment, you're already so invested in that narrative that it's become a part of your identity, a part of your core belief of what makes you who you are.

WARNER: Maria Konnikova says that there's a kind of sleight of hand that happens at this stage of the con, but the misdirection happens inside our minds. It's like we're having a conversation with ourself, and it goes something like this. I trusted this person before so if I distrust them now, maybe the problem is me. I'm not as good a judge of character as I think I am.

KONNIKOVA: It's not a conscious choice. It's not like you're sitting here saying, do I admit that I've been conned?

WARNER: When facing reality means facing something unpleasant about ourselves, we might ignore reality.

KONNIKOVA: You really don't see it as a red flag.

WARNER: And in this case, the story that you're telling yourself is, I'm not that gullible person.

KONNIKOVA: You're saying, I'm not the kind of person who would send money to a man I've never met. I'm not the kind of person who would believe that this artwork was authentic.

SANTIAGO: Yeah. I'm not the type of person who jumps in. I always check first. Accepting that she duped us was definitely accepting that I had made the biggest mistake ever and cost us a huge chunk of our wedding.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Maria suggests a tool that we can use to protect ourselves in these cases, a kind of psychological prophylactic that she calls the Bob Next-Door Test. So anytime you get any kind of offer - could be a sweet financial deal or a potential sweetheart on Facebook - you ask yourself, if this were to happen to Bob next door, what would you advise him to do? Would you see those lucky breaks as red flags?

Now, in Reina's case, she had that outside pair of eyes. It was her best friend who was hearing about all this and thought something was up.

SANTIAGO: And my best friend, she was like, that's really weird. She's like, you know what? I'll call the hotel and try and sort it out. I'm like, yeah. Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: There is no booking. And their date, booked up with other people's weddings. The only contact the hotel had with a Lakeisha Brown was the one time she'd emailed them to obtain their hotel logo so she could forge the receipts.

SANTIAGO: Just disbelief, pure rage.

WARNER: And underneath all that rage and disbelief was shame.

SANTIAGO: I'm going to have to call everyone who's going to the wedding and tell them what happened. And it's so embarrassing.

O'MEARA: Your internal voice is saying, how could you let this happen, why are you such a sucker?

KONNIKOVA: If you get mugged, people say, oh, no, I can't believe that happened to you. If you get conned, the first instinct is to say, how did you let that happen to you?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: That sense of shame, it helps the con artist. 'Cause it makes it harder to admit that we've been conned.

KONNIKOVA: That's one of the reasons that we have no reliable statistics on fraud. Most victims don't come forward. And so it's a very underreported crime because society judges them so harshly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: In all the stories of cons that you sent in, from all these different places, all the different kinds of scams, this is the moment that almost all of you share...

DARROW: I feel really stupid.

WARNER: ...This moment when you looked in the mirror and thought, is that really me?

MAREN WEBER: I'm feeling really ashamed, embarrassed.

STEVE DANIELS: That I fell for it.

GWEN AULD: I did this to myself. I should know better.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Maria compares it to another category of crime which is underreported because victims feel shame - sexual assault and harassment.

KONNIKOVA: I've been in situations that were really uncomfortable. But in the moment, you know, I kind of rationalized it away as, but I'm a strong woman. You know? And this isn't actually happening to me.

WARNER: It couldn't be happening to her, she would think, 'cause it doesn't fit the version of myself that I know is true.

KONNIKOVA: One of the things you realize when, you know, you study con artists is that we're conning ourselves all the time about who we are, about our stories. And con artists just pick up on that. They figure out how we're conning ourselves. That's one of the reasons why we're so susceptible.

WARNER: Has doing this work helped you be more honest with yourself?

KONNIKOVA: (Laughter). It's so funny. I ask myself that question. I'd like to think so. But I don't know if it's honest because I've started...

WARNER: Oh, my God.

KONNIKOVA: It's horrible. I've gotten so much into my own head - seriously. I go in circles and think, you know, am I objective enough? Probably not. And it really frustrates me.

WARNER: Maria wants to be more objective. And she knows that is really hard to do because as tough as we are on ourselves and as self-deprecating, there are lots of studies that show we are not objective, that most of us will rate ourselves as smarter and better-looking and more responsible for our good luck than others give us credit for.

KONNIKOVA: It's this kind of slightly rosy glow that we put over a lot of things. And the only people in whom it's absent and who actually are objective and give the same ratings about themselves as other people give about them are clinically depressed.

WARNER: 'Cause here's the thing about the rosy glow - without it, life is pretty gray. It helps to believe in our good luck. It helps us take a risk, which may be what we need to start that new career or fall in love. But that same confidence in our own happy story - it also leaves us vulnerable to being conned.

KONNIKOVA: It's almost like we need to give ourselves permission to be fooled. We need to realize that that's going to happen and that we're going to fool ourselves and that we're going to be fooled by other people. And that - that's OK.

WARNER: And we shouldn't blame ourselves.

KONNIKOVA: And we shouldn't blame ourselves.

WARNER: Right.

KONNIKOVA: And that way, the shame goes away.

SANTIAGO: Yeah, she disappeared completely. The storefront was boarded up. Her - we're not even convinced that was her real name.

WARNER: When Rick and Reina went back to that storefront, a neighbor told them that no one had been there for a week. When they looked again online, all those glowing reviews for Lakeisha Brown - they disappeared. It was like she'd never existed. And they never did get their money back.

But they did get married in that resort that Lakeisha had chosen for them. And she was totally right. It was perfect. Part of them wants to think maybe Lakeisha didn't set out to be a con artist.

O'MEARA: Well, maybe she was trying to be a good wedding planner but was a terrible business person and was just trying to float the business with our money (laughter).

SANTIAGO: Yeah, that's kind of what I was hoping.

WARNER: Rick and Reina know that they were conned. They say they were conned. They tell us this story about being conned. And yet, when they think back to all that time they spent with Lakeisha, they still like to hold onto a little bit of that rosy glow.

After the break, a very different listener story...

FELIPE FERNANDEZ: I wouldn't make any eye contact.

WARNER: ...From the IT guy who tried to con the con man.

FERNANDEZ: I wanted them to think that I was very nerdy.

WARNER: Are you nerdy, a little bit?

FERNANDEZ: I mean, I am. I work in IT.

WARNER: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: We're back with NPR's ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner.

Of all the calls we got from listeners who'd been conned, we got this one call that was really different. It was not about being fooled, but about what it feels like to fool others and really watch them fall into your trap.

FERNANDEZ: I merely thought, oh, how can you do that?

WARNER: In 2010, Felipe Fernandez was laid off from his IT job at Hewlett-Packard in Costa Rica. Felipe is Costa Rican. And the layoff was a huge blow. He didn't know what he was going to do next. Someone from his family - Felipe didn't want me to say who - approached him with a potential job...

FERNANDEZ: There was a business that needed an IT person.

WARNER: ...Which sounded good. He was an IT guy. He needed work.

FERNANDEZ: So I was obviously curious. What he said was, we actually run this scam on senior citizens.

WARNER: The people who needed the IT guy - they were in the business of calling up people to steal their money - senior citizens in the USA.

FERNANDEZ: He elaborated - said, we have a script. All you have to do is call and call and call until someone bites.

WARNER: You know the script. Ma'am, I have good news for you. You have won a sweepstakes prize of $4.5 million. All you have to do to collect that prize is wire a small deposit for our insurance policy. That is $4,500, and you can send that today by Western Union.

FERNANDEZ: I was very doubtful. Like, how can you really make money out of that?

WARNER: But this scam is pulling in hundreds of deals a week.

FERNANDEZ: They call it deals. Each call is a deal.

WARNER: The scammers are called agents. And this operation, like all businesses, needs an IT guy. Felipe is hearing this, and he's horrified - first, that this is a business; second, that his relative is involved. But Felipe keeps a poker face.

FERNANDEZ: I immediately told him that this is not something that I can just decide right there and then but that I would think about it.

WARNER: Felipe goes home, and he Googles the phone number for the FBI. They tell him it's not their jurisdiction, that he should call up the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica.

FERNANDEZ: I called them, and they asked me to come in for a meeting, which I did.

WARNER: And is it like the movies? Do they meet with you in a room with, you know, the blinds closed?

FERNANDEZ: It was just a conference room in U.S. Embassy.

WARNER: In this conference room, he explains his plan. He wants to take the job, collect information that the U.S. authorities might use, like the names of these scammers and their location, maybe some license plates.

JOE HEALY: He said, I am about to take this job, and I want to stop this stuff from happening. I want you to know what I'm doing so you don't think I'm one of the bad guys. So that pretty much astounded us to hear that.

WARNER: Joe Healy was an inspector for the U.S. Post Office. He's now retired. But in 2010, he was investigating mail fraud - specifically, telemarketing scams in Costa Rica. And weirdly, the hard thing about prosecuting these cases was not finding the bad guys. It was finding the victims.

HEALY: Because they were just so embarrassed and so ashamed.

WARNER: The victims don't come forward. This is what Maria Konnikova told us. The shame is the factor that helps the con artists thrive. And so for Joe Healy, it's kind of the reverse of the typical investigator's problem. Instead of having the dead body and trying to figure out who the bad guy is, he knows the bad guy. He has to track down enough victims to make the arrest.

HEALY: We needed a lot of victims - a lot of credible victims - and lots of losses. Without lots of victims and lots of losses, we couldn't bring cases.

WARNER: Joe Healy is sitting in this conference room with Felipe, the IT guy, in his buttoned up shirt.

HEALY: He's a physically little guy...

WARNER: He's 5-foot-4.

HEALY: ...And not overly muscular.

WARNER: He's trying to explain to him, this isn't some quick job where you grab some license plate numbers and addresses. He would need the names of the victims. And Felipe is considering doing it - heading into the criminal's den to get that information himself.

HEALY: Said, OK, you know, we can't guarantee your safety because we can't be there, you know? So as long as you're going into it with open eyes, yes, you know, that would help us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: When Felipe was a kid, he didn't imagine himself in IT. He thought he'd be a cop like his grandfather, a police chief in San Jose. Felipe remembers watching his grandfather on the local news when he solved a big case.

FERNANDEZ: I remember him, you know, in the police headquarters - the way everybody looked at him. And I grew up admiring his sense of duty.

WARNER: Felipe's grandfather used to tell him that seeing something wrong being done and not doing anything about it - it makes you their accomplice. Felipe thought about what he'd done with his life. He just turned 30.

FERNANDEZ: I was out of work, and this just fell on my lap. But - and yeah, I mean, how many people can say that they put a bunch of bad guys in jail?

WARNER: At least, how many IT guys can say that?

What happens next is weirdly corporate. His relative sets up a meeting. There is an interview at a fancy restaurant, where Felipe discusses his resume and accepts the job. And then he starts going to work at an office every day. Picture wall-to-wall carpeting, agents at cubicles working the phones, reading from a script that is pasted on each desk. Behind the agents are a more senior group. They're called loaders. They'll take over when the victim falls for an agent's line. So the next day, the loader might call and say...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, yes...

WARNER: ...We didn't realize there's this other state tax.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I really need you to give me a call. So...

WARNER: They could start threatening you. Here's one of the scammers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm going to send in federal agents down to your home. I don’t want to do that...

WARNER: And this process of calling and calling and demanding more and more money could go on for months until the victim had nothing left.

FERNANDEZ: There was this time a victim called, and she had already lost about $60,000. And she was crying. She was crying, saying that, I have to go to Salvation Army to get food. You took all my money. Like, I have nothing. And they actually put it on speaker, and they started laughing.

WARNER: Felipe is watching them laugh at her. And he's trying to control the expression on his own face.

FERNANDEZ: You hear the voice. You hear her crying, and you immediately started trying to imagine what she looks like. What is she going to do after she hangs up the phone? Is there anyone near her? You know, her children or whoever - are they going to yell at her because she gave all this money away?

It's - I guess I just put myself in her shoes. And that was sort of a turning point. And I probably shouldn't have, but I really made it personal after that. I wanted those guys in jail. Whenever I felt like not going, whenever I felt like just quitting, I just - I remember.

WARNER: The laughter was a strategy. Maria Konnikova, the writer, talks about this, too, in her book. You dehumanize the marks, the apples, the eggs. You make it all a game. Another of these strategies was drugs. There was lots of weed, people doing coke in the break room.

But there was one person in the office who seemed to need no substance, who could do this scam totally open-eyed and sober. And that was the owner, Emilio Jose Torres. If this were one of those movies with a good-looking hero and a better-looking villain, Emilio is that villain. He's got long, dark hair - a surfer in a business suit. He works with a guy named Mex who's wanted for murder in the U.S. And Emilio had been on the radar of U.S. authorities for years.

Joe Healy, the postal inspector, told me this one very surprising thing about him. He was a really good boss.

HEALY: You were expected to show up on time. You were expected to do the workload that he gave you for the day. You were accountable for what you did, and he was fair. I find it funny to use the word fair when you're talking about criminals, but he was fair with his people.

WARNER: Felipe hadn't really known anything about Emilio when he started working there. But he found out that Emilio was all about business.

FERNANDEZ: One of the first things Emilio asked me is, what do you think we need to make this more efficient?

WARNER: To make it more efficient?

FERNANDEZ: Yeah. With him, it was all about productivity.

WARNER: Felipe realizes that he's not just the IT guy. He's also the only one here with actual business experience. He worked at Hewlett-Packard - this giant, multinational corporation. And this is his chance. The IT guy can get the archvillain to trust him.

FERNANDEZ: I told him we have to rewire all the phones. We have a lot of interruption.

WARNER: He'd noticed all these problems. The voice-over IP was using this regular interface.

FERNANDEZ: Through a WebGUI...

WARNER: Also, every time an agent got a lead, they have to run upstairs to the one computer in the manager's office to look up the closest Western Union.

FERNANDEZ: They have to start looking where the person lives. And...

WARNER: Felipe tells Emilio, we can do better than this. Every agent should have a laptop. That's how we would have done it at Hewlett-Packard. And Emilio hears that, and he is hooked. They buy a bunch of laptops. That will let Felipe actually record the scammers at work, but it also makes the scam more efficient. Felipe rigs it so that the laptop will feed the scripts and what are called rebuttals.

FERNANDEZ: The rebuttals are what to say in case a victim ask a question. And so he was very happy with me. And they used to call me Filthy.

WARNER: Like, filthy good at computers, filthy good at improving the scam.

FERNANDEZ: That was my nickname up - around the office.

WARNER: Filthy wasn't just a nickname. It was kind of an alter ego that Felipe adopted. Filthy would tell the dirtiest jokes. Filthy was also a Satanist, and Filthy was also deferential.

FERNANDEZ: I wouldn't make any eye contact. I wanted them to think that I was very nerdy.

WARNER: Are you nerdy, a little bit?

FERNANDEZ: I am. I mean, I am. I work in IT.

WARNER: (Laughter).

And Filthy was always faithful to his new boss Emilio.

FERNANDEZ: I was sort of brown-nosing him all the time. You know, I was like, man, you're so young. You done, like, all this stuff.

WARNER: So how long did it take you to really gain Emilio's trust?

FERNANDEZ: About a month.

WARNER: That's fast work.

FERNANDEZ: Yeah.

WARNER: He remembers one time Emilio had to run an errand. And he turned to Felipe and said, hey, Filthy, watch the floor for me.

FERNANDEZ: Yeah. Watch the guys, you know? Make sure they don't do anything they're not supposed to. And I remember - that day, I knew I had him.

WARNER: But Felipe, or Filthy, still doesn't have the essential thing he came here to get - the names of the victims. Emilio has that list.

FERNANDEZ: He had it in that flash drive - all the victims and Excel sheets and everything.

WARNER: Then one day, Felipe sees the flash drive unguarded, and he just grabs it. But he knows that they're searching the employees when they leave the office. And Felipe is worried he's going to get caught with this flash drive.

FERNANDEZ: So I took a piece of gum, and I stuck it to Emilio's backpack 'cause I knew that he wouldn't get searched. When we all left...

WARNER: They get outside, and he tells Emilio...

FERNANDEZ: Emilio, wait. And he's like, what happened? And I'm like, oh, your backpack's open. And I pretended to close it. I just took this flashback back.

WARNER: This story, like so many of Felipe's stories, just felt totally wild. I don't have a way to confirm it or fact-check it. But I can say that Joe Healy, the postal inspector - he confirmed many of Felipe's stories. And he did say that one day, Felipe handed over to U.S. agents a flash drive full of victims' names. Joe Healy starts calling those victims, hearing story after story of people losing all their money. He realizes this is a huge scam - millions and millions of dollars.

But there's one more problem. Emilio is a Costa Rican citizen. The Americans can't prosecute him as long as he stays in Costa Rica. And so Felipe keeps working, keeps being the office IT guy and starts trying to figure out, how is he going to get Emilio to leave the country? And it is getting harder to go to work each morning.

FERNANDEZ: It was just dread.

WARNER: Other agents start asking...

FERNANDEZ: How come he doesn't get on the phones? He's not making any deals.

WARNER: Felipe stops being able to sleep. A clump of his hair falls out. He doesn't have anyone he can talk to about this.

FERNANDEZ: I really needed to get out of San Jose.

WARNER: One weekend, just to take a break, he goes to his grandfather's house on the beach. He spends a really nice Saturday swimming and playing checkers with his grandfather. And it was nice until he gets a call from Emilio.

FERNANDEZ: And he called me on Sunday, and he said that this Linux server had crashed. And Linux servers don't just crash. You know, it's very hard for that to happen.

WARNER: So you knew it was a setup because he said the Linux server had crashed, and that was something only a non-IT person would say.

FERNANDEZ: Yeah. I asked him, what's going on? And he's, like, no, it just crashed. It just crashed. It's not working. Like, you know, we're off the phones. And he insisted, you know, no. I need you to come back today because, you know, I need the phones working on Monday.

WARNER: Oh, wow.

FERNANDEZ: You know, first of all, what is he doing there on a Sunday? And I was really scared. And I was at my grandfather's house, the one that had been a police chief. And that was the first time I told someone. I told him, like, listen. I'm doing this. He was very proud. He was very, very proud. And I guess because he knew that it was because of him. And I told him, like, I had been doing this for a while. I think they found out about it, and they want to kill me.

So we went through everything. And then he says, well, you know, as your grandfather, I don't want you to go, but you have to make your own decisions. So I went. And I had this big knife (laughter) tucked into the back of my pants. And it was a four-hour drive. And I remember the whole time, I was just so nervous. What's going to happen, you know? And two hours into it, I kind of came to terms with it, and I said, all right. If I - if this is the way I go, I go. If this is the way I go, this is the way I go, you know? And I got to the office, and the server had crashed (laughter).

WARNER: (Laughter) The server had crashed.

The only thing left to do - be an IT guy. Felipe bends over to see what's wrong with the server, and Emilio spots the knife.

FERNANDEZ: And Emilio's, like, Filthy, why you have that big-ass knife? And I'm, like, you call me on a Sunday telling me that the server crashed, and this never crashes. Like, I thought that maybe somebody was holding you up or something. And you brought a big knife. I'm, like, well, you know, you've got to do what you've got to do. And I fixed the server, and I left.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FERNANDEZ: And, yeah, that's the one time I've seen a Linux server crash.

WARNER: Felipe's last big con came not long after that. He told Emilio, you know what a successful businessman like you deserves? A condo in Miami.

FERNANDEZ: You should get an apartment in Brickell Avenue. That place is gorgeous. Like, why would you have all this money if you can't really spend it?

WARNER: Classic con men understand how the mark sees himself, the story that he tells himself about himself, and use that against him. Emilio never had a chance. Of course he bought the condo. He flew to Miami, and, of course, got arrested the minute he stepped off the plane. Emilio was prosecuted, convicted and served seven years in federal prison. After Emilio's arrest, people started suspecting that Felipe had helped the U.S. authorities. He started getting death threats. So his friends at the U.S. Embassy got him a visa and got him to the States, where he works in IT.

I'm curious - playing the role of the con man, even though you were doing it for good - you weren't trying to make money. You were trying to catch the bad guys. Did playing that role make it harder to be in society and trust people and do normal, trusting things in life?

FERNANDEZ: Well, I guess I read people more now. I immediately dissect everything they say and how they say it and their body language. And it changes you also in the way you don't see the world the same way. I literally feel bad when I see a senior citizen pushing carts in a supermarket or a senior citizen working. You know, I think they could have been a victim.

WARNER: Now when Felipe just lives his life or goes out in the world, he can't help but think - everything can be a con. And everybody can be a mark.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: You can find research from this episode and links to Maria's book "The Confidence Game." That's on our website npr.org/roughtranslation - also a link to the World Economic Forum event where I met Maria and gave us the idea for this episode. Today's show was produced by Autumn Barnes and Jess Jiang, guest edited by Jacob Goldstein. Marianne McCune is the ROUGH TRANSLATION editor. Many people listened to this piece and made it better - Cynthia Betubiza, Liza Yeager, Bryant Urstadt, Sana Krasikov and Alex Goldmark.

Some of the voices you heard on the show were John Porcino, Lisa Leick, Steve Daniels, Gwen Auld, Lita Thomas Somerset (ph), Jay Belsky, Harry Slack (ph), Kathy Darrow, Katie Catchum (ph). The ROUGH TRANSLATION executive team is Neal Carruth, Chris Turpin, Will Dobson and Anya Grundmann. Katie Daugaard (ph) helped with research, mastering by Andy Huether. John Ellis composed music for this show, episode was scored by Mike Cruz and the ROUGH TRANSLATION team. Erin Register is our project manager, and Autumn Barnes is our intern.

If you'd like more stories like this in your podcast feed, give us a rating and a review on Apple podcasts. It really helps people to find the show. And we'd always love to hear from you. You can drop us your thoughts at roughtranslation@npr.org or on Twitter @roughly.

I'm Gregory Warner, back in two weeks with more ROUGH TRANSLATION.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.