This is an open letter to young people. I want to warn you about the conmen you will soon encounter in your professional life. These people are confident, charming, and seem very successful. But they are posers. They will bring you down. They can ruin your dreams.
So give me 10 minutes and read this to the end.
1. Conmen tell grand biographical stories that cannot be substantiated or fact-checked.
A conman will tell fantastic stories. Amazing! His stories follow movie-like plot lines:
- “I was in the right place at the right time. I got in on the ground level…“
- “I was not the smartest person but I’ve worked the hardest.”
- “I retired early… today I just write the checks. I help people fulfill their dreams!“
- Or they follow tropes from within self help books. “I was down to nothing. I was broken, out of money, but then I got an idea…”
Look for it! Conmen are rarely original.
How can these stories flow so freely? Conmen are only accompanied by new acquaintances, young people, naive people, or fellow con-men. None of these people question the validity of his stories. (More on this later, conmen love networking events and startup communities!)
TRUE STORY: A conman’s favorite line? “I’ve built and sold companies.” When I hear this, I check one box in the column of Probably a Conman.
2. They come from somewhere else.
Conmen always arrive in a new place that will gladly hear their stories.
- New city.
- New industry.
- In fact, they will restart 4-5 times in their lifetime.
In contrast, legit people are well established, well networked, and have deep roots in the community.
TRUE STORY: Years ago, we had a potential client on the verge of launching an innovative healthcare concept. After months and months of discussions, it became clear that his storied success in his last city was probably bogus. Things didn’t add up, so we moved on. Months later, he actually secured a new round of funding, but his project never launched. It was a big, tangled failure. Apparently his stories were bigger than his abilities.
3. They drop names.
You know how this works: “I know this person… I brokered a deal for that person.”
In contrast, legit people are respectful of their friends and are discreet about relationships. They do not quickly exploit friends by dropping their name casually in a conversation with a stranger at a cocktail party.
Another way conmen drop names is by putting reputable, successful people in their past cohort. They will tell stories about how they worked alongside a famous person (e.g. Elon Musk, Tim Cook) during a chapter of their career. The most clever version of this is when they put successful people as their past competitors. “I went toe-to-toe with Famous Person for years. Eventually their tech was better than ours, and I had not choice but to close my business.”
TRUE STORY: I met someone who claimed to have been a serious force in the early days of eCommerce (ca 2000.) He mentioned my friend Mr. Successful as his closest adversary and how they fought for market share. 🤷♂️ Seems unlikely.
4. Conmen commandeer credibility.
You know how pirates hop on someone else’s ship and take it? That’s what conmen do with organizations to gain credibility. Perhaps my favorite story was a guy named Kirby D. Cochran, someone who claimed in his many online bios to an adjunct professor of finance from the University of Utah. There’s very little digital footprint of his actual time at the university.
On with the story… “Professor” Cochran was brought on to a struggling multi-level marketing company called Wake-up Now to solve internal financial and strategic problems. The entire network of sellers was furious, and his academic background and business experience would straighten out the mess. Alas, there was hope!
Not even close! Basically, the “professor” took what was left of their money. Wake Up Now collapsed. Lot’s of people’s lives went down with it. Kirby D. Cochran’s name is linked to lawsuits all over Page 1 and Page 2 of Google’s search results. It’s a tangled mess.
So let’s get back to that title: adjunct professor. Being an “adjunct professor” means very little. But it means a lot to grand storytellers. It gives them clout. By definition, these are “guest professors” who do not have the same employment benefits of full time faculty. Practically speaking, Cochran may have taught a small class for brief summer semester. Or maybe he just gave a couple talks and then decided that qualified him as an adjunct professor.
I’ve been a student in a half-dozen classes in my undergraduate and graduate programs that were taught by adjunct professors. Three of them were pathetic and were never brought back for a 2nd semester. Yet they can march on for the rest of their lives with the credibility of being a professor at The University. Messed up, right?
TRUE STORY: I met a man who leveraged his brief affiliation with a university to gain inroads into the startup community. His business incubator failed. Many young entrepreneurs from that startup community were burned. He’s gone now, moved to another city. To launch a new incubator.
5. Conmen find circles of trust, and move in quickly.
Mastermind groups, entrepreneurship cohorts—these pay-to-join organizations are uniquely vulnerable to conmen. By design, these clubs are meant to allow ambitious people to make new connections and ultimately help grow their career or launch a new business. There is a sense of optimism and endless opportunity when you stand in a room with these elite people. The last thought to cross your mind is that someone in the room is a liar.
Again, conmen are drawn to circles of trust where people, by default, give them the benefit of the doubt. Beyond startup groups, religious groups are the most vulnerable to conmen. The Gospel warns people about judgement, so Christian organizations are uniquely vulnerable to conmen. (Why judge the splinter in your friend’s eye when you have a plank in your own eye?) Matthew 7:3
What are other circles of trust?
- Boards of Directors
- Advisory Boards
- Business Mentorship Organizations
- Charitable Organizations
^ You see this is messed up, right? A conman will pretend to support a charitable cause in order to meet wealthy, generous donors. These people will trust him, by default, because they share a common mission.
TRUE STORY: I met a man who leveraged position on a board of directors at a non-profit organization for business connections. He had no experience or success that could be substantiated. But from that board of directors, he assembled other people’s talents and resources into a messy tech startup. That startup failed, and those connections refuse to talk about him.
6. Their online presence is impressive but hollow.
They have a bulked-up Linkedin profile. On Twitter and IG, their number of followers may be impressive, but their engagement is low. This signals that they purchased their followers. (Yes, people really do that.)
With a little bit of Googling, you will find a long string of stories about his successful ventures. This is a tangled mess of press releases and website launches, all *validated* by articles published on websites of business magazines and newspapers. These are articles that they paid to have published.
TRUE STORY: This is funny. Conmen I’ve known usually call themselves“philanthropists” in social media bios. This is another part of their story that cannot be substantiated or fact-checked. (See #1 above) But it’s an epic trick because it suggests that you have so much money, you are actively giving it away. You are rich AND generous!
(Listen for it: Conmen love to brag about “giving back” and “helping others” achieve their level of success. Conmen love to be mentors.)
Also, be skeptical of anyone who has a professional timeline that is cluttered with launching new companies. From my experience, the most bonafide successful people have no need to launch new companies. The answer is obvious… their current venture is profitable and has tremendous momentum.
(This brings me back to people who claimed to have built and sold businesses. This is how you explain how you started a company and then 18 months later you dropped that and then started another company. It can happen, for sure. But rarely is a company built in 18 months worth buying.)
7. They hang around business deals but never bring the money.
Items 1-6 all lead me to this final point. The goal of any conman is to make money. If he does not have money to justify his place in a business deal, he will pretend to have money. If that itself is not believable, he will pretend to know people have money: a network of high-dollars investors who trust him and will move when the conman says move.
His strategy is to hover around deals long enough to get a slice of the pie: a pay day for just being there. If his plan works, he’ll finally have fortune to accompany his made-up success. If his plan fails, the conman has to move on. He’s banished to another city, a new industry. (See #2 above)
TRUE STORY: Let’s talk about using pretend money to network with people of high net worth.
Their first method is to try to buy something that is not for sale. So the conman approaches the owner of a vintage Porsche 911 Turbo at the cafe and offers him ridiculous money. The owner of that Porsche is a well known business owner and investor, and the conman presents himself as Alpha: “I am richer than you.” Of course he cannot afford the car, and Mr. Porsche likes his car and has no interest in selling. The conman never has to show the money, but he’s able to spark a relationship that he will use down the road. (Another version of this is knocking on the door of a wealthy man and offering to buy his house.)
The second method of using pretend money is after a conman forces his way into business deals. Things are getting serious… they are getting into contractual agreements to invest in real estate or in ownership of some venture. Here the conman goes in well-below market rate, like 50% less than what people are expecting. This gives him two outs: A) They accept his low offer and he quickly flips it to another investor with real money. B) They reject his offer but stay in negotiations, and this buys another 6 weeks on a pretend timeline with vague hopes of finding his a way to stay in the deal.
Summary: I am sharing this with young professionals because you are an important part of a fraudster’s scheme. They substantiate their success—in part—by surrounding themselves with admirers. They will attend any networking event where there are young, impressionable college graduates.
Know that most people are honest, good people. When we live and work within this group of honest people, we can naively assume only the best of every new person we meet. This is especially true when you are young and looking into the great, exciting world of opportunity.
Get out there! Be kind, meet new people, but be cautious. Even more, be careful about who you trust with your hopes and dreams. ◼️
Next week… I will publish Part II of this blog where we get deep into the trenches of “Internet Marketers,” Gurus, and Life Coaches.