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What Magicians can teach us about Fraudsters.

Magicians have captivated and entertained audiences with their deft displays and stunning performances from time immemorial. The art of magic and Magicians have been around for centuries as fig.1 which is a representation of a painting from 2500 BC depicts an early conjurer performing what appears to be the famous cup-and-ball trick for a spectator.

The Great Harry Houdini


The famous illusionist Harry Houdini left audiences befuddled with his eccentric chain escapes. What magicians have shown repeatedly is that the mind can be deceived even when supposedly paying meticulous attention. Due to this, some have even suggested that studying magicians may help neuroscientists understand more about how to manipulate attention and awareness. But the fact is, it is not only neuroscientists that can glean insights from studying these masters of deception. People in law enforcement or cybersecurity whose job it is to prevent or detect scams can also benefit from understanding the underlying principles of deception which magicians employ. This is because, at its core, most scams and cons employ deception in order to be successful. Hence, we can gain much from understudying how magicians deploy deception in their acts.

FIG.1 A depiction of wall art from Beni Hassan tomb


Book three of the Fitzkee Trilogy by renowned magician Dariel Fitzkee is aptly entitled Magic by Misdirection: An Explanation of Psychological Deception, 5th ed. 1945. In this treatise, Fitzkee defines and describes in detail the vital elements of psychological deception. One of the elements of particular interest is misdirection. He defines it as the “effective employment of disguise or attention control in order to deceive. It directs or leads the spectator away from the true solution. Most illusionists claim that misdirection is the fundamental ingredient in most magic performances. This is because the audience will always follow what is most interesting and what seems to be the most important action. If they no longer focus their attention on just that, the illusion is lost. Similarly, internet scammers use this same principle, they make sure the victim’s attention is focused on what their interests are and away from other indicators of what might tip them off that it is a scam.

Take, for instance, a fake recruitment scam in which fraudsters set up a fake HR agency. They post a fake job online and as part of the sign on procedure, they ask for personal details, including mother’s maiden name, date of birth, bank account details, even PIN (by asking the unsuspecting applicants to protect their data with a 4-digit code—many people memorize only one PIN and use it for everything). The unlucky people who fall for this are so engrossed in the task of accurately compiling their personal details form in order to maximize their chances of finding a job that they totally fail even to suspect that the whole advert might be fake. This is a classic example of misdirection, as the fraudsters have managed to direct their targets’ attention on their interests which is securing the job and away from any suspicions that the whole set up is a con.

In essence what magicians teach us about fraudsters is this; that fraudsters also use misdirection, and while your mind is occupied with what retains your interest, someone can do something to you and you wouldn’t even notice.

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