Imposters Are Everywhere: How To Avoid Being Duped

“‘Fake it until you make it.’” The phrase was made famous by social psychologist Amy Cuddy in her mega-popular 2012 Ted Talk. Last week, it was spoken by a defense attorney in Manhattan State Supreme Court in the criminal trial of Anna Sorokin. Sorokin was being prosecuted for swindling more than $275,000 from a cadre of victims. They include individuals, some who considered her a friend, and members of an elite society of one-percenters — the class Sorokin so desperately wanted to be in — along with high-end boutiques, hotels, restaurants, professional service providers and financial institutions.

In his opening statement, Todd Spodek, Ms. Sorokin’s attorney, spoke of her “moxie” and her “hustle.” “Through her sheer ingenuity, she created the life that she wanted for herself,” he said. “Anna didn’t wait for opportunities, Anna created opportunities. Now we can all relate to that. There’s a little bit of Anna in all of us.” But the jury didn’t buy it. Following a dramatic month-long trial, she was found guilty on most of the major counts and faces up to 15 years in prison.

All frauds involve deception. By definition, fraud induces victims to willingly if unwittingly give up whatever the fraudster wants through deceit, artifice, sharp practice, or breach of confidence.

Although Sorokin employed several of these in her elaborate scheme, she wasn’t a typical grifter. Her ruse? Imposturousness (technically, fictitious identity fraud). She became another person. While actually a Russian immigrant from a middle-class family, she convincingly transformed herself into the persona of a non-existent wealthy German heiress named “Anna Delvey.”

Every fraudster and con artist can be said to be an imposter of sorts — the truth about the person you’re dealing with is distorted or disguised through lies and deceptions. Bernie Madoff, the admired successful money manager was, it turned out, a duplicitous amoral thief. Elizabeth Holmes, the #imposters #fraud #deception #liars #dupecharismatic entrepreneur who convinced the world she could change the world was unmasked as a beguiling but venal huckster. These infamous figures, the scale of their malfeasance and the damage they caused aside, are in a similar camp with the likes of Jordan Belfort, Andrew Fastow , Martin Shkreli and others. All of them wildly misrepresented themselves, concealing their intentions and criminal acts behind veils of actual or seeming legitimacy. But they are otherwise who they are.

By contrast, Sorokin had for all practical intents and purposes replaced herself with a fictive incarnation. In this she joined the ranks of the Colombian imposter Anthony Gignac who convinced people he was a rich Saudi prince named Khalid bin al-Saud though he was actually a poor street kid from Bogotá who had been adopted and raised by a couple from Michigan. And Frank Abagnale Jr., possibly the world’s most notorious imposter whose story inspired the 2002 feature film “Catch Me If You Can.”

The exploits of masterful con artists are dramatic and compelling. It’s no wonder books and movies about them are perennially popular, and Sorokin’s case will be no exception: Netflix has already bought the rights to one version of her story which is reportedly being produced by Shonda Rhimes, the creator of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal.”

The Five Types of Imposter

Sorokin’s case underscores how challenging master-imposters can make it to see the truth before getting duped. As was revealed in the Grand Jury indictment and in testimony at trial, Sorokin was a supremely talented liar and unwaveringly convincing as Delvey.

Especially with professional-grade fraudsters, the behavioral features and psychological mechanisms used in social engineering — manipulation, persuasion, psychological pressure — can be difficult to discern in real-time. Despite a thriving industry of self-anointed experts in deception detection, micro-facial expression profiling, and various other types of social-science security theater, ferreting out falsity and malicious intent is incredibly difficult. There’s no fool-proof formula or algorithm.

But potential victims aren’t defenseless. Here are five characteristics to look out for:

  • Verbal mimicry. Impostors are virtuosos with words. They use punning variations and substitutions like a boxer with fast hands to overwhelm and can match how others talk on-the-fly to create a sense of real connection.
  • Gas-Lighting. The artifice of imposture is masked behind a dazzlingly facile ability to pass himself off as having expertise or capacities that the typical listener cannot effectively evaluate.
  • False empathy. They’re quick to intuit what others are thinking and feeling, and disarmingly skilled at appearing to match what others might expect. But it’s actually pseudo empathy. What appears to be interest and attunement is inauthentic and self-serving. While they’re keen in picking up details in the lives and activities of their marks, they’re frequently thickheaded and flat-footed in other areas.
  • Shifty/Flip-Flopping. The individual seems like an ever-shifting kaleidoscopic cast of characters.
  • Sad/Empty. They experience themselves as most authentic when acting imposturously and feel as though they are being artificial and phony when functioning as themselves. A professional impostor might never fear exposure as a swindler but will feel like an impostor when being truthful or doing honest work.

It Takes Two To Get Duped

The psychology and psychopathology of bad actors is infinitely fascinating. The world is practically fixated on answering the question, “why they do it?” as if cracking this code could solve the problem of bad behavior. But no crime is victimless and because of their active participation in the scheme — there’s no weapon or physical force to coerce compliance; victims become involved with grifters, scammers, fraudsters and imposters voluntarily — fraud victims are in a special category. The riveting exposé by Rachel DeLoache Williams, one of Sorokin’s victims, Abby Ellin’s just-published account of falling in love with and nearly marrying a serial liar, and John Carreyrou’s book and related documentaries about Theranos all offer gripping insight into how these cons happen and the social, economic and emotional devastation they cause.

While the charismatic perpetrators are usually the primary focus, the more significant issue — arguably the problem in society today — is understanding the psychology of the mark. What makes so many people, even intelligent, educated, skeptical people, susceptible to being conned? Are some people more vulnerable than others?

Elizabeth Holmes lowered her voice and emulated a revered and powerful man. She used props and artifice, an assumed guise, though not necessarily a disguise, to promote her image as commanding. And Sorokin? Was she just “faking it until she made it?” and, as her attorney Mr. Spodek asserted in her defense, only allowing people “to believe what they wanted about her?” How are they and other fraudsters and imposters different from so many other people who bait-and-switch in their jobs and relationships? What separates everyday duplicity from deception with the intent to defraud?

From one perspective, the answer is clear: deceptive practices designed to cause harm or materially disadvantage others is unethical and usually illegal. Holmes and Sorokin didn’t just try to creatively break a social or entrepreneurial glass ceiling with a power pose. They knowingly perpetrated criminal schemes.

But psychological and psycho-social answers are more complicated. A recent article about the Sorokin case offered this astute observation: “With their vanity, preening and sartorial tics, the scammer makes for a marvellous study. But maybe the real cause of our fascination is that, in their unmasking, we get to see a tiny flash of our true selves.”

So maybe Mr. Spodek, Sorokin’s lawyer, wasn’t completely wrong when he suggested “there’s a little bit of Anna in all of us.” Imposturous tendencies are universal and pretense and inauthenticity exist in nearly everybody. How easy it is to rationalize all the white lies we tell to others and ourselves — to be accepted or liked, hired or promoted, feel in not out.

Fraud works because victims desire something being presented or offered. There’s a promise that something needed will be given or gotten. Usually, it’s only a hope.


This article was originally published on the Forbes Leadership Strategy Channel on 5 May 2019.


Alexander Stein is Founder of Dolus Advisors, a consultancy delivering predictive insight and actionable solutions in human risk. Dolus’ core offerings focus on helping organizations proactively detect, mitigate and respond to executive misconduct, fraud, corruption, insider threats, and other human factor disturbances. Also a principal in the Boswell Group, a psychodynamic management consulting firm. Dr. Stein advises senior business leaders, entrepreneurs and boards, combining clinical insight with practical business strategies to address issues involving people, culture, ethical decision-making and other aspects of corporate and organizational life with complex psychological underpinnings.

He is frequently engaged as specialist advisor to international litigation, investigations, intelligence, and cybersecurity firms to develop sophisticated 3D profiles and precision forecasts of fraudsters or other malicious actors and their networks of affiliates and collaborators, and also consults to technology companies and large consulting firms regarding the deep psychological dimensions of ethical AI and autonomous decision-making agents, and to more accurately forecast and address human and technological risks in an increasingly automation-driven world.

Dr. Stein is a widely published and cited thought leader, including as a regular contributor to Forbes writing on the psychology of leadership and misbehavior in business, and is a frequent keynote speaker and panelist at industry conferences and corporate events around the world.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store