American Greed

Four surefire ways to spot a con artist—and what to do when you see them

Think you can spot a con artist?
Think you can spot a con artist?

Anthony Gignac was born in Colombia and raised in Michigan. Yet somehow, over the course of 30 years and multiple scams, he managed to convince dozens of important people that he was a Saudi prince.

Normally savvy investors forked over nearly $8 million in hopes of gaining access to what they thought was Gignac's untold wealth.

"Perhaps there's an incentive to believe him if someone believes they're going to get something out of it. Or a fascination with royalty," Assistant U.S. Attorney Saima Mohsin said in an interview with CNBC's "American Greed." "But they do, and they do it again and again. It's really quite astounding."

Today, Gignac is serving an 18-year prison sentence after pleading guilty in 2018 to multiple felony counts including impersonating a foreign diplomat, aggravated identity theft, fraud and conspiracy. He has been ordered to pay more than $7 million in restitution, though it is not clear where the money to repay his victims will come from.

Lisa Wentz, a San Francisco-based author and communication consultant who has studied the traits of con artists, said the story of Gignac and his victims is a cautionary one.

"Many people think they can't be conned. It's not the truth," she told "American Greed." "Most of us can be conned at some point as long as that person is giving us something we want."

To spot the fakers, Wentz urges people to be on the lookout for some of the telltale communication styles of con artists.

Beware of the extrovert

Many con artists have outsized egos, and Wentz said that can show up in the ways they interact with others. She calls it "extreme extroversion."

"They need to have people around them all the time. They do not like to be alone. They want people around them that feed their ego, that build them up, that make them look good or that do their bidding," she said.

Gignac was a prime example, particularly in some of the earlier incarnations of his Saudi prince act.

"He was very audacious. He was very bold. And he was very aggressive," said Ryan McSeveney, a U.S. Diplomatic Security Service special agent.

Investigators said Gignac would show up at the finest hotels, bark orders to the staff, and run up astronomical charges, flaunting his wealth, apparently stoking his ego, and perpetuating his con.

"Because it's so bold and opposite of what you normally would expect a con man to do, it's probably why it worked," said Trinity Jordan, a former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case.

"Extroverts communicate a different way than introverts do," Wentz said. "They need energy from other people, and it feels as though they're taking your energy or pulling the air out of the room a little bit."

All in the eyes

The eyes are the window to the soul, the old saying goes. While not exclusive to con artists, Wentz said a telltale sign of a fraudster is intense eye contact.

"They will make that eye contact in a fond way, that they're listening to you, that they're taking you in, that they're hearing you and appreciating you. They're giving you a sense of value, and it feels good," she said.

Indeed, some studies have associated reduced rates of blinking with certain psychological disorders, like sociopathy.

"They literally blink less than a normal person," Wentz said. "And by the way, not all con artists are sociopaths, however, all sociopaths are con artists.

One former prosecutor in Michigan, now a judge, described what he called a glint in Gignac's eye following one of his early arrests.

"He was very fascinated that he was able to do this so easily," Washtenaw County District Judge Kirk Tabbey said. "It was as if he had found a way to survive or a way to live that was so amazing to him."

Conversely, con artists can be artful dodgers — deftly deflecting tough questions.

"If you ask them a question they don't want to answer, they'll deflect, throw shadows, change the subject quickly," Wentz said.

Spin cycle

Every con needs a good story. The ability to spin a good yarn — and recycle it again and again — can be another telltale sign of a fraudster

"It's not just the same story, but they'll use the same inflection, the same word stress, the same pacing, same tone," Wentz said.

Gignac's story about being a member of the Saudi royal family evolved over time.

At one point, he claimed to be the recipient of hush money to cover up a homosexual affair with a real Saudi prince. Later, he claimed to have an inside track on valuable pre-IPO shares of the state oil company Saudi Aramco.

The common thread was that his story was just outlandish enough to compel people to believe it

"For most of us, we don't mingle with Saudi royalty," Wentz said. "We don't really know what the customs are, so we're willing to accept, to some degree, what we're being told. So, for instance, one of the things he did was say, 'Well, you have to give me gifts. That's customary.'"

In Gignac's case, it worked so well that people somehow overlooked the fact that the supposed Saudi prince would routinely drink alcohol and eat pork in public.

"He's supposed to be a believer in Islam, of Muslim faith, and he's woofing down all this bacon and pork products," Miami Herald reporter Jay Weaver told "American Greed."

Calm before the storm

Good con artists are so practiced in their story that they will never let you see them sweat.

Wentz said the most adept fraudsters do not respond to stress the way the rest of us do.

"Where a normal person would start to get edgy or concerned or worried and show their nervousness, the con artist won't," she said. Their heart rate's not increasing so they're going to stay super calm, clean, they have nothing to lose."

Also working in the con artist's favor is their knowledge that none of us wants to admit that we have been duped.

"Most of us don't believe that we can be conned, and when we meet someone that we like who is offering us something that we want and we don't know that it's fake yet, then naturally we want to defend them," Wentz said.


Recognizing these telltale traits is an important first step, Wentz said. The next step, once you spot the potential warning signs, is putting that knowledge to work.

Resist the temptation to dismiss unusual behavior in someone you are doing business with as mere eccentricities or idiosyncrasies.

"The best piece of advice I can give in those situations is, do not make excuses for the red flags," she said. "Think about it. Don't immediately jump to defending a person just because you really like them and you've already got something invested, because that's how they win."

Wentz said other techniques include raising the topic of other frauds with the person to gauge their reaction. Watch for that telltale deflection or changing the subject.

"A normal person would engage in that conversation, at least to some degree," she said, "but a con artist will not engage in the topic."

Most important, remember the basics of due diligence. Check out anyone or any company you are considering doing business with using independent third parties.

A skilled con artist will use every tool at his or her disposal to get you to act on your emotions instead of cold, hard analysis.

That is what Gignac did for 30 years. And his victims got taken — royally.

See how Anthony Gignac made a princely sum with his outrageous claims of royal Saudi lineage — and how he got away with it for so long. Watch an ALL NEW episode of "American Greed," Monday, Jan. 6 at 10P ET only on CNBC.