Con Artistes

Conmen operating in the UK are becoming increasingly vocal about the number and scope of campaigns designed to limit their activities. They say that public information work carried out by charities, trading standards departments and the police is seriously impacting their trade, threatening a profession that has existed for hundreds of years.

"Greetings, my good friend," said Alyusi Islassis, a Nigerian Prince whom we visited at his compact flat in Dagenham. "This message will come to you as a huge surprise, but please take time to read my story and you will see that this arrangement will be a huge advantage to you."

After going on in this fashion for some time, and following a modest exchange of money, Prince Islassis explained that it was getting harder for people like him to make a living because the general public were becoming increasingly better informed about scams. In fact, things have got so bad that he is seriously considering going straight and becoming an illegal money lender.

We went to see Ron 'Ronnie' Ronaldson, current chairman of the British Guild of Scam Merchants, Con Artists and Chancers. We were pleased to find that he was very much in the traditional mould of a conman: a shifty, weasel-faced man in his late fifties, with something of the spiv about him. He sat at a desk bestrewn with grubby receipts and invoices, behind a large glass ashtray stolen from his local pub and a chunky green telephone that hadn't rung since before the Beatles had split up. The calendar on the wall displayed a picture of a semi-naked woman with an artificially enhanced chest, and was dated 1976. The various certificates and qualifications exhibited in cracked frames along the walls were of a similar vintage, and equally as fake.

"Mr Ronaldson," we began.

"Oh call me Ron," he told us breezily.

"Ron," we began again.

"Second thoughts, call me Ronnie," he said, then proceeded to answer a question we hadn't asked. "Well of course, what people don't understand is that conmen perform a vital role in society. We strip the stupid and the greedy of their life's savings. That's how capitalism works. Basically, we're one of the main drivers of Western economies. I read that in Reader's Digest."

"Yes, but - "

"And another thing," Ronnie steamrollered on. "We are con artistes. There is an art to what we do, one that has been perfected over centuries. Who was it that persuaded Sir Christopher Wren to buy four thousand gallons of raspberry jam by telling him that it was the best thing on the market for building cathedrals out of? Who was it that fleeced Lord Nelson to the tune of ten grand in pursuit of a fake compensation claim when he lost his arm? Who was it that sold Sydney Harbour Bridge to Queen Elizabeth I, before there even was a Sydney, let alone a harbour or a bridge? Con artists, that's who. I tell you, this country has a history of deception that it should be proud of. We should get a grant."

It's hard not to see his point. For all his unscrupulousness, his devious demeanour and eye-watering lack of hygiene, Ron 'Ronnie' Ronaldson is a man who understands his craft, as we know only too well upon leaving his office £150 lighter after agreeing to cash a forged cheque.

But perhaps these conmen have had it easy for too long, and the fact that their victims are becoming wise to their tricks will force them to grow more inventive? After all, the days of selling non-existent landmarks to credulous monarchs are over and if doing some old biddy out of her bingo money is the best they can manage, then perhaps it's only right that the con artiste should be a dying breed.

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