What you see is not always what you get. Nor what you expect or should expect to get.

That seems to be the theme of our times as we all deal with the revelations from the Hayne Royal Commission, and what we read in the newspapers each day anyhow about other scandals, management fiascos and breaches.

And there’s another rich motherlode of stories getting attention and these tales – of con artists, fraudsters, scammers, people on the make  – are just as riveting in what they reveal of misplaced trust, greed and, especially, human vulnerability.

These stories, so often sad, revolve around people’s personal lives. Last week, the ABC’s Four Corners programme dealt with African scammers, now massive global operations. They refer to their victims as “clients”.

The Australian newspaper has just launched its second series of podcast investigations, opening with an unmissable account in the newspaper’s weekend magazine about one fraudster, Hamish McLaren, and his many victims by three-time Walkley award winning journalist Greg Bearup.

McLaren has pleaded guilty to 18 charges of fraud and is awaiting sentence. Bearup details 15 victims who had been parted from almost $7 million, and chose to start the series with a podcast interview and Weekend Australian magazine piece that focused on the story of Hamish’s latest, and hopefully last, victim: Tracy Hall.

She fell deeply in love with McLaren – though she thought his name was Max Tavita – and eventually handed over $317,000. The article was called “He Deceived and Betrayed Me on Every Level.”

(In the photo below, detectives finally arrest McLaren.)

The same week I read Bearup’s article, I got my copy of The New Yorker with its equally compelling and unnerving expose of best-selling author Dan Mallory, a publishing executive who had worked in the US and UK before writing, under the pseudonym A.J. Finn, the 2018 thriller The Woman in the Window.

The story of Mallory’s complex lies, manipulations and petty aggressions, which allegedly involved once leaving plastic cups of his urine near a female boss’s office, has rocked the international literary world. I doubt it will hurt book sales though, nor the box office for the upcoming film based on his novel.

Meanwhile, SBS has started a running a series of documentaries under the banner headline of “Festival of Fake”, and In July, Penguin Random House will publish Fake, journalist Stephanie Wood’s account of being duped in a romance. Wood’s lips are closed for now until closer to pub date.

Finally, Hachette Australia has just published an exhaustive account of deceit, Duped by American journalist Abby Ellin, written after she succumbed not once but twice to suitors who were lying their heads off. (One of the few perks of being a journalist today is that when bad things happen to you, you can at least write a book about it.)

The first of Ellin’s “loves” was the creepiest, a character she dubbed The Commander, who persuaded her to agree to marry him and move in with him in Washington where he worked at the Pentagon. He was a physician (true) who said he was a former Navy SEAL, still worked on “black ops” in conjunction with the CIA and had once been held hostage in China and tortured. (None of this was true, and more of these fictions lay ahead before Ellin ran.)

All of these tales involve a trickery that goes far beyond the profit-maximising stratagems of our financial industry. Instead, these people infiltrate their victims’ lives, their psyches.

At their brilliant and wicked best, they almost become their victims’ alter-egos.

The arrival of insidious

Designer Lisa Ho, who proved instrumental in the undoing of Hamish McLaren, by taking him to court in 2014 to bankrupt him and extract some of the $850,000 she had lost to him, described how he “infiltrated” her life.

“[He came] into all of our lives, actually, not just mine, my ex, my children. He made you feel sort of comfortable.”

Victims use other words, like “insidious” and “insinuating” to later describe how someone who wasn’t in their lives, then suddenly just was.

After conducting intensive research into the art and science of lying, a chastened Ellin argues: the world is full of people who aren’t what they seem.

If you have a hunch, back it

I’m fascinated though by the way hunches turn up again and again in these tales of duplicity and trickery, especially when it comes to friends, relatives and even colleagues watching a loved one go under the spell. Think of Titania in A Midsummer’s Night Dream and her adoration of the yokel Bottom and his ass-head, captive until Oberon removes the spell on her.

Observers think to themselves: something’s not adding up here. Titania romps on.

But hunches can be all you have. Faced with a fraudster of the ilk of a Hamish McLaren, a total screwball like The Commander, or someone who just seems too good to be true or not quite on the level, it’s usually hard to be able to prove definitively that they are not who they say they are or that they have ulterior motives.

Forger and con man Frank Abagnale, played by Leonardo diCaprio in the movie Catch Me If You Can, successfully posed as a pilot, lawyer, and doctor, and all by his 21st birthday.

Sometimes the people themselves become so convinced of the lies they’re telling – people who fake war service for instance – the falsehoods then acquire the impenetrable carapace of self-believed truth.

This can even rub off on the victims. Bearup tells me that Bec, McLaren’s ex-wife, whose own investment banker father had spotted his future son-in-law as a “schonk”, was eventually able to spot the lies as they came out of his mouth. And yet somehow, they became a kind of truth. His fantasy was his reality; it became hers.

(Keep listening to the podcasts to find out more. The first and second are here. Eight altogether are currently scheduled.)

Bearup says of the persuasive and charming Hamish’s “gift”: “There was this power of being inside the bubble. The people inside were smelling roses. The ones on the outside just smelled dirty flower water.”

The problem with hunches, of course, is what do you do with them.

One of the intriguing characters in Bearup’s opening magazine story is a friend of his, Catherine Coleman, who brought the story to the writer’s attention in the first place because Tracy Hall was someone she knew.

Initially, when blonde “beach babe” Tracy fell for a man called Max Tavita, Coleman was bothered. There was his name for a start which suggested a Pacific Islander background when he was pale and blond, almost an albino. She also knew her friend – “gorgeous on the inside and out” as Bearup describes her in the first podcast – was trusting.

Over a shared dinner, as Tavita boasted about being a triathlete, Coleman quizzed him about a family friend of hers who was also a triathlete. Tavita said he didn’t know him. That was odd. The world of professional triathletes isn’t that large.

The unbearable hunch

As Bearup writes in one almost unbearable paragraph – because as a primed-up reader, you know what’s ahead – Coleman, who had already tried but failed to warn her friend off, compiled a thick dossier on Hamish and then agonised over what to do with it.

The police? No crime had (yet) been committed. Sending it anonymously to Tracy? That seemed cowardly. Confronting Tavita and saying she knew he wasn’t who he said he was? “I was completely freaking out,” Coleman tells Bearup.

I also write “unbearable” because the paragraph captures exquisitely the angst of anyone who has tried to warn a cherished friend that they might be the object of someone manipulative, or at least, far more calculating than they realised. Oddly, you can find yourself having to re-win the faith of the possible victim who has all too quickly placed that same faith in a virtual stranger.

Very often too, the person with the early hunch that something seems not quite right is on their own. Everyone else seems fine; why rock the boat?

In Ian Parker’s expose of Dan Mallory in the New Yorker, interviewees explained how publishing insiders started realising something was off with Mallory, his behaviour and his stories about cancer and numerous other afflictions that affected his family and him.

But, “a former colleague said that Mallory’s focus on international deals protected him, adding, ‘Nothing’s more important than global authors.’”

As suspicions grew, publishing industry seniors simply shuffled them under the carpet even as they either shuffled Mallory out of their organisations with a confidential agreement or accepted his resignation with relief.  One company employee noted the risks of a “fantasist walking around telling lies”. There was secret embarrassment and dread of what any revelations about Mallory’s habitual lying might do to a company’s reputation for ever hiring him.

There were even worries about what Mallory might do to anyone tempted to tell on him in public.

But while I can just about understand how companies, watching their bottom line, and colleagues protective of their careers, might play mum with someone like Mallory, what stops someone like Tracy Hall listening to the warnings – and skedaddling?

Ninety percent of victims were warned

Ellin calls this “betrayal blindness”. She quotes one study: ninety percent of 1300 respondents who had been deceived in a romance-fraud said a third party had warned them to be wary; they carried on anyway.

It’s complex. For a start, Ellin covers, as do so many online stories about con artists, the steps a trickster takes to win our trust: they appear ultra-confident and establish a seeming familiarity by claiming mutual acquaintances, they get you talking, they listen intently, they do their research and turn up in familiar places, and they start low, doing small favours for you so that when they ask for a favour, your natural instinct is to agree. Or you grant them small favours and then, hey, a bigger favour doesn’t seem such a big deal.

There’s also the belief factor.

Quoting a University of Virginia psychologist, Vikram Jaswal, Ellin writes” “Belief in what other people say is likely to be influenced by the characteristics of the speaker (e.g. age, past accuracy, confidence, apparent expertise) … and the context in which the information is given …”

Then there’s the inescapable fact that in humans, Ellin continues, the line between our delusions and dreams is flimsy. She discovers that almost everyone in her research who has been deceived said “they, too, knew something was amiss … yet they proceeded to trust anyway”.

So what was more powerful than that self-preservation instinct that did its best to save them? Apparently, we over-ride it because then “we protect ourselves from information that’s too painful to digest …”

An expert on lying tells Ellin “liars succeed because we want to believe them”. Psychologist Jay Kwawer points out, “Complicity and collusion are very much part of the process.”

As Ellin writes, “a kind of wilful blindness sets in, all the more so if they’re selling us what we want to hear: that we’re smart and talented and gorgeous and excellent kissers. Because we want to preserve a relationship or job, or maintain harmony, the betrayal simply doesn’t register.”

Pay-offs mean pay dirt for a con artist

Kwawer is uncompromising. “There’s got to be a pay-off,” he says about this phenomenon of betrayal blindness. “Something that rewards [victims] emotionally or psychically for continuing to do what they’ve been doing all along.”

There are so many obvious easy answers for what that pay-off might be, depending on the victim and their vulnerability at the time of the approach: a yearning for love and security; perhaps assurance we are loveable, fine people; the lure of an easy financial gain; maybe the promise of an exciting fresh future, a new start; or just the reassurance that we are still important, relevant, and that we matter.

And there’s another answer. On the ABC’s Law Report in 2008, about con artists, Melbourne magician and expert on cons Nick Johnson told Damien Carrick the story of a man who was devastated when he was tricked out of $5000 in a pyramid scheme.

The thing is, he could afford to lose the money; it wasn’t going to affect his finances. What crushed him, Johnson revealed, was that he couldn’t fathom how he had been so misled. “He was absolutely heartbroken … that he couldn’t really trust himself and his decision-making abilities.”

That’s how an accomplished con artist continues to burrow in, even as their victim begins to sense, like an animal coaxed into a trap with a meaty bait, something is about to go wrong.

To bring things to a halt, to get out unscathed or before too much damage has been done, the victim would not only have to confront the scammer, who by now behaves like a good, even intimate, friend, but themselves and whatever human vulnerability, weakness, failing or character trait – vanity? neediness? – has led them into this situation.

And that, for some, is just too hard. Too shaming.

Describing the $5000 man who was so undone by his flawed decision-making abilities, and what seemed a lack of control when he had thought he was totally in control, Nick Johnson told Carrick: “And that’s really I think for a lot of people, where they feel the hardest hit.”

Denial is a trickster’s best friend

As Maria Konnikova, author of The Confidence Game, points out, “It’s crazy how often you have people who, even when you present them with evidence they’ve been the victim of a scam, refuse to believe it. We often don’t want to let other people know, because we’re embarrassed.”

But one of the biggest misconceptions about scammers is that they only target the stupid, the greedy, the naive. Yes, they can zero in on risk-takers and certainly on the vulnerable, but they also go for the kind and the generous. People with integrity. People who just like helping other people and maybe get a kick out of mentoring or assisting someone to success.

Given timing and circumstance, almost everyone can be vulnerable, because what a con artist really looks for are two things: someone in a time of upheaval and someone who has a need they may not even be aware of.

Why warnings are useless

I tracked down magician Nick Johnson all these years later. He has now written two novels based around the secrets of con artists. He also regularly goes into high schools to talk to kids about his magic tricks, but also “scams, hoaxes and suspect science”.

He gave me the best explanation I’ve come across yet as to why warnings go unheeded. In fact, he says, warning someone can be the very worst thing to do if you want them to change their mind.

“It’s even been part of some scams,” he explained. “Someone will come in part-way through the scam and try to stop the deal and all it does, is solidify the person’s decision to go ahead with the deal.”

Here’s why.

When we first make a decision as to liking someone or doing something, it’s a fast neurological process, Johnson explains. Almost like instinct.

And then, straightaway, our brains look for evidence to back up that decision, reasons to match the original thought process.

“In one psychological study,” said Johnson, “people were shown two photographs and asked to choose which was more attractive. Then the photos were taken away. Through a sleight of hand, the photos were then swapped. So if someone had chosen picture A, they would then be shown picture B, under the guise it was picture A, and asked why they believed the person in that picture was more attractive.”

And that’s what people would then happily, and firmly, do.

“When you have to justify your decision,” says Johnson, “it actually makes your resolve stronger.

Thus, says Johnson, it is impossible to warn someone they are being scammed and have it have an effect. Indeed, he has given up reading any stories about fraudsters who use romance to dupe people because he finds the inevitable endings so heartrending.

Garlic for the vampires

There are three core skills, Johnson says, that will work to protect us from scammers and confidence tricksters, and they are things we all should learn.

The first: learn how to look someone in the eye and say no to them without feeling guilty or adding an explanation. Con artists thrive on people’s politeness or sense of reciprocity. Just say no. It’s fine and it’s your right.

Second, learn the tools for making good decisions yourself. “Almost the Socratic reasoning method,” says Johnson. “Ask the questions [in a Socratic way] so you can reach a decision.”

Finally, forgive yourself for any bad decisions you’ve already made. Again, con artists and scammers thrive on our sense of shame that we’ve been foolish and our need to avoid feeling shame whenever we can. It’s possible to come back from bad decisions and people do it all the time.

Johnson ends on a seemingly whimsical note that actually makes great sense when I ask him how, with all that commonsense and knowledge of his, he copes with the fact that the world is full of imposters and fraudsters.

He laughs. “All of our decisions are bad,” he says. “Expecting us to be rational doesn’t work. We are all living in a fantasy world and there’s not some cold light of day that will show us the right path.

“Sceptics can be impossibly depressed because they have these high expectations.

He repeats his three step mantra. “All you can do is learn how to say no, learn the steps for making good decisions. And forgive yourself for bad decisions.”

Actually, not a bad set of principles for anyone in fact, from bank bosses to politicians to teachers to investors to managers to the romantically inclined …  Indeed, anyone who has to make important decisions to navigate this increasingly tricky and all too often deceptive world.



Wonderful news from the University of Sydney where a librarian has, by chance, found a rare 500 year old sketch in an edition of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.

The red chalk drawing is by the painter Giorgione of Castelfranco, whose works are rare, and is valued at several million dollars.

As Luke Slattery wrote in his piece for The Weekend Australian, the precious work of art was found on the very last page of the book.

That made me laugh. And then wince.

Remember the dust test?

It wasn’t so long ago, in 2011, that it was announced that hundreds of thousands of books were to be discarded or sent to storage by that same university library, the Fisher. The then library management, for whatever reason, seemed to have embraced the new era of digitisation, open seating and coffee carts with enthusiasm.

And the word storage, used to describe what would happen to many of the books, turned out to be something of a euphemism – or at least a mystery – as Professor Michael Wilding discovered in 2014 when he tried to find the library’s complete run of the journal, Notes and Queries, which began in 1849.

Wilding had once found notes from Marcus Clarke written in the 1870s in its pages. All he could find now was an electronic version. Where were the precious hard copies with their beautiful and historic bindings? He also discovered that hard copies of other journals had disappeared from the catalogue without trace.

Rescuing trolleys full of books

This piece by academic Adam Jasper Smith, published online by Ampersand Magazine, gives a thorough potted history of what happened at the Fisher Library at the time.

News reports noted that books that hadn’t been borrowed in the past five years were targeted, though they might be saved if they passed a “dust test”. That is, if the book was dusty, ergo, it hadn’t been touched or looked at, therefore it must die.

(Obviously, thank the lord, no dust on this 1497 edition of Alighieri.)

The moves came on top of a savage culling in 2002 of what was then called the undergraduate library at the Fisher. As Smith also writes in his article, “University academics saved what they could, leaving with shopping trolleys full of books on anthropology, English literature, foreign policy, psychology and history. Scenes of outrage were witnessed …”

And it continues.

In January 2017, the university student magazine Honi Soit chronicled new culling moves that had thousands of books heading for the shredder. A library spokesperson said there were too many books and not enough time for the books to be offered free to takers or to be donated. Digging further, “Honi found 25 full-size wheelie bins belonging to the Shred-it company, either full or partially full of books, on level five of Fisher library. Inside was a variety of books of many genres, with a number of pristine 18th century texts [my italics] among them.”

Morever: “When looking through the bins, which were located in a public area of the Library, Honi editors were approached by library staff and told to not take the books as ‘they would set off an alarm’, despite their future as landfill.”

Napping pods? In a library?

It’s part of a world-wide trend in university libraries, which doesn’t make it right.

While librarians are correct to argue that there always has to be some culling given space is finite, what comes up again and again though is that the spaces cleared of books are being given over to study spaces, cafes, collaboration pods.

(The Fisher Library even has napping pods, introduced in 2016.)

One Californian engineering and computer science student looked puzzled at the idea of books in a library in the first place. He told the Los Angeles Times, “I’ve never actually needed to use a physical book. I’ve never checked one out. I can’t honestly say I even know how.”

Far more is going on here, below the surface, than simple space clearing and we need to be cognizant of that, and what it might mean for our societies.

As retired political economist Evan Jones concludes in this challenging and thoughtful piece about the dismantling of corporate libraries as well as the watering down of public and university libraries, ”the moral is that such [digital] technology must complement inherited structures and not replace and destroy them.”

How to escape libricide

In his piece about the Renaissance discovery, Slattery says that the 1497 edition was probably donated to the library after 1928.

Perhaps, being donated so early on, meant it escaped the determined libricide of the early 21st century.

Thank goodness for that.

And what a fabulous Aesops-type fable for our times.

Sometimes it can take decades, centuries, for a society or culture to be faced with the nonsense of its ways.

In this case, it took less than 20 years.


Australia Post is the government-owned corporation that has suffered mightily because of the internet. The one bright spot for its fortunes has been the staggering rise in parcel deliveries as people shop online and have the goods delivered.

Has AP jumped on this great new opportunity?

Not if you go by my experiences of the past two months – three parcels badly or poorly mishandled, leaving me to sort the mess – and by the numbers of angry customers online, complaining about missed deliveries, no-deliveries, lost packages and staff who often seem to have unhelpful attitudes towards restitution. Some stories are horrific.

Parcel rage

News reports about an ombudsman survey, published in April 2018, make for upsetting reading. There were over a million complaints in just one year (about the same number as Britain’s Royal Mail receives, but it deals with three times the volume of items).

Over 60 per cent of the complaints were about lost or damaged items or concerns with delivery. An annual AP report from that time found that complaints were up 16 per cent.

One customer wrote to an online forum in 2015, saying that a parcel had gone missing for two months, and they had got the runaround from Australia Post which had eventually stopped responding to them.

Ombudsman in a strait jacket

But apparently we have to put up with this because AP is an authority to itself and while there is a Commonwealth Ombudsman which can listen to complaints and investigate them, it makes its position clear on the website: “We can recommend an outcome or action, but we are not a court or tribunal. We cannot direct a postal operator to take a particular action or decision.”

As the 2015 complainant wrote on the forum: “Long story short: don’t bother. The ombudsman has no authority over aus post and aus post can simply ignore them (unlike some other ombudsman).”

I have a terrific regular postman – he wears a uniform – who knocks loudly on my door to deliver packages of books and who also makes sure to leave them in a safe place if I’m not at home, rather than just tossing that annoying card into my letter box, the one that tells you that you have to trot up to the post office to collect your package after 4pm.

And I usually get efficient and polite service at a post office counter.


There is now another part of AP – consisting of delivery contractors, it seems, going by this video and another posted online – that appears determined to turn parcel sending and receiving into a gamble. Will it be handled by a staffer? Or a contractor? (In its 2017 annual report, Australia Post boasted of “thousands of delivery contractors”.)

The great card mystery

One of my mishandled parcels was a delivery from Foxtel that just didn’t turn up. Not Foxtel’s fault. They had sent it and, when I rang to find out where it was, gave me a tracking number to prove it; the post office just hadn’t bothered to let me know it was waiting for me to collect it. No card in my letterbox.

When I complained at the post office, I was told that often the delivery people are too rushed off their feet to leave a card if we’re not home.

“Well, how am I supposed to know the package is here?” I asked puzzled.

This was the answer. “If you’re expecting a package and it doesn’t arrive, just come here and ask.”


And if I don’t know someone is sending me a package in the first place?

With another delivery, I received an “urgent reminder” card telling me if I didn’t collect the package by the end of that very day, February 11, it would be sent back to the sender. I’d never received any previous card.

When I tracked the package number on the reminder card, I discovered it had been sitting in the post office since December 24. (I set my alarm for 6.30am and scampered up there for the 7am parcel hatch opening so I could claim it before it was sent back.)

Australia Post logic

In its 2017 annual report, Australia Post had boasted that “carding” had dropped to 10.7 per cent from 15.7 per cent the year before. That was supposedly a good thing because so many people were receiving cards when they were actually at home but the delivery person, no doubt trying to save time, hadn’t bothered to knock.

But what if the card numbers have dropped because of other reasons? Maybe incentives that reward a contractor’s low carding numbers?

My third parcel, which contained a $125 bottle of scent, involved a card left for me on a Friday, telling me I could collect the package after 4pm on what appeared to be the next day’s date. As the post office isn’t open after 4pm on a Saturday, I made the reasonable assumption the postie had made a mistake with the date and it would be at the post office after 4pm that same day.


A staffer argued vehemently and unpleasantly with that logic and denied my parcel was there.

While collecting it on the Saturday morning – it only took another staffer about ten minutes of rummaging around on unruly shelves to find it – I stood next to a glum man who had been trying to collect a Christmas package of jars of bespoke marmalade, infused with expensive Scotch. No-one could find the package.

Monopolies breed familiarity which breeds …

Does this mean we have an organisation operating under our noses using the same rogue and customer-unfriendly practices that we are seeing these days in many of our institutions?

And with impunity given the ombudsman’s strait jacket.

Worse, AP basically operates a monopoly.

Few Australians have the time or money to ditch Australia Post and rely on a service like FedEx. In any case, that doesn’t help if someone-else is sending you a package.

You can see online that various AP officers do their best to mollify angry customers and when I rang the AP media team, I was lucky enough to get an extremely polite and helpful staffer who did their absolute and punctilious best to get a response to my queries about missing cards, delayed packages and the general spirit of anger amongst customers.

Consumer talk

And here it is, the official response from Australia Post’s spokesperson:

“Our hardworking posties and drivers do a great job delivering parcels and letters to 11.9 million delivery points across Australia. Last year we delivered more than three billion parcels and letters effectively and on time, including millions of items in time for Christmas.

“Today more than 40 per cent of all parcel deliveries are completed by our posties, compared to 34 per cent in 2017. We use a mix of permanent staff and contractors which gives us the flexibility we need to cater for fluctuating volumes. For example, during the peak Christmas period we added close to 3000 people to help us manage additional volumes.

“While it is always disappointing when we fail to deliver for a customer, we encourage customers with any concerns or questions about their mail delivery to contact us on 13 POST or via our online channels.

“Customers can also choose to engage the Ombudsman, who can in turn request matters be investigated by Australia Post, with findings to then be considered by the Ombudsman.”

I felt sorry for the staffer who had had to send it. I hasten to say, of course, that they at no time gave any inkling that I should feel sorry for them or that they weren’t totally on board with management’s response.

But the staffer seemed bright. And nice. And sensible.

I can’t help thinking that AP CEO Christine Holgate and her board might run a much more efficient and likeable organisation if they made an effort to listen to the front line staff who hear our complaints.

And the federal government should not be tolerating a monopoly that provides an important public service with such poor grace.


Of course, maybe the world would run better, because everyone would have much more time to run it better, if it wasn’t for updates and terms and conditions and all the bossing around that goes with our digital devices. Here’s Eddie Izzard (whose world tour kicked off in Australia last week. Dates here.):