“Frank Abagnale could write a check on toilet paper, drawn on the Confederate States Treasury, sign it ‘U.R. Hooked’ and cash it at any bank in town, using a Hong Kong driver’s licence for identification.” Chief of Police, Houston, Texas
Moses Pray: 'I got scruples too, you know. You know what that is? Scruples?'Addie Loggins: No, I don't know what it is, but if you got 'em, it's a sure bet they belong to somebody else!' From the movie "Paper Moon"
The psychology of persuasion is a fascinating topic. If you ever watched the movie "Cath Me if You Can," about the legendary con-man Frank Abagnale, you may have thought it was all mostly exaggerated by Hollywood. But the truth of the matter is Abignale fooled lots and lots of people. The "con" in con-man comes from the word "confidence," and Abagnale had loads of it. He convinced people that he was a pilot for a major airline, head of surgery at a top notch hospital, a knowledgeable attorney, and even an agent for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. He understood human psychology perhaps better than a professional therapist, and he grasped the concept of persuasion better than a convention hall full of salespeople.
Abagnale eventually went on to become an expert on the other side of the law, assisting law enforcement agencies in tracking down forgers, thieves and other impostors. In his current capacity he has revealed some of the dirty little secrets that confidence men use to separate people from their money.
I just read about an interesting scam that has apparently fooled more than one gullible person in the UK. Here's how it works:
Step 1: The assistant walks into a shop, explains that he lost his expensive glass eye earlier, and offers a £1,000 reward. He leaves his (fake) number, just in case.Step 2: Later, the con enters with a glass eye he claims was on the floor. The shopkeeper naturally wants to look after it but the con insists on returning it.Step 3: Thinking of the reward, the shopkeeper offers to buy it for £250. The con and assistant split the takings, and the shopkeeper gets a cheap glass eye.Abagnale, as you can imagine, is not alone. The world is full of people who, without conscience and without a shred of decency, will gladly take your hard-earned money and give you back, if you are lucky, the equivalent of snake oil. In fact you may be surprised to find out that the worId of martial arts, where trim, athletic men and women exhibit amazing fighting prowess and exemplify the epitome of honor and self-discipline, is also filled with con-men, swindlers, hustlers, flim-flam artists, and shysters.
I have seen it with my own two eyes. I have observed con-men in martial arts uniforms fleece the gullible, and I have wondered why they get away with it time and time again.
My guess is that they, much like Abagnale and other swindlers, exude confidence and are able to persuade and manipulate people with their knowledge of human behavior. They not only display self-confidence, they help others to become more confident, and they gain their trust. They have a natural ability to intuit weakness and insecurity in others, and they have learned to exploit those fears and emotions. With absolute conviction they will look another person straight in the eye and make bold promises. They use active listening, body language, false friendship, and other tactics to help the targeted individuals to open up and drop their guard.
They may also take advantage of the seedier side of humanity--the greed, the lust for power and influence--and they may help people to come to believe that they can help them achieve their goals.
I hate to see people get fleeced. It bothers me that this type of behavior occurs right under the noses of concerned parents who want the best for their child and who search out a martial arts academy to help their child succeed. It concerns me when they hear empty promises and false claims.
Not all martial arts schools participate in this type of behavior. Many are active in organizations who are careful to weed out bad behavior and avoid any semblance of false advertising or illegal activity.
But a few, perhaps more than a few, have no such scruples. In fact, many of the things that legitimate academies do are often counterfeited by scam artists.
Here are a few examples I have encountered in my almost five decades of martial arts training:
1. Belt ranking, uniform patches and testing: I had a friend who was an Eagle Scout, a unique achievement in scouting and a true honor. He was intelligent, competent, poised and knowledgeable about life in general. I admired him and his years of devotion and dedication. When I asked him about his scouting experience he told me that for the most part it was very positive: The hiking, the camping, the exposure to nature. He enjoyed learning about what he called "cool boy activities," making a fire, pitching a tent, and learning first aid for example. But he also told me that there was a lot of tedious activities as well as he worked towards earning required merit badges, literal symbols to be worn on the uniform.
Some martial arts academies have discovered the power of patches. As students participate in self-defense classes or nunchaku seminars or demo teams, they earn patches to be worn on the uniform. Not necessarily a bad thing, that is unless each activity costs money, in which case the richest kids often end up with the coolest uniforms.
As the student progresses at his or her academy he or she is often awarded a new belt, usually starting at white belt and culminating in the coveted black belt itself. Along the way the student may earn 4, 5, or more colored belts. In some cases there are stripes in between. So a student may be orange belt, third striped. It can be quite complicated, but the student usually knows what he or she needs to know in order to earn the next belt.
None of this should automatically be suspicious. It helps to know each student's skill level. This ensures that the student is safely matched against others with similar skill levels, and it helps to motivate the student to progress. Unfortunately it all to often comes with a steep price. Each testing or grading event costs money. Each piece of a cheap roll of tape can be expensive.
My advice is to watch the black belts, and especially the youngest black belts, in action. If they have sharp skills, power, poise, and accuracy, if they can confidently display athleticism and agility, balance and stamina, and if they have intensity and focus, then the rank is legit. If, on the other hand, they stumble and look confused, have trouble focusing, cannot effectively demonstrate skill, then the school is not legit. I remember one rather shady martial artist telling me one time, "My car note is due--time for another testing!"
2. Promises: Who wouldn't want their child to make good grades in school, to be self-confident, respectful and to resist the temptation to use drugs. Some desperate parents turn to the martial arts academy that makes claims about what they can do for the child. How they can teach a child to say "yes ma'am and no ma'am" or "please and thank you." How they can train a child to be obedient and willing to do chores. I'll never forget the academy I visited where the young kids shouted loud and in unison about being a CHAMPION. "A 'champion' in what?" I asked the head instructor. "A champion in life!" he responded.
Martial arts was not always a systematized grouping of specific skill sets. Instead it was handed down father to son and warrior to warrior as part of a tribe's need to ensure survival. Real battlefield fighting skill was what was needed, not some clean, sterile, devoid-of-intensity, by-the-numbers display of technique. It has evolved into something else entirely. It is an art form. It is a means to teach confidence. It is a way to brainwash obedience to authority.
When the martial arts school becomes a daycare, when "fighting" becomes a bad word, when the student can utter long creeds and tenets but is unable to defend himself or herself, then the school is focused on the wrong thing, and the student is being charged good money based on false promises.
3. Tournaments: I believe in the sports mantra that competition breeds competence. Without competing, measuring one's skills against another, it may be difficult to determine one's progress and achievement. For combat sports such as fencing, wrestling, boxing, judo and BJJ, competition serves as a necessary vehicle to move the practitioner forward and to hone one's skills against a resisting opponent.
However, a few crafty individuals have learned that there is a lot of money to be made in tournaments. In some cases the tournament is a 'closed' tournament, not open to outsiders or other schools. In this case there is no fear that a participant will be outclassed. The tournament is controlled, and everyone is a winner. The student comes home with a trophy that is larger than he is, but he has not learned a thing. There was no risk. There was no real chance to lose. There was no opportunity to learn and grow and feel challenged. Moms and dads payed out a lot of money, but it might as well have been flushed down the toilet.
4. Unique abilities and special courses: Too often I have seen special "closed-door" seminars where a travelling instructor will teach things such as no-touch knockouts or chi development. While there is not scientific evidence that chi exists or that one can master this power or life-force to hurt or heal others, that does not stop shysters from making wild claims and charging exorbitant fees to learn their secret skills.
A new type of course I have been seeing recently bothers me personally. As a combatives instructor who has introduced legitimate fighting skill to a large number of students in otherwise traditional schools, it concerns me that there are scam artists now offering "commando" fighting courses, military camps or special ninjitsu classes. The students may be encouraged to buy camouflaged uniforms or special equipment or t-shirts in order to participate. They pay extra fees to attend and advance and become certified in these courses. As long as the knowledge is legitimate and adds true value, no worries. But when it becomes just one more source of income for the school, and the student is merely doing cosplay, it is a scam and a gimmick.
5. False history and faked qualifications: Used to be that it was relatively easy to create a false background, forge a false certificate, and fooling people about who they are and what they have achieved. Now, with the internet, it is much more difficult. With a few clicks you can learn quite a bit about an individual, and you can root out faslehoods. But some people have learned to side step the searches. They may show you amazing bios and enough certificates to cover a wall. They may make claims about being a world champion or being an instructor in the military. My advice is to watch and listen. See if the instructor cares about his students, is concerned about their safety and the quality of instruction. See if the instructor helps to instill knowledge and provide opportunities to grow and be challenged in keeping with the students' ability. What they show you can be much louder than what they tell you. Make sure you're getting your money's worth before you sign a lengthy and costly contract.
6. Certification: There is an allure to gaining knowledge. To believe that one is among an elite, with special knowledge that is not known by the masses, can be seductive. The certificate, and especially the instructor's certificate, is a tremendous tool in keeping the student coming back for more. Most of the time, I see no issue in this. But if the student is already paying to attend a seminar, charging extra for the certificate seems wrong to me. Also, if the certificate comes from a legitimate organization, or a solid individual, and the certificate is earned, then I agree wholeheartedly in the practice. If the certificate comes with a reasonable fee, again I have no issue. But when the certificate is suspicious, signifies nothing, is recognized by no one else outside of a small circle, and when it costs a considerable amount, then I am immediately suspicious.
7. Proprietary equipment: Some academies insist that each student must purchase specific equipment, and they also insist that this equipment MUST be purchased in house. This is not always a ruse. Sometimes the academy or chain of academies want to maintain quality control, or perhaps they can purchase in bulk and pass the discounts on to their students. However, this is not always the case. In some cases the student could buy the exact same equipment elsewhere and save money. I do not agree with the practice of over charging a student for equipment he or she will need to safety practice the art.
In conclusion: Not every martial arts instructor is part of a scam. Most are professionals who want the best for their students. But look for the wolf in sheep's clothing and remember Caveat Emptor, let the buyer beware.