January 21, 2016 5:42 AM EST

How do con artists trick even the savviest skeptics into falling for a scam? That’s the question journalist Maria Konnikova explores in her new book, drawing on a mix of real-life fraud: a religious leader who passes a donation basket to fund his extravagant wardrobe; an art dealer selling fake Rothkos and Pollocks; a woman who lures her cyberbeau to Bolivia under the guise of romance, then sends him home with two kilos of cocaine. At the end of the day, Konnikova argues, these tricks work because humans are psychologically programmed to be gullible. “What a confidence artist sells is hope,” she writes. “Hope that you’ll be happier, healthier, richer,” that you “will emerge on the other side” and somehow be superior. And with technology making it more likely than ever that you’ll encounter a scheme–consumer fraud is up 60% since 2008, and half of it happens online–it’s best to question those hopes, no matter how real they seem. The best defense, Konnikova writes, “is knowledge, pure and simple.”

–SARAH BEGLEY

This appears in the February 01, 2016 issue of TIME.

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