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How Do Criminals in Real Life Differ from Criminals in the Movies?

published February 11, 2014

By Follow Me on

( 74 votes, average: 4.7 out of 5)

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We asked attorneys and other legal professionals throughout the U.S. how criminals in real life differ from criminals in the movies. We received a variety of responses and wanted to share them with our readers. Many people had experience dealing with criminals, and here is what they had to say.

When I created Food Body ME, the success of the company attracted its fair share of criminals. It was also enticing that not only were the finances significant, it is also a holistic company, and criminals love to prey on the "spiritual." My perspective is that of a CEO and therapist. In graduate school I met a fellow "therapist" who wanted to work at my new company. He asked for a month of pay in advance and split. Yes, I made the mistake of giving it to him. He claimed to be in dire need, and there was some level of trust from graduate school and therapy credentials. Turned out he wasn't a therapist before attending the program, and I don't know if he finished or was just a visitor sitting in on my class. He also had a history of cons which I pieced together after. He was charming, attractive, and glib. I should have been tipped off as his stories were larger than life. The problem though, was that in therapy training, one listens to tragic emotional stories. Being exposed to that during the immersive program, it was Alfred and the White Rabbit, where I over-extended what I was learning in school.

In my Real Estate Company, I skipped some due process steps and ended up renting to another con-artist. Within a month he had turned my 20 happy tenants of two years into a confused and distrustful group of people. One more month went by and I asked him to leave. He split owing me 10K in rent, and 10 other tenants left as well. It almost destroyed my real estate business. I took the hit, and within 30 days of hard work was able to get things back on track.

I have met a few other criminals as well and have studied them extensively these last three years (and prior). There are different types of criminals. People who commit crimes because of their belief system (Robin Hood: it's okay to steal from the rich), people who commit crimes because of self-delusion; i.e., they don't realize or believe it's a crime, people who commit crimes out of desperation, and people who commit crimes because they like it. This last group has Narcissistic Personality, which is a spectrum disorder. Therefore they can have behavior ranging from mildly anti-social all the way to serial killing behavior. What Narcissists have in common is that they literally only care about themselves and lack empathy for others.

Narcissists are excellent actors and very smart. Their self-serving needs are so important to them that nothing else matters. Because their needs consume them, they will do whatever they have to in order to meet their needs. As humans are social, this commonly means that Narcissists must learn how to become "better" at being "human" than everybody else, and they are masters at feigning emotion.

Narcissistic criminals are smart, charming, and glib. Attractive in appearance. Likeable. Many crimes are committed by people that we actually know. When you combine the collective personality disorders on the spectrum that makes up narcissism, 24% of Americans have some form of this disorder. 1 in 4 people that you know is going to manipulate you and your emotions to get what they want. A smaller percentage of that group is going to get close enough to you to commit a crime.

Narcissistic criminals are calculating and self-serving. Driven and focused, the only strategy to get them to change their behavior regarding you is if they either feel fear, or if you cut off their narcissistic supply. Want to find out who is a narcissist? Call them out. If a normal person does something bad, like lie, when called out they will feel shame and will apologize. A narcissist, however, will add to the lie, back-track, deflect, blame, get angry, etc.

You can tell who is a narcissist by observable and measurable words and behavior. You can tell who in this population is a criminal by their proclaimed superiority and their lack of empathy (which is harder to ferret out). There are other indicators too, such as, can they keep their stories straight? Or do they add to them? Where have they lived and how long in each place? Stable job or constant change? And more.

Criminals in the movies are often charming, intelligent, and they often get away with their crimes. In real life, narcissists are so busy obsessing about themselves, that they frequently leave traces of their crimes behind. The only reason they wouldn't be caught, in my experience, is if law enforcement doesn't consider the crime worth their due diligence.

-Nicole Wright

I have over 4 decades experience as Bounty Hunter, International Private Detective and Child Recovery expert. Real criminals don't play and use real bullets. They certainly do not have the high quality technology movies or TV claim they do. They do not show the reality due to constraints of the squalor that we find on the streets and off the streets of the heinous acts we encounter. In fact, I have been approached by many offers to be in reality TV and make recreations of my life and have been in many shows. The networks and cable do not want to produce them due to the graphic nature of my work.

Child recovery work is very dangerous and often leads to locating dead children. Human trafficking is the largest billion dollar industry in the world. Dealing with terrorism and the drug cartels is not much better. The reality of my work is nowhere near the work seen on television. It is simply an entertainment product.

The true reality is that predators don't have a heart and are not part of civilized society. I define them simply as maggot scum. There are many non-for-profit organizations that are out there misleading citizens and costing lives. There is also more corruption amongst public officials than you can possibly imagine.

Scott Bernstein
Bounty Hunter Training Academy

As for criminals in real life v. the movies, the biggest difference is that real life "criminals" are mostly otherwise decent people who happen to be drug users or addicts. In other words, the truly "bad dude" is more rare in the real world.

-Christian M. Denmon, Attorney
Denmon & Denmon Law, P.A.

Attorneys/prosecutors have NO CLUE how criminals act 'in real life' ... only in the court room or in jail while they are awaiting trial.

I married a murderer and he wouldn't hurt a fly…literally…He actually shooed a fly out of the house once.

HOWEVER, He got the 'charge' of 'murder' because he was in the wrong place in the wrong time and was present when someone ELSE killed a man...he was on board to beat the guy up (he was a drug dealing pedophile who gave drugs to young girls in exchange for sex)...but when his buddy (who he had only known only 2 weeks) decided to kill the guy, my ex-husband walked far away from the situation. However, due to overworked, yet lazy Public Defenders, they forced him into pleading guilty for murder under the felony murder rule. I got him out of prison 7 years early and he has been an excellent 'citizen'... (an ass for a husband, but a great citizen). But he was never a 'career criminal.'

My brother, on the other hand, has been a criminal since he was 10...and at 43 he still is violent, still steals, and has been a meth head for the past several years. However, if you met him on a good would laugh your butt off and give him the shirt off your back. He is very much a charmer…think Woody he, in his roles, can be a super charmer and also turn evil in a second. My brother even looks like him. When my brother is in prison, he is a 'great guy,' totally 1,000% different from how he is when he is released (he's been 'in' 4 times now and I am confident he will be back many more).

I WROTE A BOOK about my ex..."Why I Married a Murderer and How I Survived the Divorce"…in the very back are letters from my brother while he was in prison the last time that are pee-your-pants funny. I plan to write a book about my brother's criminal life this year…the working title is 'Jailbird Jason.'

You can see my book (which is actually very funny in parts) at my website below, where you can also download the preface for free to get a taste of how it reads.

-Teresa Roberts?

They're uglier-many have awful homemade tattoos--generally dumber, sometimes smarter, more human, more varied, more like regular folks in many ways, less obviously vicious, more petty, funnier. Out of all these, I'd say more like everyone else, at least on surface, is the key difference.

I was a librarian in a maximum security prison years ago, at that point the only one in NH, so it housed everyone from people who should have been in minimum security to hard core max cases.

-Henry Stimpson

Criminals in real life aren't as articulate or intelligent as those in the movies/television. In the movies or on television, criminals are brilliant, using new techniques that require the top forensic analysts methods to solve crimes (i.e. new chemicals, weapons, or speaking/writing in code). In reality criminals are just dumb, robbing people they know, leaving their wallet in the same briefcase as drugs, etc.

Further, the real world criminals' lack of intelligence makes it hard for them to understand legal theories such as the principal theory (getaway driver is just as guilty as bank robber) or constructive possession (it doesn't have to be on you for you to be possessing it). Television criminals are often smarter than the police officers chasing them.

-Shane Fischer, Attorney at Law

I read and watch a lot of mysteries. In my experience, criminals in real life are far more stupid than criminals in the movies.

-Bettina Seidman
SEIDBET Associates

In my book, "The Accident Stager," I develop the character "Gaude Velasquez" who is based on a real life criminal who hit my truck with his used Mercedes in order to collect insurance money. This criminal had his two kids in the back seat, injuring me, his toddler and little girl, and himself for monetary gain. He was a good talker! He was tall and slender and could have been in the movies. However, the difference was blatant. In the movies, the "bad" guy has some lovable traits and a warm resonance. This fellow was ice cold and very nervous. His affability as he collected my insurance information was phony. He was a fake. In the movies, the crook is much more sincere, even though acted out. You feel some empathy with his situation. In real life you only feel repelled.

-Susan Moss

Criminals in real life differ from criminals in movies in a few key aspects. Some of the most significant differences are preparation, skill and education.

In real life most criminals just go at it off the cuff in spur of the moment type scenarios. Because of this they end up committing a crime that results in very little to no benefit to them, they are not prepared to complete their crime, and it most certainly results in them getting caught.

In movies much of the film is dedicated to preparation for the crime. The actors build a capable team, they analyze the situation, prepare for what they will encounter, gather the necessary tools, and most importantly they take calculated risks and try to not get caught. In movies they often plan for what happens if they do get caught. In the real world, however the actors plan would not work (real life Nicholas Cage would not get a free pass because he stole high end exotic cars to save his brother's life and also a cop's life).

In real life criminals often lack skill and education. If you take a day and visit Court you will find that most of the defendants are dropouts, some barely completing a year in high school. On the rare occasion that a defendant says they are a college graduate everyone looks at them with that look your parents gave you when they told you "you know better than to do what you did." Because they lack a good education some people end up pursuing a life of crime without any skills. This is why you see people attempting to steal ATM's and never getting anything, instead leaving a severely damaged store and ATM, the bumper to the truck they used, and 30 minutes of video footage including them scratching their head wondering what to do next; or they rob the person riding public transportation (who has no money). Actors also are always "the perfect person for the job." They have the required skill to complete whatever crime they are attempting to pull off while drawing minimal attention to themselves. They also have the resources to make the job easy. If the actors lacked the skill or education necessary to complete their crime it would be a very short movie! That is why they can fit so many arrests in one 30 minute episode of COPS!

Arthur L. McNeil
Law Office of Arthur L. McNeil, P.L.

In real life most criminals are not psychotic criminal geniuses, they are like everyday people. With one major exception they have either by their own choosing or by the lifestyle they live found themselves in a position to make an important decision and made an incorrect judgment. Some criminals simply do not choose to use good judgment and therefore do things repeatedly that gets them in trouble. Here are a couple of real-life scenarios that I actually knew the defendants and how they managed to get in trouble.

1. This defendant had some slight mental issues and extremely low self-esteem. While hanging out one day at the age of 18 he was approached by a couple of guys and they told him if he would ride with them as a lookout they would burglarize a house and give him 50 bucks for being a lookout. He of course agreed and went. I will tell you here that this defendant never previously had been charged with anything violent, he did have several simple possession of marijuana charges, two criminal trespassing charges, and some juvenile truancy issues. Once the three men arrived at the home the defendant we are speaking about got out of the car and sat down on the curb and took out his phone. The other two men went to the house and started breaking in through the back door. When the resident realized what was happening she called the police and then confronted the would be burglars. At that time one of the two men shot and killed her. The defendant (the 18-year-old lookout) ran from the scene scared to death. Within a few hours he turned himself in to the police and told them his story. The other two individuals were arrested and both stated that the lookout was the shooter and both received plea deals. The defendant was convicted by their testimony and received life in prison. The other two got 15 years at 50% so they will be out in approximately 7 years if they are able to make parole. Oh yeah, the defendant had an IQ of 86.

2. The second story is very simple. A couple, along with a baby, were having an argument in their car. They pulled off into the parking lot and both got out of the vehicle and continued arguing with each other. The parking lot they pulled into happened to be a jewelry store. As one of the customers went inside, they reported the argument to the security guard. The security guard was an elderly man who went outside and interjected himself into the argument. Both of the individuals told him to go away. He then drew his gun and pointed it at the man. The man, in shock, turned to face him with his arms spread wide. This action scared the security guard and he shot the man three times from 9 feet away, killing him. The security guard was later charged with homicide.

These are just two examples of the hundreds of defendants we have worked with over the last 15 years who were truly not criminal masterminds, just extremely poor decision makers.

-Curtis Burkett & Associates Investigations
Licensed Private Investigation Agency
"Criminal Defense, Legal Investigation and Litigation Specialists"

Criminals in movies typically have motive and are reasonably intelligent but misdirected people. They are like you and I, but gone wrong.

Real life criminals are typically far less intelligent, much more impulsive, engage in violence without provocation, and do not suffer remorse. They are not cut from the same cloth as wholesome people.

-Steve Wolf, President, Science in the Movies