I am looking for a word (or, if necessary, a concise phrase) which has the same rough pejorative meaning as the words listed in the title, i.e. a group of actors who work together to achieve a (usually malicious) goal through subversive and nefarious means. However, each of those words imply, at least to my ears, that every actor in the group is a knowledgable and willing participant in the scheme. I am concerned with an alternate case, in which a proper subset (some, but not all) of the actors in the scheme are unaware and proceeding honestly, and yet their actions are a necessary contribution to the successful completion of the group's goals. The phrase "unwitting conspirator" or stating they provided "unwitting assistance" are commonplace for referring to the role of the honest actor specifically, but I'm looking for a term for the entire group which implies only some of the actors are actively malicious, and are "using" other members of the group for their own purposes.

This type of structure is a common part of team con/heist movies, in which the con artists "use" some honest actor acting as their job intends for a necessary component of their plot. For example in the movie The Sting (wikipedia), a police officer is told by someone he believes to be a federal marshal (but is actually one of the con artists) to remove the mark from the scene of the con, thereby allowing the conspirators to escape.

  • The nearest I can offer is a 'set-up'. P.S. check your spelling of 'necessary' ;-) Sep 8, 2015 at 21:31

2 Answers 2


The answer is in the question: a sting.

In law enforcement, a sting operation is a deceptive operation designed to catch a person committing a crime. A typical sting will have a law-enforcement officer or cooperative member of the public play a role as criminal partner or potential victim and go along with a suspect's actions to gather evidence of the suspect's wrongdoing.


The term "sting" was popularized by the 1973 Robert Redford and Paul Newman movie The Sting, although the film is not about a police operation: it features two grifters and their attempts to con a mob boss out of a large sum of money. –Sting operation, Wiki

'A sting' implies at least one party that is not a willing participant. Conspirators, cabals, syndicates and law enforcement all use stings.

Another word is them. As with any group, there's us and them; you're either in or you're out. If you're out, you're not privy.

In closing, allow me to state that any proper conspiracy/cabal/syndicate/etc will have people that are unaware of their roles (and that this distinction is unnecessary; it's intrinsic). Members are often unaware of (or disregard) the hierarchy within their own sect: (honor among thieves, there is not)

No, no, no... I kill the bus driver.The Dark Knight

The policeman in The Sting who was duped is a patsy.

patsy pat·sy /ˈpatsē/ noun, North American, informal –Google

a person who is easily taken advantage of, especially by being cheated or blamed for something.

Dictionary.com offers the word sucker.

  • I assume you're excluding dupes from "people ... unaware." In that case, "proper" conspiracies may include only people aware of their roles in the enterprise. In the prison breakout in upstate New York, there were four co-conspirators -- the two escapees and two prison employees whom smuggled tools for the escape. No one of the four could have been unaware of his or her role in the escape. The ex-governor of Virginia and his wife were convicted of conspiracy simply by agreeing with each other to accept gifts to promote an acquaintance's business.
    – deadrat
    Sep 8, 2015 at 22:47
  • The line here is rather fine. Am I an unwitting participant in a conspiracy to hide someone in a crowd if I'm just a member of the crowd? Did I unwittingly participate in the governor's conspiracy because I voted for him? What if I'm simply one of billions of people who value the sorts of gifts that were given, thus making them worth something? Sep 8, 2015 at 23:00
  • @deadrat - 'Dupe' almost warrants it's own answer (good one). Every sting has at least one dupe, usually more than just the one mark. If your example was a movie, the escapees would turn state's evidence against the guards as part of an extreme scheme to thwart the evil warden, culminating with the governor being impeached.
    – Mazura
    Sep 8, 2015 at 23:10
  • @Mazura - Generally I agree with the second component of your comment. My issue is not that a conspiracy et. al. utilizing unwilling participation of honest actors feels in any way an unnatural part of the usage of those terms. However, it feels unwieldy when enumerating the different actors and their roles to have to very directly and explicitly note the unwilling nature of those honest actors at essentially every turn, which I find myself needing to do due to the instinctive implication of active involvement I feel those words convey.
    – sju
    Sep 8, 2015 at 23:19
  • @Mazura - As for the first section of your answer, the term sting to me implies a discrete moment at which the plans of the conspiracy et. al. come to a head, and which leave the honest participants in a lurch (just as a police sting leaves the criminals in a lurch). I'm looking for a term which could necessarily imply a more continous action where the honest actor may never become aware of the role they played. The idea is that the legitimate actions which the actor is entrusted with executing (and which they do so propely) is a necessary component of the conspiracy.
    – sju
    Sep 8, 2015 at 23:30

Dupes - The subset of actors who perform their role in the conspiracy, but are not aware of their role could be called as "Dupes"


  • Please add a source to support your answer.
    – JJJ
    Mar 7, 2019 at 23:37

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