Sunday, December 27, 2015

212. Con Men, Cheats, and Thieves

     Once, long ago, when my brother met me at an airport to give me a lift to the family apartment, he said with a canny look, “Let me tell you about my new scam.”   His “scam” was simply a plan to redeem hundreds of coupons in newspapers, so as to acquire a lifetime supply of whatever at a reduced price.  Being in the newspaper distribution business, he had access to reams of unsold papers and so had a free hand in clipping reams of coupons.  There was nothing illegal about this; he was simply taking advantage of his position to buy things cheap.  Years later, when I came back to bury him, I found the apartment crammed with his spoils: a lifetime supply of deodorants, ditto of detergent, car repair equipment that only a grease monkey could appreciate, and I don’t recall what else; it took me weeks to clear it all out.  But what I still remember most vividly, was that look on his face when he announced his so-called scam: canny, shrewd, knowing, worthy of Wily Coyote, the trickster of many Native American legends.  It was indeed the look of an operator about to put something over on others – in other words, the look of a con man.

     New York, like any big city, is a mecca for con men, cheats, and thieves.  An African American cruising the streets in a fancy limousine stuffed with clothing once asked with a winning smile if I’d like to buy some clothes; I declined, convinced that they were stolen items.  He was surely a thief or a fence.

The mug shot of Bernard Madoff, whose Ponzi scheme
was the biggest fraud in U.S. history.

     On another occasion when I found myself at night in midtown, I saw a man trying to sell some paper dolls to some sailors.  Aligned side by side, the dolls were dancing on the sidewalk as if by magic.  It was an old trick still being played.  But the sailors weren’t fooled; they were looking for the hidden strings that propelled the dolls.  Seeing this, another man standing nearby announced in a resonant voice, “It’s show time!”  He repeated his warning a second time, and the vendor of the dolls packed them up and moved on down the street.  “I knew there was a hidden string,” said one sailor, “and here it is.”  Looking closely, he had detected the almost invisible string.

File:Charles Ponzi.jpg
Charles Ponzi, who was so successful a swindler in the 1920s that he has given his name to the fraud  where the con man promises investors fabulous returns, then uses the money from later investors
to pay the earlier investors.

     Another scam that used to be practiced in the city involved a man entering into conversation with a stranger outside a bank and telling him that banks were frauds, they took your money but wouldn’t give it back.  He would repeat this assertion so consistently, so smugly, that the other man would wax indignant and tell him he was crazy.  “Go ahead, just try,” the first man would dare him, “try to withdraw a sizable sum, and you’ll see that I am right.”  So the dupe would do just that, and it was just a matter of time before he and his money were separated.  How could anyone fall for such an obvious scam, you and I and almost everyone would wonder, and the victim, once disabused, would wonder the same.  But at the time, he fell for it hook, line, and sinker, and – to mix metaphors – got royally fleeced.

     Today the cheats take advantage of the Internet to reach you in your home.  Once, out of nowhere, I got an e-mail:  “Aloha!  I’d like to get to know you.  From your profile I think we have lots in common.”  The sender seemed to be a pleasant young woman.  Surprised and charmed, I was tempted to respond, but some good spirit deep within me, some demon of skepticism, held me back, and I quickly realized that this was probably a scam, bait to entice you to interact and yield personal information useful to the scammer.  Like all  such greetings since, I deleted it.

     On another occasion I got an e-mail purporting to be from my publisher, saying that on the spur of the moment he had taken a trip abroad – I think he said to the Philippines – was in trouble there and needed money; if I could send him several hundred, he’d repay me as soon as he got back.  This smelled fishy, so I asked for more information.  The appeal was repeated urgently, but it seemed fishier than ever, so I asked how he knew me, what was the connection?  No answer came.  I then e-mailed the publisher and got an immediate reply: an account of his had been hacked, and this appeal was going out to many of his authors and acquaintances whose e-mail addresses had been discovered; he was now closing the account and opening another with a different password.  Beware of sudden e-mail appeals.  With hindsight, I realize that I shouldn’t even have answered the first appeal before contacting him for verification.

     And of course we’re constantly assaulted by ads that make glowing vague promises.  WOULD  YOU  LIKE  TO  BE  A  MILLIONAIRE? one asked.  Amused, I answered by mail as instructed: “Yes, please tell me how to become a millionaire!”  The reply was simply a run-of-the-mill invitation to invest in something or other, an offer so drab and uninspired that it wasn’t worth messing with, even to chuckle or debunk it. 

     I’m not always so canny.  Recently I got an envelope labeled Social Security & Medicare, personal statement enclosed, and in bold red ink, EXPIRATION  NOTICE.  At the very thought of my Social Security and Medicare expiring, I almost panicked and hurriedly opened the envelope.  So what did I discover?  It was an appeal from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare, urging me to renew my membership – in other words, give them more money.  Looking closely at the envelope, I now saw that the words “National Committee to Preserve” were indeed there, but in small print.  They had tricked me into opening the envelope.  But this so annoyed me that I vowed never to give them money again – not exactly the dénouement they intended.

     There are trivial tricks and scams, but serious ones perpetrated by real artists of the trade abound.  The current AARP Bulletin, distributed widely to golden oldies, has an article entitled “Season’s Cheatings” that mentions several online scams practiced at this time of year on the elderly.  For instance:
·      Notifications by e-mail claiming that the U.S. Post Office or some other entity has a delivery for you; click on the link and you get malware.
·      Rogue retailers offering bargain prices that you find on social media or through search engine results; they want your credit card number or will sell you inferior goods (or maybe nothing at all).
·      Charity cons claiming to benefit police, firefighters, veterans, sick or needy children, or victims of natural disasters; again, they want your credit card number.
·      Gotcha giveaways offering free merchandise or free vacations, likewise hoping to get your credit card or other sensitive information.

Not to mention scams that relieve some oldsters of their life’s savings, or induce them to send money abroad to rescue a grandchild who is reportedly in some kind of unforeseen trouble. 

     Being a bit of a tightwad and suspicious by nature, I’ve never fallen for any of these cons, but long ago a friend of mine was outrageously conned by a master of the trade.  (I’ve told this story before, but I’ll tell it here again, since it exemplifies this post’s theme.)  My friend Kevin, a natty, sophisticated New Yorker, told me he had just met an interesting visitor from South America (I forget which country) named Vergilio and was quite taken with him.  The next thing I knew, Kevin had arranged with a friend who was going away on vacation to let Vergilio move into her place temporarily.  Kevin’s praise of Vergilio grew ever more intense, and finally I met this paragon when Kevin invited me over for cocktails.  Vergilio was a good-looking young man of about thirty, no kid, well-groomed and well-mannered, with a soft, pleasing voice and a gracious smile.  Good enough, but everything about him, while pleasing, seemed strangely vague.  He was right there in the present, but he seemed to have no past and no discoverable future – a mysteriousness that made him that more interesting to Kevin.   

     “What is it about this guy that so gets to you?” I asked Kevin later.

     Kevin flashed a look of intensity.  “I’ve never known anyone like him. He’s fascinating.  He has glamour!”

     Glamour – a word I associate with Hollywood brouhaha – was something I had never hankered for, but it was clear that it appealed to some need deep in Kevin’s psyche.  But I was worried.  For me, Vergilio, who had appeared out of nowhere, was a smile over a cocktail glass, nothing more.


     In the weeks that followed, Kevin began evincing alarm: Vergilio's health was not all it should be.  Then he informed me that Vergilio was going to consult a doctor on the doctor's yacht, which struck me as an odd site for a consultation.  Next I got a phone call from Kevin, with anguish in his voice: "Vergilio is dying!"  His friend had informed him that he was suffering from a long-term fatal ailment, its exact nature undisclosed, that required treatment in Europe; he would be leaving soon.  So Vergilio left; Kevin moped about, waited for news, worried.  Postcards came from Paris, Monte Carlo, Nice, with only the briefest message and no news about his treatment.

     Three weeks later he was back, well-groomed and urbane as ever, the same soft voice, the same smile over a cocktail glass.  He showed Kevin and me a series of photographs from his trip, every one featuring a smiling and handsome Vergilio in a well-appointed residence, his host unidentified: photos of a narcissist.  By now even Kevin sensed something amiss, but his need of glamour locked him into the spell.

     Vergilio now informed Kevin that he had to return to Europe for an operation that might or might not save his life, probably not; professing embarrassment, he confessed he needed money for the trip.  Why he had to turn to a new friend, and not to old friends and family, went unexplained.  Kevin at once gave forth of his own meager savings, then phoned any number of friends, entreating them to loan him what they could.  Some did, some didn't.  I myself, unable and unwilling to label Vergilio a liar or a fraud without convincing evidence, promised five hundred dollars but then, common sense prevailing, gently but firmly declined.  "I don't believe in it," I explained.  Kevin’s response: "I feel like I've been kicked in the teeth.”

     Vergilio departed once again for Europe, and I heard no more of him, for Kevin and I were now estranged.  Finally I phoned a mutual friend, asking how he was.  "He's learning what he has to learn," she said, but refrained from saying more.  Months passed; other matters claimed me, but I thought often of Kevin.  Finally he phoned and invited me over.  He looked worn and wan, but got to it right away:  "If I ever see him again, I'll say to him, 'What?  You're not dead?  But that's why I gave you all that money and sent you back to Europe.  Dead -- you should be dead!'"  A hard look came over him that I had never seen before.

     To my knowledge, Vergilio never reappeared in New York; if he did, it was at a far remove from Kevin.  Kevin never mentioned his name again.  Since his finances were habitually precarious, I doubt if he ever repaid any of his friends.  But of one thing I am sure: Vergilio was off somewhere, on this continent or another, smiling over a cocktail glass and enlisting the sympathy and generosity of friends.  New friends; to the old ones he wouldn't dare show his face.

     Vergilio was a classic example of the con man, and Kevin a classic example of the dupe.  (Note my insisting on “con man” and never “con woman” or “con person”; it seems to be a males-only game.)  An article by Maria Konnikova in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times of December 6 of this year argues that we humans are born to be conned, that the true con artist makes us feel good about ourselves, makes us think he’s giving us just what we deserve.  The victim is always swept up in a narrative that at the time seems absolutely compelling. 

     So it was with Kevin.  He had a deep need to experience glamour, and Vergilio satisfied that need marvelously, to the point that Kevin ignored all the danger signs: the vagueness of Vergilio’s ailment, and his obvious good health; Vergilio’s inability to get help from old friends and family, so that he instead relied on a newfound friend of meager means; Vergilio’s trip to Europe supposedly to get medical aid, a trip memorialized in photos of Vergilio in luxury settings that belied the very purpose of the trip.  Kevin was no fool, but he fell for the con that a shrewd operator offered him, and his awakening was harsh; the wound was long in healing, if it ever did heal completely.

     The Maria Konnikova article cited above gives another example of a con.  On her first day in New York a college student named Robin Lloyd encountered a loud-mouthed performer behind a cardboard box on Broadway who invited the crowd to “follow the lady” as he switched three playing cards about face down with lightning speed; if you bet you could guess correctly where the “lady” – a queen – went, he would double your money.  She was taken with the offer, excited, all the more so when another bystander wagered and won.  So even though she had only two $20 bills in her pocket and no winter coat, she wagered all she had.  The moment she did so, she regretted it, and of course she lost.  The game that duped her is called three-card monte and is still played on the streets of New York.  The monte operator, a good judge of character, had sensed her need and exploited it.  And the bystander she saw win was of course a plant, put there to lure victims in.  Another classic case of a con man in operation who must be deft with his fingers and spiel.  The game itself has been played in many countries as far back as the fifteenth century, and is still being played today. 

File:Three Card Monte.jpg

     Robin Lloyd was tricked because she needed money; my friend Kevin was tricked because he needed glamour; always, the con man offers something we deeply desire.  Which is why con men will always exist, and someone will always be duped.  What do you need?  Be careful, there’s someone out there eager to offer it to you; if you believe him, you’ll be had.

File:Warsaw 1944 by Bałuk - 26196.jpg
Three-card monte in Warsaw in 1944.  Even in wartime, under German
occupation and with the Red Army approaching, it flourished.

File:The game of monte in the streets of Mexico by Claudio Linati 1828.jpg
In Mexico in 1828.  An international con.

     A postscript on cemeteries:  Having read last week's post on cemeteries, our friend Carol tells how, when her stepfather died, she and her mother toured a cemetery in New Jersey, looking for a plot.  A blustery bleached blonde drove them around.  She kept up a running conversation, assuring them, "The place is well kept up.  You'll never find any empty plastic milk jugs lying around here."  A great comfort to the bereaved family. 

     Freakish weather:  Tuesday, December 22, the shortest day of the year, was also the darkest I have ever experienced in New York.  A short day, overcast; we had lights on all day.  And Thursday, December 24, was the mildest Christmas Eve I have ever known, with temperatures in the low 70s.  Spring flowers have been reported; whatever their normal season, I see some white ones right next door.

     Coming soon:  Fear of Falling: my fears, and everyone’s.  Then: A daring con man of our time, an alleged whiz kid of deceit.

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder

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