Hominy & Hash
GRIFTERS, CON ARTISTS, FLIM FLAMS, GYPSIES AND SCAMS
by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- It's not original to say, but there's no better way to say it: "The more things change, the more they remain the same."
In this morning's mail -- electronic mail -- I was addressed as "Sir" and asked to help Miriam Abacha, the poor widow of the late Military President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria who died of heart problems in 1998. It seems the new regime believes her husband was crooked and hid assets. They have now frozen all her bank accounts, confiscated properties home and abroad and left her broke and needy.
She's turning to me - Me? - she says, because she needs help in securing the sum of "U.S.$38.5 million deposited abroad," and if I'm willing to help, I should contact her lawyer with a code. I am to keep this strictly confidential but the lawyer will answer questions.
Another letter, arriving in the same mail call, was signed "Mrs. Louise Estrada," wife of Joseph Estrada, the former President of the Philippines (who's sitting in jail right now). She had managed to siphon $15,000,000. Her husband doesn't know this so she must keep it secret. She put the money with a security firm and transported it as goods and consignment. Then she wrote:
"I decided to contact you because I want you to go to the security company and claim the money on my behalf since I have declared that the consignment belongs to my foreign business partner, you shall also be required to assist me in investment in your country. I trust you as a God fearing person you will not sit on this money when you claim it, rather assist me properly ..."
That's two letters in one day. The next step will be for the recipient of these letters - Me? - to provide bank account information, personal identification numbers (PIN) to show sincerity -- after all, they would naturally get a percentage of the claim (wink wink) and then they are fleeced of their money in an electronic con game.
The old ladies taken in by these confidence games don't even have to leave their homes to sit on a park bench and feed pigeons while the passing con artist decides if she herself is the pigeon, in the parlance of the game. There was a time, said little old lady would be so pleased to have a smiling man or woman sit beside her on the bench, talk about the birds for awhile and then she would listen to their tale of woe.
Now, little old lady or not, she has a touch of greed in her. When he tells her of a foolproof plan for doubling her money within an hour, she goes to the bank across the street, takes her funds out in cash, and goes back to the bench. A female is now with the man. This woman smiles, hands the old lady a zippered pencil case, and extends her other hand in a gesture of exchange.
Naturally, the old lady hands them a bank envelope with $25,000 inside. Everyone smiles as the couple drives off in a car the woman parked at the curb and the very contented lady resumes feeding the pigeons. Yes, the zippered pencil case contained money, play money, bought for $1.99 plus tax.
Greed, mixed with confidence in these "nice people" is what allows these scams to continue. When we think of charlatans, we don't imagine the nice young fellow in a blue button-down oxford shirt wearing polished penny loafers. No, we think of cheap suits, hair tonic, slick and smarmy, someone no one would trust. That image went the way of the $2.00 bill - still out there but rarely seen.
We don't imagine that a nice lady walking by pushing a baby carriage has a treasure trove of gimmicks - not up her sleeve, but in the diaper bag. She'll take you with some believable tale of woe or some get-rich-quick scheme.
If the tale of woe gets to you, well, you're compassionate, there's no crime in that. Sad when it happens, but you were just an easy mark. But if it's the get-rich-quick tactic - well, you're part of your own swindle. Deep down, you know there's no such thing as a free lunch. Those well versed in the art of flimflam will dupe the unwary every time.
Half-way through this article a friend called and told me "60 Minutes" featured the very letters I'm reporting here. Millions of dollars fell into the hands of the phonies bilking others out of their money to save their own hides so recently "fallen upon hard times." That's right, millions of dollars. The word is out, but, obviously, they continue since I just received my letters.
We know why the scoundrels do it: greed, and the thrill of taking an "easy mark." But, why do we let them? Ignorance? Maybe. Not wanting to say anything to such a nice person? Probably. We were raised not to take candy from a stranger; they must have been raised knowing how easy it is to take candy from a baby. But, although we are not babies, we are innocent. We're innocent to the ways of the world and we believe in The Golden Rule.
I'm perplexed why those who are obviously able to put themselves across as something else and make an illegal living out of it, do not use those talents legitimately. I heard of a man who was such a fine engraver, no one could detect his half dollar from the U.S. Mint's. But, he was plying his trade all day long for each coin. Thus, he was using his talent for fifty cents a day.
Why would a butcher secretly rest his thumb on the scale for the princely gain of three slices of bologna that would net him six cents for that sale?
I'm also curious why we admire a good scam ... and we do! Three movies come to mind: "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," "The Grifters," and "The Sting." We were not applauding the victims. Robert J. Nash, a writer who researched the habits and tricks of confidence men, wrote that "Con men are incorrigible. They are 100 percent recidivist; their psyche demands they do what they do."
And, according to Nash, "They don't take people's money; it's foisted on them."