Spin the Globe with Justin Butner

A world citizen may provide value to society by using knowledge acquired across cultural contexts.

The Art of the Scam

I got taken a couple nights ago for $20. This is more money than I comfortably allow myself to spend on dinner and yet I handed it over willingly. As soon as the hand-off occurred I was aware that I would never see it again. And due to the artistry and finesse with which the guy worked the situation, I found myself almost okay with things. I only beat myself up over it for an hour, which means a lot for me.

So here is how I was the perfect mark and he worked the situation to his advantage. I suppose you could use these to prevent the same from happening to you, if you wanted to learn from my mistakes.

The setting is a sub-freezing night in a bar district in a midwestern US city. Sub-freezing is important because it means that you don’t want to be outside any longer than you have to. In fact, to a point, the more in a hurry you appear, the better a target you are because you are distracted from the situation by thoughts of where you are going and how warm it will be when you get there. The bar district is important because it means you are more likely to be drunk and slower on the uptake. In my case, the bar district also happened to be the monument district, so I was distracted by the sights more than the drinks.

The most important part of my appearance that made me a target was that I was alone. Women are afraid to walk alone for fear of being assaulted. People in cities are afraid to walk alone for fear of being mugged. And as it is easier to charm / confuse one person, single targets are the best. (Walking alone near the Red Light District in Amsterdam also makes you a good target for drug dealers and in Vegas for prostitutes, but those are off-putting at worst.)

The guy who approached me did the following things to his advantage. The end result was my money in his hand.

* He was friendly, putting me at ease. (Smile, but not too big. Warm face. Glad to see me as if I was an old friend.)

* He was in a bad spot, appealing to my sense of decency. (His keys were locked in his car and it was below freezing. The AAA guy was upset  because it wasn’t an emergency and demanded cash, which was unfortunate because the guy’s debit card was in his car.)

* He introduced himself and shook my hand, making the personal connection. This is why Walmart hires greeters – you aren’t buying from a huge, evil, multinational coorporation; you’re buying from Gladys the grandmother. And he did it without seeming slick, which isn’t easy given the next point.

* He talked fast and provided too much information on a variety of points. The more that is happening, and the more you brain needs to switch gears, the harder it is to pull out the relevant points into a coherent picture to compare against a rational story. The short version of his story already raises some pretty big red flags: Why won’t AAA take a card? Why wouldn’t the locksmith get him into his car and then demand he walk to the nearest ATM to get the cash prior to letting him get in the car? Who leaves their debit card in the car but still has their wallet on them? But because he was all over the place, my brain didn’t connect the very glaring questions until it was too late. (He gave me his home city, his general history of travel, his job, where he was staying, sports info, info about my home city, and personal commentary on other things in addition to the details of his situation, broken up no more than a sentence at a time, all in less than about a minute.)

* He attempted to make further personal connection by asking if I was from Phili (a city he probably knows about). When I told him no, he asked where. Once he had DC to work with, he started pulling out random facts about the area. School names where his nephew went. Neighborhoods where he had visited.

* He made me uncomfortable and preyed on white guilt. The guy he had asked for help previously had been a racist and had called him an F-ing N-word. He specifically used those safe-for-newscast substitutions to avoid vulgarity while still bringing up the race card. Am I a racist? No. Did the racist help this guy? No. Therefore, to not be a racist, I should help this guy. The logical flow in that is horrible, but it holds up for getting someone to make a snap decision. Additionally, the discomfort of racism adds to the discomfort of the cold weather and the desire to get the interaction completed and move on.

* He got my number so he could pay me back. This allowed my brain to feel that this wasn’t a risk, despite how obviously it was. Had I asked for his number, he would have given me a fake one. Had I asked him to call me on his phone right there so I would have his number, he would have claimed he locked his phone in the car too.

* He only asked for a small amount to offset the money he was short. He was only short $7. Surely I could spare $7.

* Once my wallet was out, he upsold me. It wasn’t seven, it was seventeen. The hard part of an deal is getting past the “go” or “no go” phase. Once the customer has accepted spending any money, the particulars of that amount are easier to manipulate. Hence introductory offers, base prices, and happy hour specials. Once my  wallet was out, getting a second Hamilton was one sentence of effort.

And so was how I walked away from an encounter in about 90 seconds, $20 lighter, and confused as to what had just transpired. As soon as it was over, I was already starting to question if I had been scammed. It was a few more minutes before I was sure that I was. But it was the efficiency and panache of the whole thing that made me much more okay with it. By doing everything right, I can appreciate the artistry and education value.

“A fake Jamaican took every last dime with a scam.
It was worth it just to learn some sleight-of-hand.”

Modest Mouse – “Float On”

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This entry was posted on January 12, 2011 by in Uncategorized.

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