Roguelike people

Roguelike people

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No technology today. Rather, some advice.

I don't know if there's some sort of grifter convention going on, but I have seen four different short-con artists operating in Wallingford, the neighbourhood of Seattle where I live, in the last three days. Though that might be a slight mischaracterization. One of them was selling from a bag Christmas ornaments that they'd clearly just now shoplifted from Walgreens, which is not much of a "con". One of them might have plausibly actually been panhandling. But the other two were clearly running short cons, and even two is a lot for Wallingford in two days.

For those of you readers not intimately familiar with the short con, let me break it down for you. There are two basic kinds of confidence scams, "short" and "long". The short-con artist -- the "grifter" -- aims to tell the target -- the "mark" -- a story that convinces the mark to part with a small amount of money immediately, and then the grifter disappears forever from the mark's life. (*) They don't care if the mark realizes five minutes later that they've been taken by a short con; the grifter has got their five dollars and has moved on to the next mark. The long-con artist aims to gain the confidence of the mark for a long period of time, take them for a large amount of money, and maintain the mark's confidence even after the scam is over. "The Sting" is a great movie for seeing both the short con and the long con in action; the movie opens with a "Pigeon Drop" short con and ends with a "Big Store" long con.

The short cons that I've see around Wallingford over the last ten years are extraordinarily weak; they're barely a step up from panhandling. The guy who stopped me on the street last night was a perfect example: "hey buddy, can you help me out, I've lost my ferry ticket, well, it's not lost, it's at home on the coffee table but I can't get there in time and my roommate isn't picking up the phone, and I need to be at the ferry terminal to get to my brother's place, he's broken his leg, but here I am in Wallingford because I was having coffee with my friend Cindy at that bakery behind you and we ended up talking longer than I expected, but she's on the bus to Northgate now so she can't help me, but if you can loan me the money for the ticket I'll be back here tomorrow, hey, you can call me on my cell phone and we can arrange to meet, let me tell you my cell phone number and you can call me right now to verify that it's real" and that's when I stopped him, because I kid you not, all that came out of him without him letting me get a word in.

The sob-story short cons are all the same: I've lost my ferry ticket (but strangely enough we're nowhere near the ferry terminal), my car is out of gas and I need to get to my sick mother (but strangely enough the car is nowhere nearby), I'm almost out of my medication (here's the pill bottle, see?) but I've lost my wallet and I can't pay the pharmacy fee, can you help a brother out?

So, a word of advice to you guys:

  • People who mean you well do not stop you on the street. They ignore you, the same way you ignore strangers on the street whom you do not intend to defraud.
  • If the story sounds rehearsed, that's because it is.
  • You are under no obligation to give money to any stranger on the street who spins you a line.
  • Call the police non-emergency line; large cities may have a "bunco squad" that is interested to know where short-con artists are operating.

And a word of advice to any con artists out there who might be reading my blog about programming language design:

  • Too many details! Always you guys with your too many details! Look at all the irrelevant details the con artist gave me yesterday. Real people in trouble don't do that. Con artists always think that details add veracity but they do not; they make it sound like you're trying to convince me of a lie.
  • Giving the whole spiel at once, and having your props already in hand -- the cell phone, the gas can, the pill bottle -- make you seem like you are performing a monologue on stage. It is not realistic. Try a more naturalistic approach.
  • Consider giving up the con and go to honest panhandling. It's safer. Non-aggressive panhandlers I ignore; grifters I report to the police so that they can be arrested.

Next time: We'll finish up 2011 with rogues of a different sort!

(*) They hope; I in fact have been the target of the same con artist with the same "pill bottle" story twice, once in Wallingford and once in the parking lot of a vegetarian Chinese food restaurant by Seattle Center. He was even wearing the same t-shirt both times -- dark blue with "PUNK ROCK!" written on it in big white letters; an odd choice of costume, I thought. It certainly was a great identifying detail when I reported him to the police. I guess you can't remember everyone you meet when you're in that line of work. The off-my-meds punk rock enthusiast's story was utterly unconvincing the first time; the second time, it was just sad. I kinda hope to meet the guy a third time; I'd be interested to find out if this story actually works.

  • Ahhh!!! This article is a disgrace to my favorite game genre:  ;-)

    You'll enjoy next week's posts then! -- Eric

  • "And a word of advice to any con artists out there who might be reading my blog about programming language design:"

    I laughed on that one. I like your sense of humor. :)

  • That's a new one. Fortunatly, where I live that doesn't happen. Once a poor woman came to my house and I felt sorry for her, so I gave her a bag of rice and a bottle of milk. She wanted meat and money and I didn't give her those things. In the next day I see the bag of rice and the bottle of milk next to my house, unopened. It had happened before with clothes. From that day, I never gave anything to those people.

  • Eric, How can you disregard a story like THAT one, you should have bought him a ferry ticket just for being clever enough to come up with all that ;)

  • CSharpTest.Net,

    In my opinion, if those guys where clever enough, they would have convenced Eric, and he wouldn't be here telling this.

  • Another great movie showing short and long cons in action: "Nueve Reinas" (Nine Queens)

  • Several times in Philadelphia I've been given the "I need money for a ticket to Trenton" spiel, Trenton of course being the most expensive regional rail ticket. One guy took to wearing a hospital gown, claiming he just got out of the ER and had no money to get home. He approached me a second time a week later with the same sob story, and I reminded him that I didn't buy it the week before. He got pretty upset, probably out of embarassment at being so obviously caught out.

  • Hahahaha, really funny. Can you share your answer to the ferry guy with us? I bet it was at least a bit ironic hahaha.

  • Have you ever met the guy in Seattle who goes door to door with a story about how he and his partner just moved into the neighborhood, and he locked himself out of his house and he just needs some money to pay the locksmith so he can get in to his wallet?

    It's a really good story actually. He makes a point to say that he's a gay black man too, which I assume makes people feel guilty to say no to him.

    Yes! He came to my door several years ago. The best part about that story is that it does not make any sense at all. -- Eric

  • You know how a guy successfully got some money off me on the street recently? He said "excuse me, I'm not going to lie to you brother, I'm trying to get some money together so I can buy a drink, can you spare any change?" I was so surprised to not be bullshitted that I gave him a few bucks.

  • Oliver: When I was home (New York City) from college one weekend, I was waiting for a red light to change so I could continue looking for a parking spot, and a guy approached me asking for gas money to get home to Long Island.  I gave him 4 or 5 dollars ($7 to $10, adjusted for inflation).

    A few months later, again home from college, again on a quest for street parking, I was at the same corner when the same guy approached me with the same story.  Fool me twice, shame on me, so I called him on it: "I gave you money last time, not again."  His response was to get upset, not because I had caught him out, but because "is it my fault somebody else had the same problem"?  Such an unfortunate "coincidence."  I figured there was no way he'd admit it if I said I recognized him, so I didn't push it.

    When I walked past that corner on my way home, he was gone.  Oh, and a half a block in the other direction from the gas station was a "grocery" that seemed to sell more cannabis (and who knows what else) than any legal product.  So, Eric, since the police didn't seem to be doing anything about the "grocery", I don't suppose they'd have done much about the grifter.  But I didn't try.  This was New York in the 80s, after all.

  • The annoying ones are the "short cons" who have a regular area.

    "I've never been here before - I'm terrified of the city and have my kid with me. My car ran out of gas and I have no cash in my wallet. We want to get the hell out of here. You've got to help me. We just need money for gas at the station. I'll give you my licence to prove I'm not some sort of bum. Just return it when I pay you back."

    "You tried me yesterday. My answer's still no. Find another mark."

  • As I used to ride the train, I have often been accosted for money for the train... once the grifter was absolutely shameless: took my money and then boarded the same train as me, without buying a ticket.

    One time a friendly guy came up to me and asked if he could have five bucks for a bottle of booze. In his friendly manner he explained what an honest person he was and touted that he wouldn't bulls*** me. So I gave him the money, hahaha. Another time a guy even convinced me to give him money for coke (the bad kind) ,,, but I don't think I would do that again. But I have to say, their honesty definitely makes their begging more palatable.

  • I prefer cons that take advantage of negative aspects of the mark's personality, typically greed.  It tends to not work on good people, and gives negative reinforcement to those negative aspects.  The sob stories, which I've heard before several times, punish the kind, generous and naive.

    Second favorite the people who offer something.  I recently had someone in a common panhandling area offer to wash my car, I took him up on the offer and he walked away.  They also tell people they don't have to pay for parking at the meter on off-hours, and I always give them a bit if they save me from giving to the city unnecessarily.  Better bums than government.

  • Why don't you tell'em this?

    "Hey, I'll loan you the money, just let me take a picture of you in case you won't return it to me". We'll see how they will refuse it then...

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