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.

  • When somebody comes up asking for money for X, I offer them X or offer to buy them X.

    "Oh, you need money for food? I was just on my way to lunch, let me buy you a sandwich." It doesn't matter that I'm not on my way to lunch because they won't take me up on it.

    "You don't have any gas? I have a gas can in my trunk." It doesn't matter that I don't have one because they don't want any gas from it anyway.

    "You're out of pills? That's horrible! Let me give you a ride to the pharmacy and buy you a refill."

    I actually got the same lady asking for gas twice in one week. The first time I felt bad but didn't give her anything. The second time I should have called the police.

  • I read this because I thought you were talking about rogue-like games too!

    But I got a kick out of the post for giving advice to thieves.

  • Brad, that happened to me as well, only he said that his partner worked for Microsoft. I asked him his partner's name, then said I'd go check the directory. He quickly vanished from my doorstep.

  • I always feel somewhat sad when someone approaches me this way, especially at this time of year.  The sad part is that in many cases, these people seems be unwilling or unable to care for themselves and their families.  I refuse to give hand outs to pan handlers, mostly because I feel that if they really wanted help, there are plenty of facilities available to people who are genuinely in need that can be of much more assistance than my two bucks. It doesn't make me any less sad that people are in such position though.

  • I was walking home from work very late at night through mid-town Manhattan when I was approached by a guy in a hard hat.  I thought to myself, "it's pretty late for a construction worker to be wandering around here".  And that's when he called me over - I didn't stop but he started walking with me and said something like, "Hey, I got off work recently but my boss didn't pay me like he was supposed to and I was counting on the money for my bus ticket home.  Could you help me out?"  As he was talking he was pointing to the major construction site behind us.  This was my first experience with a con like this but I didn't fall for it.  I must say though that his props (the hard hat and construction site) were perhaps better than most.  Although the first thing that came to my mind while he was talking was, "Then why did you let your boss and all of your co-workers leave you without a bus ticket?".  I didn't ask of course - I just said that I have no money and kept walking.  It's really sad, though it was also a bit scary for me so I don't feel so bad.

  • "The Sting" is good, but I've still got a soft spot for "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels"

  • "I'm not going to lie to you, I want money for some cheap nasty booze" is just a newer con that works more often. People assume they aren't being lied to, so give some money over for appreciating honesty. Then said con-artist goes and buys some drug (or booze) it's irrelevant. It's the same game, but a different story. You'll find many more people using the "I need a drink" line since it began to work for a few.

  • A while ago whilst waiting for the bus there was a couple of decrepit looking guys there. One of them came up and asked me for 30 dollars, because his mate needs a party pill! (*) I refused, thinking to myself "man, I don't usually spend that much money on a bottle of wine for me and my wife!"

    (*) Don't know if this lingo is international. Party pills are legal drugs - fake cannabinoids and the like.

  • British series Hustle (now in the 7th season I guess) portrays a lot of short cons as well as one or more long cons in every episode. It's backgrounded by some great music and is fun to watch.

    There is also it's spin-off series "The Real Hustle", featuring three supposedly real con artists taking you behind the curtain of many confidence tricks. Not as good as Hustle, but still, could be fun to watch for you.

  • My favorite was the guy sitting outside the laundromat in soaking wet clothes, asking for quarters for the dryer.

  • My favourite 'long con' goes like this: "My company has just come into a lot of money that we can lend to you to buy the house you currently rent. The repayments on the loan are actually less than the rent you pay out of your meagre wages as a janitor." Then after three repayments, the interest rates double, the repayments quadruple, and the poor victim loses their house and ends up panhandling on the street. But the guy who loaned the money is okay because, firstly, he took out an insurance policy which means he got his money back anyway; secondly, he managed to bundle the victim's mortgage up with a whole load of other dodgy mortgages (which he calls a 'CDO' - not it's not a database framework), get it triple-A rated by Moody's or Standard and Poor, then sell it on as a good investment to Pension Funds and other investors around the world, who eventually lose all their money.

    Is there a police phone number for this kind of thing?

  • Thnks Eric.  Perhaps you could do a breakdown of the language used by grifters verses that used on informertials.   I bet there are some  similarities to conspiracy theorists too.

  • My favorite was the guy who approached me as I was getting into my car and asked if he could borrow my spare tire. Since I (obviously) wouldn't let him have my spare, he asked if he could borrow $5 instead. Pretty clever, I thought!

  • @Rob - obviously that grifter works for Goldman Sachs.  Bonus points for inspiring Collateralized Debt Obligations.NET: a new framework for automating vampire squids like them (yes, I finished reading Matt Taibbe's book not long ago :)

  • You should check out the BBC drama series called 'Hustle'. It's all about the long-con with a bit of short-con thrown in, and is an excellent series for the entertainment value. It's got a little bit of an Ocean's 11 theme, leaving you trying to figure out how they're going to do it before they reveal it right at the very end.

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