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.

  • Hey bro,

    Can you believe this? Just an hour ago, I had a session with some friends, and all was well, but then this guy asks me for another beer, and as I process his request, I totally cannot remember what I was just doing and where the hell all the beer was, although I'm positive it's still somewhere in this session, and then I got all confused and eventually crashed, and now I'm here feeling totally hung over, which must be because I've had a stack before that request but now there's only 50 cents left, and now you really need to help a buddy out with another beer.

    (This wouldn't happen again if you could find it in your kind heart to support CPS web programming in C# 5, as described in )

    Can't await! God bless you my friend!

  • @Gabe: that's precisely what I do too. Anyone genuinely down on their luck will get what they need if they take me up on the offer and anyone else will, well, no longer be my problem.

  • Down at Westlake I got the story of "I'm unable to get cash from my out of state bank, can you buy something for me at Nordstrom's then I will write you a check to cover it."  There was some sort of logic in there attempting to get cash back from the purchase beyond the sale price, but I had to cut him off.  They wanted in some fashion me to launder their bad checks.

  • Great story, Eric, as usual. :)

    Alongside Hustle, allow me to recommend the excellent <a href=">.

  • I've only ever encountered one of these guys in Wallingford in the past 11 years, and he came to my DOOR. MY DOOR. Ugh. A new low. (He ran out of gas and his wife was in the car having a baby right.this.instant.) (WHO abandons a woman in labor except to call 911?)

  • Ha!  Let me tell you about walking around Manhattan one night in the late 80s with a crack addict, looking for an open drug store so I could buy her the diapers she so desperately needed.  

  • I always offer to solve their problem without money.

    "Oh, you need a Ferry Ticket? I gotta run down there anyway, I can give you a ride and I'll buy the ticket when we get down there." It's extremely fun to do.

    "Oh wow, you need gas? My car's right there let's go get some!"

  • I'm intrigued by the cell phone though - presumably if you called him there and then it would work, so you have his number stored. Is it s stolen phone or is there some element I'm missing?

    The element you're missing is that you've never bought a prepaid cell phone. You buy the phone hardware for cash, you buy the SIM card (that contains the phone number) for cash, and you buy the network minutes for cash. There's no contract; when you run out of minutes the phone stops working until you buy more. So what if I had his number? There's nothing whatsoever that ties the phone number on the SIM card to any person. -- Eric

  • The best short con sob story I heard was from well dressed man in a suit holding a bunch of flowers.  He was telling anyone who would listen that he'd bought the flowers for his wife after an argument.  But when he got home he found all his belongings on the front lawn and the locks changed.  Would anyone buy the flowers from him for twenty quid so he could get a hotel room for the night? He was standing there all day with various different bunches of flowers.

  • I enjoyed this post. I always enjoy your posts. This one was explained well and broken down in a way that was easy to understand. Maybe technical writers should explain everyday concepts more often. Thank you.

  • "The element you're missing is that you've never bought a prepaid cell phone. You buy the phone hardware for cash, you buy the SIM card (that contains the phone number) for cash, and you buy the network minutes for cash. There's no contract; when you run out of minutes the phone stops working until you buy more. So what if I had his number? There's nothing whatsoever that ties the phone number on the SIM card to any person. -- Eric"

    We fairly recently got a new law, which obligates SIM operators and resellers to register every customer, so even pre-paid services are not anonymous anymore. Of course, this only kinda solves the problem, cause there are a lot of poor people, gypsies, etc. who would happily buy the pre-paid card in their name for a few bucks in their pocket. Then whatever nasty thing is going on with the SIM card itself, the authorities can barely track the homeless guy and even if they did - he's not the one doing the cons. It helps though, just doesn't completely resolve the issue.

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