Credulous crooks conned by cops

Throughout history, canny con artists have been fleecing the gullible with offers of something for nothing, roping in the unwary with unbeatable deals on everything from new TV sets to fat wads of cash somehow lost during civil unrest in Nigeria. Or Libya. Or, er, Wyoming…

Impersonating diplomats, bank examiners and attorneys, crooks have known for a long time that people can almost always be suckered when they’re offered a golden opportunity to increase their material wealth regardless of how ridiculous the offer may seem.

Not long ago, law enforcement authorities in San Joaquin County took a page from the con man’s handbook – sorry, not available in any store – and scored big on fugitive felons who couldn’t pass up something they should have known was just too good to be true.

Layla Bohm of the Lodi News-Sentinel reported in February that investigators with the District Attorney’s Office in Stockton rounded up dozens of felony suspects by sending them official-looking letters that promised payment of unclaimed money that was owed to them if they would be obliging enough to simply stop by a downtown Stockton office and pick up a check.

I know what you’re thinking: “Hey, I’d never fall for something like that. Not even if it was an official representative of the Nigerian government.”

Well, you might not fall for it and I might not fall for it, but 60 wanted felons who had somehow eluded arrest warrants enthusiastically took the bait and were reeled in by the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office.

According to the report, the DA’s investigators sent out letters to more than 800 county residents who, for whatever reason, had decided that responding to felony arrest warrants might not be in their best interest.

The notifications purportedly came from the “California Unclaimed Funds System” (Probably a sister agency to the “Angola Post-Revolutionary Funds Distribution Ministry”) and were considerably more enticing than a court summons, saying basically, “Come and get it!”And they did.

One man reportedly traveled all the way from San Diego to get what was coming to him.

And he did…

Let’s face it, amigos. This is a whole lot more amusing way to round up fugitive felons than venturing out before dawn, kicking down doors, lobbing tear gas hither and yon and then discovering that your intended prey moved to Reseda three weeks ago and you’ve just captured a pair of bewildered Mormon missionaries.

This way, the felons come to you. When they skip into your cozily bureaucratic office space with open arms, you greet them with open handcuffs – no fuss, no muss. It’s, like, a kinder and gentler arrest.

(And best of all, no tear gas. Yech…)

Of course, if this trend is going to catch on statewide, lawmen will have to vary their techniques from time to time to keep clever crooks getting wise to the con – maybe opening a “California Office of Unclaimed Methamphetamines” or the “State Office of Misplaced Education Funds.”

The latter should draw in fugitive politicians like flies to honey…

Originally published March 13, 2005

Telephone solicitors? Keep ’em guessing…

I have the deepest sympathy for the harried Vacaville reader who recently wrote to complain about being badgered by as many as seven telephone solicitors a day.

Alas, I know of what he speaks. I’ve had that many telemarketers call me at dinnertime alone.

I used to try to be sympathetic. I’d listen to the spiel for awhile and politely decline a complimentary septic tank inspection. After all, everybody’s got to earn a living.

But do they have to do it in the middle of my reheated lasagna and spinach dip?

Eventually, my patience got on a bus for Reseda. One can only remain polite for so long, particularly after some nitwit has interrupted a good cigar and the latest episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and then has the audacity to cheerfully ask, “And how are you doing tonight?”

Hmmmmm. Exactly how am I supposed to be doing? I just dropped a burning cigar in my lap and don’t know if Buffy got sucked into the Void by a Chaos Demon.

No sale tonight, pal.

I used to try saying “No, thank you” and hanging up the minute I detected a sales call, but that just seemed to make the telephone solicitors more persistent.

I tried responding with long, meaningless jokes about the three drunk waiters from Minnedosa and the farmer’s daughter, but my dinner still got cold.

Finally, I decided to take the offensive the minute I picked up the telephone. No more Mr. Nice Guy. In fact, no more Mr. Anybody. I became an anonymous – and somewhat threatening – voice representing a nonexistent agency somewhere near air or water.

Feel free to try this yourself. Here’s how it works:

Answer the phone with an immediate and authoritative “Air-Sea Operations – are you reporting an emergency?”

The solicitor will probably fumble this one, come up with a lame “Uh, is this a business?” or ask to speak to someone with a last name vaguely similar to yours.

Don’t waver. Don’t let ’em get another word in edgewise.

“This is Region Eleven Air-Sea Rescue. ARE YOU REPORTING AN EMERGENCY?!”

(Try to imagine yourself as a unshaven, cigar-chewing chief petty officer who doesn’t suffer idiots – or salespersons – gladly.)

Keep repeating this in a menacing monotone until the caller realizes that he or she is going to be in big trouble if they ever tie up this line again with one of their silly sales routines.

They will be intimidated.

They will apologize.

They will go away.

And, with any luck, they’ll remove your telephone number from their call list forever because nobody wants to mess with an irritable bureaucrat from an agency they’ve never heard of.

Although this is an amusing way to bamboozle telephone solicitors, I have to admit it has some drawbacks.

Because your fictitious agency’s no-nonsense dispatcher has to answer immediately and in character, your friends and family are going to think you’re a little weird whenever they call.

And, no matter how fast you talk, your dinner’s still probably going to get cold…

Originally published March 25, 2001