2017-04-19 / Front Page

Fraud, Schemes & Scams Scrutinized At Sunnyside

By Thomas Cogan

A presentation at Sunnyside Community Services in early April addressed the topic of confidence crimes and schemes to defraud.  Speaking were police officers and U.S. Postal officials, and a local merchant too, who was the victim of phone fraud, though luckily he lost no money, even after revealing the serial number of his credit card.   There was also a film, in which one of the most decorated officers in the history of the New York Police Department said that what we were about to watch contained no violence but the violence of cruelty—the cruelty of gaining people’s confidence for the purpose of getting their money or property away from them, perhaps down to the last cent or item of ownership.  

The film, “Con Games:  Personal Stories,” features Paul Ragonese, former NYPD detective, is about 20 minutes long and was made a few years ago by Pat Dorfman, executive director of the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce, and Nazario Brea.  In the first of these stories, an elderly woman is met on the street by another woman who has an astonishing load of cash in a satchel, which she shows her.  She says that it was apparently misplaced in the midst of an illegal operation and she doesn’t seem to know what to do with it.  Along comes a man, to whom she recites the same story.  He advises the two women to stay put while he goes to a nearby lawyer that he knows.  He soon comes back and says if the money is not claimed before a certain period goes by, the finder may keep it.  

Soon all three are agreeing to split the fortune, but must first put it in a bank account, though the elderly woman must contribute a large sum of her own to give the huge account a certain legitimacy; her contribution, she is assured, will ultimately be returned to her in its entirety.  She withdraws all her savings and gives it to the couple, who promise to deposit everything in a new account (though the elderly woman fails to note the couple are now oddly allied, having been to all appearances utter strangers earlier in the day).  They leave, and in the next scene the woman sadly admits that she never saw them or her money again.

The whole thing might seem implausible, but it has happened many times and, the guest speakers assured their listeners, is bound to happen again.  Though the swindled woman might strike viewers as having been made gullible by greed (she laments all the items she would have bought her relatives and friends with her split of the swag—which looks like the haul from an armored car robbery—by then knowing  that it was only a set-up and, more to the point, that her very real bundle of savings is gone forever), but the speakers  asked if they would quickly walk away from such a something-for-nothing proposition.  If you hesitate, your new friends quickly elide to the part about your contribution, a simple investment, and ultimately all the money that wasn’t yours and that which was has disappeared.

Other victims might not be faced with temptation at all.  One story is about a middle manager who has an envelope full of his company’s money in his suit pocket because he doesn’t want to leave it around the office when he goes to the park to eat his lunch. In the park, two young women pass by and notice he has a fresh stain of mustard on the shoulder of his jacket.  They offer to remove it so he’ll have no unsightly spot there before he takes it to a dry cleaner.  It would help them if he could remove his jacket.  He does, exposing the envelope.  One of the women takes the envelope and replaces it with another.  The spot of mustard, which had been on a handkerchief that one of the women pressed to the man’s shoulder, is removed and his jacket is returned to him.  As the women leave, he suddenly worries about the envelope, but is relieved to find it.  When back at the office, however, he opens it to find not money but a sheaf of dollar-sized newspaper clippings.  Grifters’ terms like “Murphy man” and “Michigan bankroll” might occur those who’ve heard them.

There are other tales, including one where viewers are asked to spot the perpetrator in a scene in which a woman and a sweet-looking, gray-haired Mr.- and- Mrs. couple appear. 

Cynics among them would be right—the golden oldies are the crooks.  And while the film presents routines that many viewers may have heard about before, they should remember that these old crimes are regularly revised, enough to make them new again.  They existed before telephones (read Melville’s The Confidence-Man) and adjust well to our cybernetic age. 

Another thing:  victims have probably been scouted and these confidence schemes can thus involve principal actors and back-office staff working on the hapless mark.

The meeting had a live witness, victim of a telephone scheme.  Eric Barthels, owner of Cooldown Juice (“Freshest Organic Cold Press”) near 39th Street and 47th Avenue, got a call the day opening day of his business, from someone identifying himself as a Con Edison representative and saying that because of delinquent payments, Barthels’s  business would have its power cut off immediately if he didn’t pay $2,000.  The voice demanded a credit card number and after getting it and pausing briefly, said the card had been rejected, so the owner must now buy one of those phone cards from a local pharmacy and phone it in. 

Instead, Barthels called to get his credit card cancelled and phoned Con Ed to say what had happened.  He was told the company  doesn’t seek payments over the phone and that he’d been a victim of fraud.  His power stayed on and he lost no money, but what he’d just escaped could have been costly.

The speakers all advised reporting it if you have been the victim of fraud.  It might be highly embarrassing but if it serves as a warning to others it will have been a valuable lesson.  And remember again that these schemes are ever renewing themselves.  Recall President Trump’s recent immigrant limitation order.  After it was issued, many agents of malice dressed up in phony uniforms as members of Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) and bully-ragged unregistered immigrants, saying they would desist only if paid off.  Blackmail may be brutal, but it qualifies as a confidence scheme, at least in this case.  Succinctly, the speakers’ advice was to be on guard for proposals that are suspiciously nice or nasty and warn others about them.


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