The con that ensnared me was a mundane one, which made it all the more undetectable. It wasn't an ungrammatical email promising fantastic riches, but a perfectly ordinary financial transaction with two very nice people.
My husband and I were long-distance landlords for a tiny apartment building in the Middle of Nowhere, upstate New York. We had a vacancy and a long list of unsuitable applicants. So when the Connors (not their real name) arrived at the open house, we were instantly relieved. They were solidly middle-class with two jobs, two cars, and two adorable daughters. We unconsciously accepted their entire performance: their SUV with a set of golf clubs in the back, their neatly ironed Gap clothes, even their discerning appreciation of the apartment's view. Only later would we wonder if those kids were child actors rented for the day.
We agreed that they would send us a check for the deposit and rent, and we would send them the keys. We shook hands, and my husband and I returned home to Connecticut. We sent the keys, but their check never arrived. We called, and they said it must have gotten lost in the mail. They sent a second one -- and wouldn't you know it, that one also got lost in the mail.
At that point, we knew they were lying to us. But they were just so good at displaying the symbols of middle-class respectability. We never doubted that they were part of our tribe, so of course it never occurred to us that they were playing us. We figured they were over their heads in some sort of crisis, perhaps a health scare or a family member in trouble. We just ached to be helpful.
For a few weeks, we offered them payment plans and sympathy, but minor calamities befell the Connors whenever they attempted to pay us what they owed. They ran out of checks; their car broke down on the way to the post office; their computer crashed; a check was returned as undeliverable. Finally, our incredulity outweighed our patience, and we looked closer at the Connors. It only took a little research to discover they were serial swindlers, staying as long as they could in one place without paying a red cent, then moving on to the next town. Their jobs were lies, their previous landlords were all suing them, and they had a string of false names linking them to dozens of creditors. Two months later, we succeeded in evicting them, and our name was added to their worthless credit report.
Of course, all of that could have been avoided had we not done business on a handshake.
Should we have done things differently with the Connors? Should we do things differently now that we've encountered them? Should we only rent to people with solid jobs and strong credit? When you put it that way, it sounds like just plain common sense.
But if we followed that strategy all the time we wouldn't have accepted some of our very best tenants. If our own past landlords had followed that strategy, how many times would we have been denied apartments? Most of the time, extending trust according to your instinct is the right thing to do. If you withhold trust on the statistically improbable chance that you might encounter a swindler, you'll miss out on an awful lot of relationships, financial and otherwise.
Being swindled affirmed my values, rather than shaking them up. Instead of making me suspicious and distrustful, it made me glad I'm the kind of person who is decent enough to be conned. Not everyone is defrauded because they are greedy. And it prompted me to look out for other people who are susceptible to swindlers, especially the elderly and those affected by the mortgage crisis.
I'm lucky that I didn't lose enough money to affect my family's finances. The only true deficit I felt upon being swindled was the absence of a cultural conversation about this particular kind of vulnerability. Enormous frauds like Enron and Madoff grab the headlines but also deflect our attention from how many of our everyday interactions depend on the kind of trust that is absolutely essential yet easily abused. We would think about money, confidence, and reciprocity differently if we knew exactly how prevalent scenarios like mine are, and what people do with the experience of being swindled.