05/13/2011 04:41 pm ET | Updated Jul 13, 2011

Suckers in the Garden

PT Barnum I guess said it best " There is a sucker born every minute." Unfortunately I think we can be much more gullible when times are more difficult. When we get a call from a potential client that has a large project, or one that says they have several properties and is looking for a landscaper to partner with, we want to believe that it isn't someone looking for free design ideas. Just like the suckers on your roses that drain the plant of energy, these folks looking for suckers to take advantage of take time away from serious clients and work. My goal, as with rose suckers, is to spot them quickly and snip them off before too much time is wasted.

I just returned from a meeting I was supposed to have at a firm that billed itself as one that will assist you in getting government contracts. I had my doubts when speaking with them on the phone but when I looked at the website it looked professional. You see chamber associations, Better Business Bureau, and a Forbes link. There weren't any reviews on any site posted so I thought I would check them out. As I waited for my appointment I looked at all of these framed chamber memberships, and the Forbes piece. It turns out the Forbes piece was a paid advertisement -- so not an article on them at all. Nothing that they didn't pay for was on that wall. All chamber memberships (paid for), the Better Business Bureau (which costs you $300 or so a year), and this advertisement. All of this with the hopes of making them look legitimate. The sad part about this is that many people that don't have the experience or education will think this makes them a credible company. They are going after contractors that typically don't have the highest levels of education and fit that category of being the hardest hit in the recession. It turns out of course that they charge you a fee to find this work. This is work that is available to anyone for free on government websites. I left without having the meeting.

I do have to say the person that has put this together is slick. They schedule multiple people to come in at once. This way it looks like you are competing with other people. They have desks in the waiting room with folks that look like they are working (if you listen you hear they really aren't but one of them was playing a game on her computer). They make it seem like you need to be interviewed to qualify but no input was given when questioned what those qualifications really are. Things really haven't changed much since PT Barnum. The same conman tactics apply.

This week I had what seemed like a nice couple contact me about doing some landscaping at a home they were remodeling and going to sell. I was told that they had several investment properties and they were looking for a new landscaper to work with. The one they had been working with was not honest with his pricing. I met with them, produced the estimate with some ideas on plants and hardscape. But instead of questions I got a request for a sketch for their financial partner. This of course is usually explained as just a formality, we really want to go with you because we like your ideas so far. Having been a sucker a few times in my early years as a designer, I recognize this as the I am looking for a free design so I can get some folks that are not licensed or insured to install it for me at half of what you will charge. As I always do now I say " Great, I look forward to working with you. I will send over my design contract and we can get started. Design fees of course apply towards the installation so you don't have to worry it won't be extra for you." At this point unless I have really misjudged them (unfortunately rarely happens) I don't hear back. On to the next potential sucker.

Looking at it now, I see the same pattern as with this faux government assistance agency: Try to seem legitimate (they took me to a house they were working on), create the impression that only one or a few will be chosen (they kept saying they were interviewing others and of course only one will be chosen), make the mark (con man lingo) believe you like them and are going to select them if they just give you a free design (or wire money etc.), then when the mark gives you what you as a good con man you disappear.

So life isn't that different from what goes on in the garden. There is always a lot of weeding to do and keep the suckers to a minimum.