Paper Moon, House of Games, The Grifters, The Sting; these are some of my favorite movies. All about the art of the con.
Con men in the movies are actually a bit likeable and cool. With a sleight of hand and the wink of an eye, they merrily take you for a buck. Or a thousand. There's something almost nostalgic about con men. Clever, inventive and bold, con men embody something of the American criminal spirit.
Con is short for confidence. Con man, flim flam, grifter, hustler, scam artist -- there are many names but one end result -- someone gets bamboozled. It happens to the best of us at least once. If you think you haven't been conned, you have.
E.M. Forster once said, "only connect." Every day we walk past homeless people on the street, avoiding their eyes and musky smell. We want to help, but we're a little afraid. They might be crazy. They will just buy more booze or drugs.
But the street grifter is different. He or she is calm, relaxed, dressed normally and experiencing a very mundane problem, one you can relate to. It could be you needing ten bucks, right? They've already gathered up some money -- see, here it is -- so just ten more? They lost their cell phone. They need a cab. They are out of gas and there are kids waiting at home. C'mon, man, please?
I once gave a very well dressed woman twenty dollars to help her fix the flat tire of the car that her (unseen) first graders were waiting in. They'd headed out for a field trip and she was chaperoning when they got a flat. Oh no! AAA could help but she had to come up with a fifty dollar co-pay. She'd collected twenty so far, see? She just needed thirty more dollars. I'd have given her more but I only had a twenty on me. I went my merry way that day, filled with a glow of having helped out. Until I walked by the restaurant three days later and saw the same woman earnestly telling someone her flat tire, field trip, AAA story. She didn't recognize me. Or if she did, she didn't skip a beat.
Con men sell what the mark wants to feel: generous, lucky, abundant.
Now, the world wide web has created an unlimited landscape of opportunity for the flim flam man. Access to every sucker ever born. A world in which the con doesn't need a disguise, a shill or even a permanent address. Finding a mark is easy: just throw out the spam net and reel 'em in. How do you hide the evidence? There's never a face-to-face. Will you get caught? Nope.
I have always thought myself way, way too smart for an internet scam. The Nigerian prince thing? Puh-lease. Just like you, I have seen it all. The estate representative trying to get in touch with you, the lost relative, so you can collect your inheritance. The good friend of yours who lost their wallet and credit card while in London (or Scotland, or Paris) and can you send some cash ASAP to help them out? Hurry! You need to send in your password because your account has been temporarily suspended! You feel your heart stop for just a moment - it HAS?
Most spammer/scammers use language and grammar that is so obviously bad that even the most off-handed person would catch it. I have often thought that if one of these online internet thieves simply hired a decent writer, their take would skyrocket. But money is being made, hand over fist, proving that the finesse of a writer like me is entirely unnecessary.
Unless you're trying to scam a person like me.
I am moving overseas in a few months and I want to have a secondary income outside of consulting and blogging. More than that, I want an adventure. I found a website that listed teaching jobs all over the world. Fascinated, I began to look into the listings.
The past year has been without a doubt the hardest, most emotional, stressful year of my life. I won't go into details. It just has. I have been under enormous stress. Stress that would be resolved if only....
And there it was. The opportunity of a lifetime. A private British day school in Valencia, Spain was hiring. British Day School? That's a bit out of my wheelhouse. I teach screenwriting workshops regularly but I don't have a teaching certificate much less a TEFL. But -- the website was stunning. The school's campus was nestled in the hills outside of Valencia. Housing is provided. Medical coverage is provided. Airfare, visas -- all given. TEFL doesn't matter. You can earn one while there. On the school's dime and time. It was an offer too good to be true! I knew I wasn't exactly the right person for the job but I applied anyway.
It didn't take long to hear back. I had been selected for a secondary interview! What I'd have to do is to write an essay about why I'd make a good teacher. The essay contained about ten questions, ranging from how I'd handle discipline in the class to how I evaluate homework and design a curriculum. Design a curriculum? That struck me as a little odd. Schools should use a curriculum already and the teacher adopts it. But can you imagine living in Spain?! And it got better -- no Spanish language knowledge was necessary!
I heard nothing. For three weeks I waited. Until I found it. My acceptance letter and contract. It had gotten into my junk folder. Was the job still available, I wondered, feverishly? I emailed back that I was so sorry but I hadn't seen the acceptance and was the job still available?
I heard nothing. I emailed again. Dear Magical Spain Job People, I really want this job! Please call my cell phone if the job is still available. The next day the phone rang. It was them! Yes, the job was still available! I mean, this is what I gathered, anyway. The call was from an unknown overseas number and the woman on the other end sounded as if she'd been born in Hungary, learned to sing in Japan and then put an Irish accent over the top of it all. In fact, the only words I really heard were: email (garble) job (garble) available (garble) send in the deposit for the housing.
I HAD THE JOB! I was moving to Spain in three weeks! What a whirlwind! What of my car, my possessions, my pets and my friends and family? I called everyone I knew and told them. They were thrilled! But... wasn't this all happening a little fast? If you got the job, why did no one get in touch with you via phone over a matter so important? But I was going to Spain! I'd get paid to be there! I wondered how long it would take on the bus between Valencia and Barcelona. I wondered how quickly I'd learn Spanish and how much I was allowed to ship out with me.
Then a concerned friend showed it to me. FraudWatchers.com listed the same letter of acceptance and contract that I had received. Verbatim. My world ground to a humiliated, screeching halt. I'd been played.
How could this happen? Going over the particulars, every single red flag not only stood out, it snapped in the breeze. Sending the money for the deposit on housing was always front and center. I noticed but ignored it. The not needing a TEFL. The pay rate to hours worked ratio was way too good to be true. The fact that I have no teaching certificate whatsoever - what was I thinking?!
I was thinking that to live and work in Spain would be an amazing experience. I was thinking that I would make a great teacher and that the pay and health insurance was too good to pass up. I was thinking that Spain is not far from Israel and I could go to my beloved adopted country on weekends. I was feeling adventurous and special, like a globe-trotting wild woman. I would go to Italy! And France! You could see my underpants!
It was all a lie. The school is a real school. Or, it would appear so. But the scammers put a hyphen in the URL of the school's name. Tiny, imperceptible. But it hijacked the URL and took it to one that mimicked the real school's and diverted emails to the lady with the whacked out accent in wherever she is.
I read once that the way to hurt spammers is to take up their time. To answer their email with a lot of questions so that if they want to reel in the mark, you make them work for it. You, in essence, scam them!
So fueled by shame and anger, I did it.
I'm so excited about the job! I just have a few questions though:
*Do they use pesos in Spain? Should I change my dollars for pesos at the airport?
*Or do they use pound sterling, like in the rest of Europe?
*Can I get some pictures of the housing, particularly the bathroom facilities?
*I am a vegan - does the dining hall support that lifestyle? Can I get a sample menu?
I thought of many more hilarious, stupid questions, ways that I could suck up time from these jerks. But they never answered. Like the Grifters, their emails bounced, the fake URL went away; they are gone forever.
I was angry but much more than that, I was embarrassed. Me, the woman who chuckles at Nigerian prince scams. Me, the well-read writer and thinker. Me.
If it seems to good to be true -- check in on your wants. Are you in an emotional or financial space in which you need or want a fantastic opportunity quickly? Do a Google search and type in the name of the opportunity/school/business and then add the word "scam" after it. If anyone has been had by these people before, it'll be online, trust me. There are also sites like Fraud Watchers that you can refer to.
After awhile, the shame gradually abated, leaving me keenly aware of my humanity. I wanted a job in an exotic location, I wanted to be paid huge sums of money for doing very little in very few hours. I wanted to be flown to Spain. I wanted. And nobody is too smart to want.