Ask Dr. SETI ®
by Michael Swanwick
I’ve spent most of the past year writing fiction about con men and enjoying it too. In fiction, such people are always clever, usually good-hearted underneath their surface larceny, and inevitably good company.
In real life, not so much.
My one brush with genuine confidence artists happened in the Eighties. I was in Center City Philadelphia when I was approached by a worried-looking little man with a crumpled piece of paper in his hand. “Please, sir, can you help me find this address?” he asked in an unfamiliar accent. The address was only a block and a half distant, and along the way he confided to me that he had just arrived from Ghana and that he had given “ten thousand of my green ones” to a man he met on the plane for rent on an apartment at the address he was seeking. Adding, “Thank you, sir, for helping me and I will give you two thousand of my green ones in gratitude.”
By now it was clear that this man was one of life’s innocents and that his friend on the airplane had most likely taken advantage of him. Mumbling something about not taking his money, I lead him to where his address should have been. Only to find nothing but a blank wall between two businesses. As I was explaining this to the bewildered Ghanaian, a passing businessman stopped and politely asked, “Is there a problem here? Can I be of any help?” He was perfectly dressed and had an honest face. One couldn’t help liking him.
The Ghanaian certainly took to the businessman, for he said, “Thank you, sir! I will give you both four thousand green ones for your help.” Then he hauled out of his pocket an eye-popping wad of paper money and thrust it at us.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” I said, and “Put that away!” the businessman cried. Then, when he did so, the businessman said that he should keep his money in a bank.
The little man looked frightened. “No, banks have policemen with biting dogs!” he said. So the businessman patiently explained how ATM machines worked. He didn’t have an account with a local bank but perhaps I had? Could I show the Ghanaian how the machines worked?
It was at this point that I realized I was dealing with con men. The unlikeliness of the story, the repeated offers of large sums of money, the roll of cash (a common tool in many cons), and now the suggestion that I make a withdrawal from my bank all came together at once. I had no idea how they planned to separate me from my money. But I had little doubt that they could.
So I walked off.
Later, I realized that my new friends were running a variant on the pigeon drop, a classic con involving the discovery of an envelope full of money, the decision to split it, and convincing the mark to put up earnest money in order to get his share. The Ghanaian would have admired the money I withdrew from the ATM and, when I showed him how to redeposit it, switched my envelope for one containing rectangles of newsprint. It would have been days before I realized I’d been scammed.
It was the Yellow Kid, possibly the most accomplished con artist ever, who first said, “You can’t cheat an honest man.” That’s not entirely true but there’s truth in it. Had I ever intended to accept the funny little man’s offer of thousands of “green ones,” I’d have been less wary and probably hundreds of dollars poorer.
And I’d have learned a useful lesson about the value of honesty.
Editor's Note: Michael's latest Science Fiction novel, Chasing the Phoenix, is about con men. It can be found wherever fine books are sold.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.
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this page last updated 7 November 2015
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