Originally published: 1 June 2004
Occasionally I hear of people who have been duped by clever hoaxes and I have always had to admire the con from a distance, but yesterday it all came home when my mother-in-law told me of how she was conned over the weekend outside a Cape Town restaurant.
She was in two minds as to whether she had actually been conned and I was able to offer swift and confident assurance that she had been. Takes a criminal to know one.
It was brilliant, and here's how it happened.
My mother-in-law and her partner (her sister) drove out to Tableview to dine at a well-known seafood restaurant, although if I'd known she was going I would probably have shot her since I cannot for the life of me condone anyone spending their hard-earned money on eating fish.
There's a world of steak out there, people - deal with it.
My mother-in-law is a nervous driver and is very careful when parking or signalling or turning, and usually does everything by the book. Without the book she'd be a complete disaster, but I won't go there - I'm hoping for a chicken dish sometime this week or next.
Been a while since I had a chicken dish. Four pieces. Special basting sauce. Bitta rice. Coupla potatoes. Mmmmmm .... chiiiicken ...
So she parked the car, and - as happens - a parking attendant made his presence known, making mumbled promises to look after the car.
They went in, no doubt dined on sea-cockroach legs and glorified locusts and squishy wet things, and when they left the parking attendant came rushing up and solemnly declared that there was "a problem".
You are seriously guaranteed to make my mother-in-law nervous with those very two words, and she breathlessly inquired what "the problem" was, heart fluttering and a swoon coming on.
He explained that she had left her handbrake off and that her car had rolled forward into the car in front of it, ripping off the bumper. He had valiantly grabbed at it and succeeded in pushing the car back to its original position, whereupon he had nobly taken it upon himself to fetch some bizarrely convenient concrete slabs which he had propped under the front wheels to prevent it happening again.
You don't want to be telling my mother-in-law such a tale - once the smelling salts had revived her and a fan had been produced she was able to take stock of the drama, and looking inside her car saw that the handbrake was indeed down. She could have sworn she had left it up.
The attendant then told her that the guy whose car had the bumper ripped off was dining around the corner and that he had instructed the attendant to tell her that R200 should cover the damage and that she could pay the attendant, who would give it to the owner.
My mother-in-law told him she wasn't going to pay him but that he should call the car owner instead, and the attendant disappeared, gave a suitable dramatic pause, and reappeared with a good-looking, well-dressed, charming young man in his early twenties.
The guy oozed charm and said not to worry - the bumper had already been damaged before (and there were dents and scratches on it to suggest that it had), and that 200 bucks should cover it without anyone else having to get involved.
My mother-in-law - obviously slightly put at ease by his pleasant and professional demeanour - sensed something was wrong but couldn't place the feeling, and delving into her purse discovered she only had R150.
He told her that R150 would be fine - don't worry about it - and before she gave it to him she went back to the car to confer with her sister.
Her sister told her to only give him a hundred, which she did - and he took it, no worries, Ma'am. In the space of two minutes the price of bumper repairs was halved, so thank goodness that all worked out just fine.
It was only when the sisters got home that it occurred to them that perhaps they'd been conned, and then my mother-in-law remembered something else - she hadn't unlocked the door for her sister, yet when she went to the car her sister was already waiting inside it.
A further piece of evidence (a strong case was mounting) was the fact that there wasn't a stitch of damage to my mother-in-law's car, which was odd when you consider that it had ripped the bumper off another car by slamming into it with enough force to do so.
Odder still was the fact that the guy had pushed the car back with millimetric precision to exactly the same place it had been when it was parked.
Piecing the bits together my mother-in-law concluded that there was a "strong possibility" that she had been swindled out of a hundred bucks and I was quick to assure her that I concurred with her verdict.
She's in the wrong profession, is my mum-in-law - her skills would be far better suited to an investigative post on the Scorpions task force (Western Cape Chapter), or perhaps to a crack CIA elite unit specialising in forecasting and analysing trends in grand theft auto global emerging markets.
But in order to swing my fortunes back in the direction of that excellent chicken dish - it's very easy to claim you would have spotted the con, but quite a different matter when you're the target market.
If that attendant had approached me with his "problem" I would have given him a far bigger "problem" to think about, but of course - he'd never dare try his scam on a 6'2" solid block of anger who looks like a mix between an ex-con and a 70s porn star (which, of course, he is - on both counts). Not his target market.
What's brilliant about the con is not so much the scheme, which is easily discovered if you bother to check your car for damage, for example - it's the social manipulation that made it work, and brought the conman a reasonable haul of one hundred fat ones.
More power to them. Don't get me wrong - if I caught the swines that hundred bucks wouldn't begin to compensate for the tragedy that would befall them - but if you're going to be a conman, then do the job right.
I'm impressed at their social manipulation, I admire the simplicity of the plan, and if nothing else - those boys have got balls.
Ultimately the con aimed at you is very difficult to spot, no matter how transparent it may be to others. The reason you can't see it is the very reason why it was aimed at you in the first place.
The only conclusion I can arrive at is that to avoid being conned you should be wary when someone tries to sell you something, be it an idea, an emotion or a "problem".
When someone is selling to you - you're the one paying.
All Smoked Out,