Conversations With a Scammer (Annotated)
I got this text message a couple of days ago, inquiring of my availability to perform a magic show. At least, that's what the text reads. The subtext, though, reads, "I AM A SCAMMER! EVERYTHING I AM SAYING IS DESIGNED TO TAKE YOUR MONEY! SCAM SCAM SCAMMITY SCAM!"
At least, that's what the little bitty red flags seemed to say. I continued to text with this person (?) to see where it would go, but from the start I knew this would not lead to a show. Join me, won't you, as I dissect this scam-in-the-making.
Red Flag! The telephone number has a Louisiana area code. I know, with people keeping their cell phone numbers for life, this could be legit--but it's not, as we shall see.
Red Flag! James Alex. Having two first names is a pathetic attempt to sound more normal, unless you're Debbie Harry or Tracey Morgan. Or Dave Thomas. Or Shannon Elizabeth. Ok, maybe it's not that unusual, but still...
Red Flag! Bad grammar and spelling. I've worked as a professional proofreader, so these things catch my eye, and I'm not just talking about textspeak. I can tolerate that. But when people text, they sound casual, conversational. NO ONE talks like this guy, and NO ONE gets capitalization and syntax this wrong. And if they do, I don't want to do magic for them anyway.
Red Flag! I got this text on Friday or Saturday. This guy claims to have had lung cancer surgery on Thursday, but he's planning a party that's two weeks away. When I have a cold, I cancel plans a month out. Even if he had such surgery, he shouldn't be having a big party that soon, so disbelieving him is actually doing him a favor...if he's really sick.
At this point, I could have just blown him off, but like many of us, I try to be a decent person. I try to be polite and professional at all times as long as I haven't been actively insulted, and besides, I kinda want to see where this goes. I know it's a scam, but what KIND of scam? Where does he try to take money from me?
Also, I must confess, that despite KNOWING that this is a scam, with 100% certainty, even with that knowledge, there's still a tiny voice in my brain saying, "Yeah, but if it's a real gig, we can use the money!"
It's this voice that keeps scammers in business. We want it to be true, so we go for the bait. We hate to be jerks to someone even if they're wasting our time, so we continue the conversation.
In this case I tried to serve both voices, the cynical and the credulous, by asking for details that I would need to book the show. Either way, I'm a winner!
Red Flag! James responds with an address, number of guests, and length of show. This makes him look legit, right?
Wrong. When I ask people for the location of the venue where the show will take place, they may answer, "My home." They may even tell me the address. But they NEVER include the ZIP code unless I ask for it specifically, and they NEVER include a link to a real estate map website. (I've redacted the actual address, because the people who actually own it are not at fault, so why should they get the fallout from this?)
I clicked that link, and I also did some searching of my own, because my computer has this thing called "Google". This address is a recently listed property for sale. No one associated with it is named "James Alex." In fact, there is no "James Alex" listed in this area on any of the free people-locator services you can find with Google. Why is that, I wonder?
Red Flag! Can you spot it? "the event will be starting by 12pm-6pm." Who describes their event this way? No one I've ever performed for, that's who. "The event will begin at noon, and it will go til 6, and I wanted you to perform around 5." It's a callback to bad grammar and syntax, which by the way, this guy manages to keep up through the whole conversation.
Up to now, no one has mentioned money: He doesn't want to spook his prey, and I don't usually quote a fee until I've heard what the gig is about.
Now, though, I'm getting impatient, so I go ahead and quote him the following price: $750 for an hour long show, with a deposit of $250 and the balance payable on the date. I also ask for more information so I can send him a contract.
RED FLAG!!!!!!! HOLY SHITBALLS RED FLAG!!!!
He replies, "Great."
BUUUUULLL SHIIIIIIIIIT!!!! I have never quoted a price for a gig where the booker didn't blink, not from the biggest shows down to the smallest kids' birthday party. The correct response when a quote comes your way is, "I'll have to run that by (name unimportant, but this is buying me time)." Then maybe I'll negotiate and maybe not, but it's never been, "Great." That's just part of the magic show game.
Furthermore, confession time: I've never charged that much for a show. Ever. I should have asked for ten grand, just to see what he would say.
BOOM. THERE IT IS. He wants to put this whole thing on a credit card. This is the main ingredient of the scam. Notice that I asked for a $250 deposit and he's offering $500. That's the big, fat, jiggly bait, and I'm supposed to lunge at it.
Well, I don't.
If he's any kind of legit, he'll be willing to give me some way to reach him other than through a text message. This is me trying to force him into the light, but it burns him, precious.
It's at this point that I get an idea. An awful idea. A terrible, wonderful, awful idea.
I have an address for this guy...why don't I take a ride out there and see the place? After all, Google will only take you so far...
I enlist an assistant: my oldest child. She rides along beside me as we drive the 20 minutes to the address. While we drive, the next message comes in.
A New One On Me.
Authorize.net, which this link redirects to--because, hey, why should James be able to spell a web address any better than anything else?--seems to be a legitimate service to help businesses accept credit cards. You can check it out if you've a mind to, but I have no intention of doing so. James needs me to accept his credit card number, so he's sweetening the deal with an extra $150. It doesn't matter how sweet the deal is, because I'm never going to see that money once the scam is done.
To string him along, I play dumb and ask questions. (Well, my kid typed them while I dictated. I don't text and drive.)
However, I referred here to a common form of this scam: The scammer pays more for the service than the quoted price, to cover expenses like shipping or so forth. The mark (that's supposed to be me) accepts the overpayment and either pays their own money to a shipper (who is part of the scam team) or refunds money to the scammer from their own account, only to find that the original credit card charge is being contested--because the card has been stolen.
Who's on the hook for that money? Not the credit card company, no sir. Not the person whose card was stolen, no sir.
Oh, shit. I think it might be me! Yes, sir!
This has happened to a couple friends of mine in creative freelance endeavors, and they had to eat that cost because they don't have the wherewithal to fight it. Obviously this guy has something else in mind, since I can't deliver a product, but his methodology is the same. Put this one in the Crimestopper's Textbook, Dick Tracy!
By this time, my sidekick and I had arrived at the address on the early text message. There was a big realtor sign out front, no sign of habitation in the yard, and no cars in the driveway. That's kind of weird for a guy recovering from lung cancer surgery, right? SOMEBODY would be there taking care of him, right?
I go up to the door and knock. No answer. I peek through the windows; the place is vacant. No furniture, no nothing. I go back to the car, where the kid has been waiting with her cell phone and "911" already dialed in case I'm way wrong about this situation. Instead, I get her to send this text and I make a prediction about James' response.
Surprise! My prediction came true, although I didn't quite get the grammar James-Alex-perfect.
Seems James is in hospital in Canada! I suggest that maybe my imaginary girlfriend there could drop by to see him.
Look At That Grammar! I think I frightened James a little bit, because his phraseology b
ecame even more fractured as he rushed out a reply. Easy there, James. I can't hurt you because I'm not in Canada, and neither are you.
There are many things I could have done at this point, like following through and reporting James, or throwing curses at him, or stringing him along for days, making him think I'm just about to cough up that sweet, sweet scam money. But I didn't.
Instead, I sent him this parting message. I think the harshest thing I say is that I won't do a magic show for him. Hey, his loss.
I also asked him about the scam game, because this isn't just a one-time thing for James...if that is his real name. No, James is running this scam on dozens, hundreds of people at a time, and he's doing it because sometimes people fall for it, even smart, on-the-ball people like the friends I mentioned. I was kind of curious about the percentages.
Oh, The Irony. Notice that last barb about cancer. I was going to say something like, "I hope you feel better soon...unless you were lying about the cancer, in which case I hope you get it soon." But in the end, I thought to myself, "What if he really DOES HAVE CANCER?" and I changed it so as not to be so mean. It's that little voice again, telling me to be nice to a guy who tried to defraud me, and I listened.
And that's why scams like this will always work on someone, dammit. They say it's impossible to con an honest man, but that's bullshit. Honest people go for these cons every day, and the scammers depend upon it.
It's been hours now, and no reply. I find myself missing the little guy...