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July 30, 2011

The Scam Collector

Hi, Elaine Viets here. Let me introduce you to Thomas Kaufman, an Emmy-winning Tkc director/cameraman who also writes mysteries.  His first book, DRINK THE TEA, won the Private Eye Writers of America/St Martin's Press Competition for Best First Novel.  His second book, STEAL THE SHOW, comes out this July.  You can see the rest of his blog tour here.

By Thomas Kaufman

I'm interested in scams. Sometimes I think there are as many ways to scam as there are people. Today I thought I'd write about two different scams – one in Africa, and one here in the US.

A few years ago I was in Ghana, shooting for a WGBH documentary called SCIENCE ODYSSEY. The producer, Larry Klein, and I had spent about ten days filming in Tamale (pronounced TAH-ma-lay), about 120 miles south of the border with Burkino Faso. Here's some clips from that shoot:


Ghana Journey from Thomas Kaufman on Vimeo.

Now our shoot was over and we were flying back home. It took eight hours to drive south on roads that looked like they'd been used for mortar practice. We finally got to Accra, the capitol city of Ghana. After a good night's sleep in a hotel, we had time to kill before our plane left. It was Sunday morning, and at a local market I picked up two Dashikis that had Kente cloth from a village where we'd filmed. I was walking back to the hotel with Larry, when a young man brushed past us.

Larry took another step, stopped, looked at his wrist, then asked me if he'd been wearing a watch when we left the hotel. Larry's wrist was bare, except for a tiny red dot in the center, just about where the metal prong of the watchstrap's buckle would be.

So what we had just witnessed, without knowing it, was a young man adept at stealing watches. When he brushed into Larry, he undid Larry's watchstrap so fast that the metal prong went into his skin. By the time Larry knew what had happened, the kid was long gone, along with Larry's watch.

Now, do you need to go to Africa to get scammed? Not if you live in Washington, DC.

Stealtheshow5 It's a great place to live, a small southern town of 800,000 hard-working people that happens to have the federal government squatting on top of it. Kind of like the flying saucer that squats on a DC baseball field in DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL.

While that great movie had a lesson for all mankind, the only lesson I've found from living in DC is to watch your back. This place has its share of scam artists, and not all of them are members of Congress.

Last winter I'd finished an outdoors film shoot, so the producer and I went to a small place for lunch. We'd been in the freezing cold for hours, and my hands and feet felt numb. It was nice to get someplace warm. What came next was classic DC:

We pay the bill, and as we walk outside a man intercepts us.

"Hey, man, I'm driving that cab over there. Can you tell me how to get to New York Avenue and 7th?"

Was he serious? I took a look at this guy – African American, about six feet, plaid shirt and jeans and green camo jacket. "It's over that way," I say, putting doubt in my voice. How could a DC cabdriver not know that?

"Thanks. You got a twenty for two tens?"

Okay, let's stop a moment. A twenty for two tens? This guy doesn't want to break a big bill into smaller ones – just the opposite. What was he up to?

"Sure," I say. I open my wallet, find a twenty, and he gives me two tens. We're done now, right?

Not quite. The man takes a step away, a big giant step, kind of a cartoon step, it's that exaggerated. Then he stops. He makes sure I see him stop. Then he says, "Hey. Wait a second. I gave you two tens, you gave me a one." He shows me the one in his hand.

It's the only bill there.

He had switched the bills when he took his cartoon step, palming the twenty and substituting the one. Not bad, except that I hadn't had a one in my wallet to hand him.

I take another look at this guy. His shirt is thin, the plaid colors worn away. His hands are hard and callused. They wouldn't get that way driving a cab.

And it's winter. DC doesn't get really bad winters, but as the temperature drops, there's a rise in homeless deaths due to hypothermia. Yes, we have homeless shelters in DC, but they can be dangerous places. I've known plenty of homeless people who'd rather take their chances sleeping outside on a heating grate, than risk the shelter.

Hence the scam – he gives up two tens, plus a dollar, and gets two twenties back, netting nineteen dollars. For that much, he can get a meal, and find a warm place to hole up and sleep for two or three days.

I hand him a second twenty. He gives me the dollar. Now we're done. I look him in the eye, I want to tell him it's okay. But to do that means I've seen through it, that his scam sucks (and it really does). Instead, I nod at him. He nods back and heads off to his imaginary cab. I say goodbye to the producer and drive home, where my wife and kids are listening to music and playing a board game.

I'm nineteen dollars poorer, but I don't feel poor at all. Just the opposite.

How about you? Have you ever been scammed?


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Hi Thomas, you sound like a sweet soul.

Scams intrigue me, as well. They are particularly popular in the durable medical equipment (DME) business. I have been scammed a few times when getting my rehab power wheelchairs. Usually it takes the form of the provider pushing a chair that they make the largest profit on. Sometimes they tell you that the chair your therapist recommends is no longer available, Medicare or insurance will not cover it because it is
"too high end," or that it's just no good, so they always have to return them. The DME provider then offers you one that is "much better" and will move quickly through the approval process. Of course it does not, but he/she makes a bigger profit - or makes a profit that he wouldn't have with the chair you really need, because he isn't authorized to sell anything but the piece of crap you are going to get. The time this happened to me, I ended up with a used chair and was tricked into paying the DME provider $12,000 cash because he would order it before approval and was going to reimburse me when my insurance approved.

I know it sounds like an obvious scam, but when you're a new quad, and you don't have the advantage of in-patient rehab dealing directly with the DME providers, helping you select, even doing the ordering for you in clinic it's all very believable, and you're desperate to get your new chair. These are licensed people who study and take exams just so they can do this wonderful work in rehab technology. They do all of that preparation and some of them simply become sales people or crooks.

The worst scam I endur

Sorry - I twitched. That was me, Reine.

To continue: The worst scam I endured was

Damn. Well it makes me spasm an twitch and hit the ring spot on the screen every time I think of it!

So anyways . . . the worst . . . last year I needed another new high-end rehab level power wheelchair. I carefully chose a licensed provider qualified by his professional society, the Rehabilitation and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA). I also checked with Pride Mobility Products, makers of the wheelchair recommended to me.

I did everything right. But this DME provider is very good at scamming. He tried to get me to go for a different chair. I was adamant, and suspicious. I told him if he couldn't get me the right chair, I would go elsewhere. More BS about how he just wanted to get me something better for cheaper. [Gosh wasn't he the just the nicest thing in rehab technology?] He told me he thought I would be happier with the other chair, but he wanted me to be happy and get what I needed.

He saw me quickly through the application and approval process. He collected his money - about $20,000 although he billed for more - from Medicare, my secondary, and my tertiary private insurance companies. Then he started stringing me along. But he never delivered the chair. I checked with Pride Mobility Products who told me that he had submitted two orders, but no money. The orders were never completed, and they never shipped the chair.

I informed Medicare and my insurance companies. Medicare (Noridian) told me their records showed that I had received my chair but that I had sent it back -- and they could not process another chair while I had this one on the books and paid for!

Skipping along . . . private insurance companies . . . therapists . . . doctors . . . new rehab techologist . . . wheelchair clinic in California . . . finally got help from Congresswoman Giffords office, who helped me get through to Medicare/Noridian but I had to go through the entire process again and clear it all up with my private insurance.

It took me over a year to get my new wheelchair. During that time my condition deteriorated due to my not having the right chair. Asshat has returned the money to Medicare (apparently not yet the private companies). He claims he didn't know how to fill out the forms. Medicare/Noridian is apparently looking the other way, because he paid them back.

I informed RESNA and filed a complaint against his credentials. Their licensing board informed me that until Medicare completes its investigation, and until they have hard evidence, they can do nothing.

So he is still out there. And I would guess that he is still scamming people out of their wheelchairs, walkers, compression stockings, catheters, breathing assistance machines, and whatever else he can get away with.

He wears people down. It isn't hard to do when you are a quad, or terminally ill, or old and trusting, or . . . .

In my younger days, I used to hang out with many folks whose morality was, shall we say, adaptable. Many of them were quite skilled at running various scams. I learned a lot.

Couple that with my trust issues where humans are concerned and you can guess that I've never been scammed aside from the scamming/screwing we all get from our fine elected officials.

Reine, your story both saddens and angers me. Unlike the scams I wrote about (a watch and a twenty dollar bill), the ones against you are much steeper, and take such a long time as to be a punishment. I hope there's some way to bring this RESNA ogre to justice.

On a separate note, did you see in today's paper about a different kind of scam against people who use “moderate-risk devices” — from wheelchairs to artificial hips? http://ow.ly/5R4oW

Doc in CA, I wish we all had your track record. As to our elected officials, did you notice that DC's record-breaking heat wave coincides with the House struggling to come up with a debt plan? Lots of hot air around here, I can tell you...

When I worked in K12 education I saw big bucks scam artists every week. There is a program for schools called E-rate. If your school fills out the forms right and qualifies, they can save thousands to hundreds of thousands on computer equipment and connectivity. It is what happens to the few dollars on your cell phone bill marked "Universal access fee."

There are vendors that will "help" a school with their E-rate paperwork. The school ends up with something, a TV in every classroom in the worst example I saw. The vendor gets paid, but the Federal Goverment pays 120% of the fee instead of 60-80%.

I was in a meeting when a vendor, in response to "Isn't this illegal?" answered, "Well, yes technically, but you get 400 TVs and we will pay you $1500."

My boss did manage to keep a straight face long enough to tell him we would get back to him on that.

Tom, welcome. I'm looking forward to watching the vid.

I got scammed once--not twice--by one of those charming kids who "sell magazine subscriptions"door to door. Afterward, I learned that both we AND those kids are being scammed, by their employers. It was freezing cold the day I fell for it, and later I saw the kid standing on the street, shivering in too little clothing as he waited for his ride. I gave him some gloves, even though I was already nervous that I might have been cheated. Later, I realized we were both victims, but at the time he just looked like a poor kid who'd been left in the cold in a strange neighborhood.

Once I avoided a scam. A couple of men wanted me to do a freelance job of writing for them on spec. The night before I was going to agree to do it, I had a dream that I was going to meet them and there were snakes all around in the yard. The dream told me they were snakes in the grass, and I turned them down.

A friend of mine recently referred to the members of Congress as Grifters. Every day it is a better fit.

I'm sure there are tons of scam artists in Pittsburgh, but in my neighborhood, they never get more than a couple of people before someone reports and/or nabs them.

It's the ones who prey on older folks that make me the maddest.

You are a good person, Tom.

Alan P, this reminds me of an adage my father taught me: if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Kudos to you and your boss for letting those scammers dangle.

Nancy, I think the same kid came to my house! It made me want to talk to his "boss" and ask him how he could live with himself. Good of you to give the kid your gloves on a cold day.

As to the dream, I often find that our subconscious gives us the warning, then it's up to us as to whether we're smart enough to heed it. Sounds like you heard that warning just fine.

Kathy, glad to hear your neighborhood is so secure.

As to congress, we should try to remember that we read about the scandals and grifts because they make the news, but the majority of those folks (I believe) are good people who genuinely want to serve the country.

Guess that makes me sound pretty naive, huh?

As to the scammers who steal from the elderly, I hope there's a special place in hell reserved specifically for them. I wonder what that place might be like?

Several years ago when on a tour in Italy, I was repeatedly warned about the begging in Rome. A priest told us that if they crowded us to shove them away and shout, "No!"

We were in an open marketplace when a thin woman, nursing a baby at her exposed breast, pressed up against us as a distraction while her six year old tried to pick pockets. I wouldn't shove the woman while she was holding a baby, but I blocked her back a bit with my arm, and clamped by other arm over my handbag and pocket. The little kid who'd tried to grab my wallet worked a sunny smile, I guess to play up a cuteness factor. That smile couldn't cover-up the hollow-eyed hungriness.

I know I should just have walked away, but I guess I have a sucker aspect to my personality. I looked at the bedraggled kid again and gave them some money.

I know stealing's wrong, but I don't know what other options they have, particularly the children.

By contrast, I don't give money to people on the street in this country. I must have faith in our country's social services. That faith might be hugely misplaced, but instead I donate money and food to the organizations/agencies who provide food and shelter for the homeless.

Tom, I've had a bad experience with a quick change artist and I have grudging respect for the skill that he used to achieve the money. It just left me feeling like a sap.

Fortunately someone told me about the toner scam so I haven't fallen for it. It works like this: Someone calls a business and asks for the model number of your printer. The nice, helpful person who answers the phone provides the information, the caller thanks them and ends the call. Several days later they call again and run their spiel. "Hi, this is Joe Blow from Printer Supplies R Us. I just took over your account and I see that several months ago you ordered a couple of toners for your Xerox Model ABC. I'm so sorry they haven't been shipped - the guy before me really let things slide, and I'm trying to get caught up on all of his accounts. Can I go ahead and ship these toners to you?" This is as far as the scam got with me, as I turned him down. Apparently if you say yes, they ship the toners and charge you many times the actual cost. But since you authorized the purchase, you're stuck. I've probably received close to a dozen call related to this scam over the past 20 years.

Mary, you're describing a heartbreak scenario. There's not much a person can do in that situation, except what you did. I would've done the same thing.

Holly, these guys are so fast it's amazing. You'd have to have your alertness meter on 10 your whole life, not to get taken in during those few seconds.

Sandi, there's many variation on this scam, including the one using bibles that you see in "Paper Moon." Hadn't heard it used with toner cartridges before...

My favorite scam was at a hospital run by nuns. During a long stay, my bills ran up to six figures. When I recovered, I started going through them and noticed that the hospital had billed my insurance company for a hysterectomy -- that I never had!
When I complained, the woman in the billing office said, "Well, we didn't bill YOU." I gleefully reported the hospital to the insurance company, which investigated them for months. First time in my life I've ever rooted for an insurance company.

Tom, charity masquerading as gullibility . . . sweet, and yes, it's so much easier to forgive the small, desperate scammers. Utah Phillips sang of the "bums on the plush" rather than "the bums on rails) as being the ones who really cost us.
I've had the occasional dream or upset stomach warning, and I've learned to heed them.
I've made some bad loans to friends and relatives . . . perhaps I'll feel better about them if I call them charity as well. I've also almost certainly fallen for students' falsehoods. One I remember especially, the story was so transparent, but the second boy involved really deserved a break. I declared, "I'm not stupid enough to fall for that lie, but I will be stupid enough to believe that you are both sorry and this will never happen again." As far as I know, there were no more ASL profanities in my room (though how would I know for sure?)

Elaine, the hospital scam is a classic, but point deducted for transparent greed from the billing office!

Storyteller Mary, my wife is a teacher too, so like you she has to weigh what's best for the student vs their immediate problem vs her own self-respect as a teacher. Hard to know what's best, isn't it?

Do you teach ASL? I've directed a film about deaf children, I find the subject fascinating...

My ASL is very limited, but I did have a deaf student at the time, and just as with the foreign exchange students, other students are absolutely fascinated by the opportunity to learn the "bad words."
One thing I learned, and relearned, was that often the students who drove me nuts did so because of lives I might not have survived well either, so I did try to understand somewhat, while pushing them in a better direction.

How funny that this is the subject matter of today's blog. My husband was at the store last night and he ran into a "homeless" family. He ended up giving them money and bought them food. He was a little skeptical of their story but as we decided, his heart was in the right place and they would have to live with themselves.

Reine and Elaine: with this breast cancer I've seen many different charges go on my insurance that I am not sure I actually ever got. I have called my insurance a couple of times to make sure they are not getting double billed or charged for things not provided. No wonder healthcare is so high! The ultimate scams!

I also have bought "books" from door to door people or some sort of incredible cleaner. I can say, that the incredible cleaning spray does actually work. Took grease stains out of my car rugs. :)

I just checked your website -- gorgeous! I'll be reading you . . .

I just remembered Studs Terkel telling our storytellers convention about being mugged and asking for, and receiving, a little of his money back for breakfast and bus fare back to his hotel.

Doc, I'm happy for you that you either don't need complex rehab equipment and/or live in a state where Medicare is currently requiring patients to get such equipment from your assigned lowest-bid provider. Of course if you are wealthy you can pay cash and buy the $40,000 chair, which is what the $12,000 chair ends up costing.

Tom, that is a wonderful video. Thanks for the article URL - I'm angered but not surprised. Looking forward to reading your books.

Reine, thanks for nudging me back up to the video. I had been reading off-line, having disconnected and turned off DSL during the thunder storm (almost feeling guilty about the abundance of water here while watching them carry it). What a beautiful visit to Ghana. We had an exchange teacher from Ghana one year, a good experience for students and teachers.

Storeyteller Mary, you sound like you have an advanced degree in understanding!

Lora, I'm glad to hear that at least one of those products actually worked. As a teen, I sold Amway products door-to-door. I lasted a week or so -- creative differences -- but the products were pretty good.

There is a special place in hell for those who scam the weaker, older, and more debilitated among us. I don't have the money to be scammed so "No" is a good word for me. I liked your story, Tom; it shows how your heart is open to the humanity in us, if you'll pardon my being corny.

Lora and Reine, glad you enjoyed the video. You can see more of my work here:

Working as a cameraman, I've seen a lot of action unfold behind the viewfinder. I think that has an impact on how I write.

Hiding from the housework.

There are a number of scams on businesses to go with the toner scam. There are light bulbs and trash bags where you can get billed $12 a bulb for 99 cent reject bulbs made by "fang" of China.

The other classic is the yellow pages ad. A business gets a bill for the yellow pages ad. Unfortunately for the business it is not the ATT Yellow Pages but dave's yellow pages. And sure enough, your ad will appear there, next to the other suckers.

Driving my son home today, I spotted a bus ad for a car insurance company that had no phone number, and no web address, just an anonymous gmail account. Kinda makes you wonder, right?

I think the really good scammers might be so good that you'd never even know you'd been scammed . . .

Yes, that's the perfect grift - like in THE STING - where the mark doesn't know he's been ripped off.

Welcome to TLC, Tom!

I'm sure I've been scammed at least once (WMD in Iraq, anyone?) but can't remember anything specific to share. I loved how you justified the twenty for two tens con last winter and helped the man too. You are definitely a caring soul.

BTW, I can't wait to read STEAL THE SHOW. I've been looking forward to it since we talked about it at the Gaithersburg Book Festival. (I had fun hanging out with you, Alan and Donna.) Great book cover featuring the Uptown. It's an awesome theater.

Good luck with your book sales. I hope they're spectacular!

It didn't happen to me, but a woman I was with at DeGaulle in Paris had her billfold lifted, right in front of six of us. Slick as glass, too.

Becky, thanks for the warm welcome, and for the good memories at GBF. I hope you enjoy STEAL THE SHOW.

By the way, the Uptown was designed and built in 1938 by Baltimore architect John Zink, who designed about 32 art deco movie palaces in the DC/Balto region, of which only two remain open.

Karen, these folks get lots of practice, and airports and train stations are good places to lift stuff, due to the many distractions.

This is why our guide in England kept reminding us to put our little travel pouches inside our clothes. There were "pickpockets operate in this area" signs everywhere, except Greenwich, where there was a "caution, pickpockets, undercover police operate in this area" sign.
Elaine, thanks for the introduction!! Thomas, thanks for an interesting blog . . . and video.

I did a shoot with a very accomplished BBC director, who took the unprocessed film wit her back to the UK, and had 6 of the 8 camera rolls lifted out of her bag at Heathrow, never to be seen again. She had to come back to the US to reshoot.

Once I was traveling back from Heathrow -- this is when I smoked cigarettes, part of my bad boy image -- and my bag was chock full of Players and Cadbury's. Didn't realize it had all been stolen 'til I reached LaGuardia.

I love this blog, Thomas!

I can't think of a scam, off the top of my head, which I think means that whoever has scammed me has been fairly good at it, and deserves whatever they took from me. I say "fairly good" because a lot of times I'm bumbling through life, my mind a half block away.

Back in the '80s, some guys came to the door at my cousin's house, represented themselves as being from his insurance company, concerned because there had been a series of burglaries in the neighborhood. They told him they just wanted to be sure that his valuables were safe, since it was their responsibility to insure them. He was a trusting soul in his 60's, and obligingly showed them his mother's jewelry, carefully packaged in the freezer. They thanked him and assured him all was well.

Later, when his brother stopped in, he reported this encounter, and sure enough, the freezer was empty when checked again.

The worst scam against the elderly (besides those run by gypsies, and yes, there are still such in the world, busy ripping off the susceptible) for a time, was credit card offers--my mom used to say yes to all phone offers of credit cards, not realizing that they all came with initial fees, membership fees, and interest accruing on said fees whether you used the cards or not. On more than one occasion, I had to threaten to sue the card issuers to have them remove a couple of hundred dollars of charges and fees on cards that Mom had received but never used.

Thanks for coming to Aunt Agatha's in Ann Arbor. You gave us an intriguing peek into how you work out ideas.

What a topic for an ex-carny. :)

Harley, I can tell you that a person with lots on his/her mind is 1000 times easier to scam than other, less preoccupied folks. It just means that folks like us have to be really careful!

Laraine, these are classic scams, and they rely on the goodwill os the marks for them to work. Good for you for getting those card companies to remove the charges!

Skipper, I had a great time at Aunt Agatha's! Hope to be back with my next book in 2013.

Judith, are you an ex-carny? I'd love to hear your stories!

I like your story, i appreciate it.

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