R. Paul Wilson On: Bogus Scams
Not every scam I hear about is as real or widespread as you might think.
I regularly receive panicked warnings on social media about some new virus or con game that’s going around and while these might be inaccurate, I tend to think it’s a good thing that people share possible dangers in order to protect each other.
That being said, a friend recently sent me a questionable scam story that was doing the rounds online and I thought it would be worth discussing how we can better understand and assess potential threats.
The Stolen Handbag Scam
The online warning had been passed around Facebook and Twitter about a new scam that was targeting women who were living on their own.
The story went like this:
A woman put her purse (handbag) in the child seat of her shopping trolley. While walking around the supermarket, someone waited until she was distracted then stole her wallet from her bag.
Quickly noticing, the woman reported the theft and went home empty handed – but the scam was far from over.
Later that day, she received a phone call from security at the store who told her they’d found the purse, though her money and credit cards were gone.
On returning to the supermarket, security was baffled since they never found anything, nor had they called the victim.
Returning home, the woman found her house had been burgled; the bogus phone call merely a ruse to get her out of the house.
An Unlikely Story
We saw a lot of these stories when selecting scams as material for The Real Hustle and while most led to some sort of con worth exposing to the public, occasionally the story would break down and prove to be either made up or exaggerated by public hysteria.
Certainly, this particular story poses a few questions.
It circulated as a warning about a new type of scam that could potentially target a large number of people but if this ever actually happened (and I believe it certainly could have) there are too many circumstances that would need to align for a bag thief to pull this off.
First, the victim’s address needs to be readily available unless the thieves are willing to follow every victim on the off chance that one of them might live alone in a building that can easily be burgled.
Second, the victim’s phone number must be available to make the bogus call and lure them out of their home.
Third, the victim’s keys must not be stolen, or they would/should call a locksmith immediately.
This last point is important because the nature of this scam “report” is to tell people that a stolen purse/wallet might lead to a burgled house, but this would be a natural concern if the whole bag (and house keys) was taken.
But think about it: how many people position their purse or wallet in an open bag that’s readily accessible to thieves?
Obviously, some people really do have a lapse of concentration and leave their valuables wide open for light-fingered opportunists, but most pickpockets and bag dippers learn to gain access and locate common hiding places, all the while using natural situations to get close, then get away.
Whatever a street (or supermarket) thief gets, they are quick to toss the personal property (and credit cards unless they have a safe way to use them) and keep only what they can spend.
Following their victims home or burgling their houses is an invitation to get caught and for the most part, pickpockets and house-breakers are two separate types of criminal.
None of this is to say it never happened but we’d reject this as a scam for The Real Hustle because it’s highly unlikely to happen more than once in a blue moon.
A thief might get lucky and see a purse and on stealing it, find an address and phone number.
He or she might recognise that address as a vulnerable location that’s safe to break into, then somehow deduce that their victim lives alone and only needs to be lured back to the supermarket for them to gain access to the rest of their property!
All of this might have happened one time but it’s extremely unlikely that a gang of bag dippers have somehow learned to profile potential victims reliably enough to make this a successful long-term scam.
And the truth is that supermarkets are a terrible place to steal from people and unless it’s a spur of the moment theft, most thieves are too aware of the multiple risks of being caught by cameras, security or other customers.
Taking Things With A Pinch Of Salt
All stories in all forms of media deserve to be considered with a healthy dose of critical thinking but when passed around on social media or WhatsApp, these stories can take on a life of their own.
I like that people are passing information to warn each other but there’s a worrying trend here.
Real cons and scams tend not to be shared so widely as these made-up or exaggerated stories which seem to gain more traction with the public.
This is frustrating to me since I find the real scams to be fascinating and the fake stories to be naive, foolish or uninteresting.
On The Real Hustle, we had a pretty good sense of what made a worthwhile story for the show.
Even if a scam happened rarely, the fact that it could happen and that all sorts of people might be vulnerable meant there was value to informing the public.
A simple but ingenious variation on this type of scam was featured on an early episode of The Real Hustle where we sent an unexpected prize to our potential marks: a night out on the West End with a meal and tickets to a show.
When they came home from their night on the town, their house had been emptied of everything they owned!
This scam has certainly happened and could happen to anyone if the thieves are willing to case their target and invest in a couple of restaurant vouchers plus cheap tickets to a show.
The difference is that the bag scam needs an unlikely sequence of events to create a random opportunity, while the fake prize swindle engineers a guaranteed sequence of events to fool the mark and create perfect conditions to rob them blind.
The Vegas Hotel Room Scam
Some years ago, while speaking at a corporate event in Las Vegas, I heard of a scam that had targeted someone in the past.
When having breakfast, a hotel employee approached a guest by name and asked if he had his hotel room key. The employee examined the key and returned it but later, the guest found his room had been robbed.
The assumption was that the bogus employee had heard the victim’s room number when being seated for breakfast and switched the key under the guise of checking he was a legitimate guest.
Certainly, this is an interesting scenario but the risk of being caught is enormous in such a hotel where cameras are everywhere and any thief could easily be caught in the act or their actions quickly be retraced.
I can accept that it might have happened once but when I was told this story it had already become a sort of urban legend within that company and anyone who heard it was on guard for something that is less likely than winning keno.
Much like the stolen handbag, this is a one-off opportunist scam at best.
But consider this: At a corporate event some years ago we set up a competition where attendees could swipe their room keys, enter their names and room numbers to potentially win a prize.
This simple deception collected the magnetic strip information containing dozens of key codes along with corresponding room numbers AND the names of everyone who fell for it.
Is this likely to happen at your next corporate event? No (unless I am booked to be speaking about deception), but it illustrates the real problem of protecting vulnerable data or property and knowing when circumstances expose you to potential theft.