R. Paul Wilson On: Street Scams

R. Paul Wilson On: Street Scams

During my career, I’ve observed many forms of manipulation from straight up badgering to subtle, psychological suggestion and these days I follow many sources in search of new techniques.

But often, I simply see old confidence tricks return to find fresh victims amongst younger generations or new locations.

Last year, a rather rank old con was featured in a YouTube video by Prague-based channel Honest Guide who do an excellent job of exposing local scams and in this episode, traveled to Florence, Italy to find similar swindles at work there.

The scam in question is little more than harassment but at its core, the principles being used apply to many con games where the name of the game is to force the victim to do something they really don’t want to do and take cruel advantage of people’s better nature.

That Time The “Palm Reader” Got Me With Some Heather

During my days as a temporary pitchman in the north of England, I often stepped out of the department store (where my pitch had been located) to find lunch.

One day, as I returned to work, I was stopped by a middle-aged woman who handed me a small sprig of heather, stems wrapped tightly with foil.

If you don’t know what heather is, it’s a plant. So imagine a sprig of this, wrapped in foil.

Without asking, she took my hand and began reading my fortune, telling me seemingly accurate details about my life and future and even naming my beloved aunt who I was living with just outside of Newcastle.

I might have been quickly impressed by this had it not been for my interest in all things related to deception.

As a result, I knew enough to recognize an experienced cold reader at work but I was still naive enough to not realize I had already been hooked into a simple but effective con game that would force me into paying for that little stick of dead heather.

After her brief “reading” she told me I needed to give her some money in exchange for the “gift” she had given me and no matter how hard I tried, she refused to take it back.

Suddenly I felt under immense pressure not only from her but from myself and my reluctance to just throw the dead plant away and leave.

After all, that would be rude and according to her, extremely risky since the forces of bad luck would come and get me!

So, I caved and agreed to pay her, but she insisted I could only give her paper money since “coins were unclean.”

In the UK, this was a clever strategy since £1 and £2 denominations are only in coin form with the lowest paper denomination being £5.

Unfortunately for her, this was in the late 1980s, shortly after the paper £1 was taken out of circulation in England and Wales but fortunately for me, I am from Scotland where the paper £1 note remained until the early 2000s.

So when I paid her with a paper £11 note, her reaction was priceless!

For someone who hadn’t stopped talking for five minutes while bullying me to pay her, that £1 note shut her up her completely so I made a quick exit before she could conjure some other voodoo to take more of my money.

Lesson Learned

After this, I spent my lunch hours watching this woman and her gaggle of cohorts pull the same hustle on countless other people and was amazed to see how well it worked with all kinds of victims.

At the time, I was learning the subtle tricks of the pitch artist and was amazed at how little touches could have big effects on how people made decisions; but this was forceful and inelegant, yet sure seemed to work most of the time!

What disturbed me was what happened when it didn’t work.

The Frenzy

I saw it happen several times.

When someone threw away the sprig of foil-wrapped heather or refused to engage with the women but had foolishly taken the heather from them, they would be practically chased down the street with the old woman screaming and yelling, accusing them of theft or destroying their property!

Worse, the other women would gather around these poor souls and scream about hungry children, their livelihood or supernatural forces that would seek retribution for not honoring some sort of agreement that they never made.

Let me make it clear. These people were nasty; the things they said were awful and heather or no heather, what they were doing was mugging innocent people in broad daylight.

Pretty soon, I had a very poor opinion of the flower peddlers and ever since I have refused to accept anything handed to me on the street.

Years later I would be extremely rude to gangs of old women who would congregate near train stations in London offering their poison gifts and on one occasion a friend – shocked at my rudeness – went to apologize and had to be rescued moments later from a gaggle of scammers baying for her purse!

Same Thing, Different Time

On the Honest Guide video in Florence, a young man is asked for the time and offered a fist-bump as thanks but in the process, a bracelet is placed on this man’s wrist before being treated to a sob story about the hustler’s son, complete with pictures.

Free gift italy scam
Image: Honest Guide, YouTube

But this is no ordinary victim; he’s the presenter of the Honest Guide channel who engages with the hustler, asking difficult questions until finally, the hustler takes back the bracelet that was originally called a “gift”.

What happens next is particularly disturbing.

Once the grifter realizes he is being secretly filmed, several of his fellow scammers appear and try to take the camera, threatening assault and frightening the film crew away.

Another YouTuber was actually beaten by a gang of street scammers in a similar situation but when he reported this to Italian police officers, they refused to take any action.

And this is where we see one of the biggest problems I have with short cons like this that are regularly ignored by authorities or dismissed because the victims are somehow to blame for being conned.

This type of “fake gift” con places people into a painfully awkward situation that they would rather pay to escape from than confront a gang of aggressive grannies or (as seen in Honest Guide’s Italy video) aggressive thugs.

Con artists are experts at engineering situations that put pressure on their potential victims and in the case of Florence, scammers have even printed fake street art to place on the ground in busy walkways so when someone accidentally (but inevitably) steps on their “art” the hustlers immediately protest and bully them into paying some sort of restitution.

This entirely fake situation works so well that when a smart tourist just keeps on walking, other people offer the “artists” some money in sympathy for their damaged art!

But consider this: Without the gift bullsh*t or fake art on the ground, this type of scam – like the old woman I first encountered on the streets of Newcastle – is just a form of theft that escalates from an awkward situation to full-on intimidation that has all the hallmarks of being mugged without a knife or a gun.

Human beings are predictable in many types of situation and while the pitchman might employ a few subtle nudges to push a sale, the street hustler uses similar but much more obvious and aggressive tactics.

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Lead image: mrwrigleyfield/YouTube