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STREET GAMES : Recognizing And Avoiding Con Artists And Their Scams

Some con artists call it “playing the letter” or “in the game.” Others simply call it “the donation.” But whatever they call it, police say one thing is certain--a victim’s gullibility is their license to steal.

More than $600,000 in untraceable cash has been stolen from unsuspecting Los Angelenos within the last year and a half in street cons, Los Angeles police said. The typical victim is older, female and lives alone.

A rash of fake contractors swooped down on victims of the Northridge earthquake last January, escalating the number of complaints to the Van Nuys office of the Contractor State License Board to 275 a month, three times the average number.

The con artists manipulate people with a friendly exterior or feigned naivete trying to illicit one of two responses in people: sympathy or larceny, (or perhaps even both).

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All street games start with “the catch,” when con artist approach their victims, usually near banks, check-cashing stores and Western Union outlets. The game typically takes place within three hours and victims are asked to keep the transaction a secret.

The Jamaican Switch: How It Works

To perform the “Jamaican Switch,"a scam directed at African Americans during the days of apartheid, con artists appealed to their victims sense of social justice. New variations on the scam have emerged, but the classic switch involves con artists pretending to be Africas or other foreign nationals in need of help. In January a San Fernando Valley man lost $27,000 in such a scam. Here’s one example of how the scam works:

1. Con artist, speaking in a foreign accent, asks, “Can you help me find an address? I’ve inherited all this money and need to find my lawyer’s office.”

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2. As accomplice approaches, pretending to be a curious onlooker, the con artist says, “Here’s the letter from my lawyer verifing the inheritance.”

3. “Can you two help me donate this money to a charity?,” the con artist asks. “For political reasons, I cannot bring the money back to my homeland.”

4. “Why don’t you put the money into the bank?,” suggests the accomplice, who then asks the victim, “Would you handle making the donation?”

5. Con artist asks, “Can blacks withdraw money from American banks? The governmentcontrols money in my country.” Accomplice pretends to withdraw money to prove it can be done.

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6. Unconvinced, the con artist asks the victim, “Can you withdraw money too?” He and accomplice press the victim until she withdraws some money as proof.

7. “I’ll put your money with mine into this bag, which you can hold onto until you makethe donation for me,” the con artist says. 8. The con artist and accomplice distract the victim, switch the money with fake bills and flee.

HOME IMPROVEMENTS

WARNING SIGNS: Fraudulent contractors who solicit home repair work door-to-door.

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HOW IT WORKS:

1. Con artist, sometimes accompanied by a small crew, will offer to use some “surplus” supplies from another job down the street to patch a roof or make some other repair.

2. The fake contractor will quote a low price for the work, then pretend to do repairs, slapping tar and mortar in the appropriate places, not expecting the victim to check the work.

3. After the “work” is completed, the con artist will charge the victim a higher price than quoted, saying that unexpected costs came up.

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4. If a victim refuses to pay, they are usually threatened or pressured into paying.

TARGETED VICTIMS: Usually elderly people who live alone.

AMOUNT LOST: 75 arrested in Los Angeles County in last 12 months for being unlicensed contractors. 285,000 licensed statewide and that many unlicensed.

PIGEON DROP

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WARNING SIGNS: People who say they just found some money and want to share it with you.

HOW IT WORKS:

1. Con artist claims to have found an envelope filled with a large sum of money.

2. Con artist shows victim the money and asks for assistance in locating the rightful owner.

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3. The victim is told they will receive a portion of the money for helping out if they produce some of their own cash as an act of “good faith.”

4. Once the victim complies, they are distracted and their money stolen. There are many variations of this crime.

TARGETED VICTIMS: All ages and backgrounds.

AMOUNT LOST: From 1993 to the present, $24,500 has been reported stolen in Pigeon Drop schemes in Los Angeles. Such cons were especially common in 1990, when $44,500 was reported stolen.

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Source: Los Angeles Police Department; Research by JEANNETTE REGALADO / For The Times


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