Reformed Con Man Is Making New Pitch : Crime: John T., who victimized many, makes amends by helping others avoid being scammed.
Many of the dozen or so people in the basement meeting room of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church on Harvard Boulevard are taking notes as the speaker begins to dissect “the pitch,” line by line:
The caller informs you that you have won one of four prizes in a sweepstakes. You’re guaranteed at least a $2,000 shopping spree at the mall of your choice, and you could win $40,000. How does it feel to be a winner? All you’ve got to do is buy some products.
“Stop right there,” says the sandy-haired man as two members of the audience act out the dialogue. That’s the con, the man says.
He should know. He wrote it.
He calls himself John T. He was raised in Santa Ana and lives in Seal Beach. And he is a former con artist who says he made millions in telemarketing fraud before reforming and becoming an anti-fraud expert. These days he goes through his old tricks for audiences from San Diego to Los Angeles.
His mission: to educate people--particularly senior citizens, who are most vulnerable to scams--about how to protect themselves against con artists. His motto: “The best way to teach you how to outwit a con artist is to teach you how to be one.” His warning, verified by a federal fraud investigator: Southern California is the No. 1 scam target in the country.
“That’s where the money is,” says John T. “Plus, people in California are more likely to take a risk than someone in Illinois or Ohio,” and thus more susceptible to get-rich-quick pitches.
John T.'s visit to First AME, Los Angeles’ most prestigious black church, is his first stop in the vicinity, but he promises to return.
“Next time I come back here I want the room filled!” he tells the tiny audience. Historically, South-Central Los Angeles has been a particular gold mine for fraud artists. Crooks, John T. says, covet the savings of many senior citizens who stockpile money to help extended families. As a result, the con artist causes more pain: “Proportionally, a (South-Central) retiree who is helping to support an extended family who loses $30 is the same as a retiree in Laguna Beach losing $10,000.”
John T. plays well in churches.
Part of his talk deals with his own life: his time on Southland streets as a juvenile delinquent; his training and career as what two investigators call one of the nation’s most notorious con artists, and his conversion in Alcoholics Anonymous.
His voice takes on a subtle Southern twang as he details his fall and rise, his tone softening as he talks about the “good Christian family” that took him in, hardening when he refers to the alcohol and drugs that numbed his conscience, thundering when he tells his audience: “Now, I don’t want you to enter another drawing or sweepstakes again, because that’s where it all starts!”
John T. says he started in the con business after he left Southern California in 1978 at the age of 20 and answered an ad in a Las Vegas newspaper for a salesman. Soon, he says, he was one of 50 con artists working out of a “boiler room,” pulling in what he estimates at $23 million a year for the organization, keeping hundreds of thousands of dollars for himself. He says he moved around the country, selling counterfeit art in New York City, marketing nonexistent oil wells in Miami Beach, and running sweepstakes scams in San Diego, where he was ultimately busted in March, 1987, for offering contest “winners” a way around having to pay a tax on their soon-to-be-shipped prizes--buying $400 worth of promotional items. Postal Inspector David Westberg confirmed the San Diego scam’s demise.
As part of his defense, John T. blamed his troubles on alcohol and entered AA. He credits his high-priced attorney with getting him a mere 70-day prison sentence.
While he was incarcerated, John T. realized something. “The woman who said she loved me, she didn’t visit me,” he says. Nor did his con artist friends. “Only these people from AA came, and they gave me a Bible, and I read it, and something sank in.”
After staying with his AA sponsor in San Diego, John T. moved to Lancaster and worked as a chemical dependency counselor, attended UCLA and graduated in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. (He had never finished high school.) He was also reunited with his family, and says they are now closer than ever.
His 12-step recovery was still in progress, though, and in 1989 he was stuck on Step 9, where one is supposed to make amends with those one has wronged.
“How can I make amends?” he asked his sponsor. “I don’t even know all the people I’ve wronged.”
The sponsor told him to pray.
The next day, John T. got a call from Douglas P. Shadel, a fraud investigator with the state of Washington who was trying to start an anti-fraud organization. He needed help.
In the First AME basement, John T. passes around copies of one of the products of his partnership with Shadel--the book “Schemes & Scams,” which they wrote. He urges his audience to tell their friends and family about fraud prevention.
“If you get scammed and stay silent, that means they can scam your family, your friends and your neighbors,” he says. “If you get scammed and tell everyone, you’re going to help put them out of business.”
It’s easy to defend yourself, John T. says. Never buy anything over the phone. Never buy anything being sold door to door, and especially beware of contractors going door to door offering rebated work.
John T. hopes the stigma surrounding fraud cases will fade as victims realize they are not to blame.
His eyes are set on the day he can stop crusading and start a normal life--he hopes that by 1996 he will have atoned for what he did and have set up a network of anti-fraud workers that will continue while he pursues a doctorate in psychology. But for now has amends to make.
“There’s no excuse for what I’ve done,” he tells his audience. “That’s one of the reasons I give these workshops.”