22 June 2012

How I was scammed

Susan Erasmus thought she was scam-proof until she was conned out of R300 at the roadside by the smoothest conman imaginable.


Susan Erasmus thought she was scam-proof until she was conned out of R300 at the roadside by the smoothest conman imaginable.

Let me begin by saying that I thought I knew every scam in the book: after all, I have written four articles on hoaxes and scams, but not so.

This con-man, who called himself 'James', was such a smooth operator that I was only sure I was conned a day and a half later. In fact, this guy was so slick, I think 99% of people would have fallen for his spiel. He was probably late fifties, and wore neat mechanic's overalls. Put him in a suit and he'd pass for a church elder.

Back to Saturday afternoon. I had been to the Spar in Rosmead Avenue to get a few essentials. On my way home I noticed a guy on a small motorbike in the next lane. Nothing odd. As I turned into Wetton Road, he was alongside me and about 300m down the road flagged me down, and pointed anxiously to the front left side of my car.

Crisis by the roadside

My car is 17 years old, so even though it has always served me brilliantly, anything is possible. I stopped. 'James' pointed out that there were sparks coming out of the engine. Panic stations! I have seen three cars burn out in my life, and it's astonishing how quickly it happens. I wasn't going to take any chances.

James tells me he saw the security guard at the Spar trying to attract my attention. He asks me to open the hood of the car and tells me he is an auto-electrician. He looks the part. I do it. But I don't get out – after all, that's how hijacks happen. He has chosen the time and the place well. It is quarter past five on a Saturday, it is starting to get dark, there are no houses or businesses close by, and on the other side of the road behind Wynberg Sport Club is the entrance to an informal settlement. This is not a spot in which I want to be hanging around - especially after dark.

Then I think of the fact that a stranger is poking around in my car's engine and suddenly I start to panic and get out. He holds up a loose wire – in retrospect nowhere near where he said the sparks came from, but by now I am not thinking logically. He goes to the garage to fetch water, leaving his helmet and his possessions with me. I know now this was merely to win my trust.

Alarm bells are ringing

Something is making alarm bells ring, so I take two-thirds of the money out of my wallet and hide it in my bra. I phone my brother who lives 10 minutes away, and he races to the scene.

James returns and claims to have found the problem in the starter motor. And surprise, the car won't start. He uses my phone to call his 'boss' who lives close by, and I hear him talking about three parts that are needed at R350 each. I say I only have R300 on me, and mention that my brother is coming and that I think I must call the AA. He disappears, and returns in a surprisingly short time bearing the most necessary part. He apologises for its being a pirate part, but hey, desperate measures and all that. He fiddles around with the engine, and the car starts. Hallelujah.

Now he wants R375, but I only have R300. I refuse to pay him until my brother arrives. This makes him nervous, and now suddenly there's some urgency, as the 'boss' needs to be paid before he goes out fishing, and he is late already. I refuse and hold my ground. I am locked in the car and James is standing next to me. He is still jovial and appears to be very kind and chatty, if by now somewhat impatient.

A real Samaritan arrives

My brother and his partner arrive and the whole story is explained, as plausibly as it was to me. My brother is a very astute judge of character, and like me, he doesn't want to be rude to someone who might just be a Good Samaritan. I hand over the R300 in my wallet, but not the R550 in my bra.

I think the arrival of a third party possibly prevented my car being towed (God knows where to) by James and a 'friend'. It also prevented him talking me into going to the nearest ATM to draw the extra money I 'owed' him.

My brother follows me home – the car seems fine. We are not sure whether we have been scammed or not.

I have been conned

Two things solve this mystery: a visit to the auto-electrician on Monday morning, and a call to the number on my cellphone left when James phoned his 'boss'.

The auto-electrician says there is nothing wrong with the car, and there are no pirate parts fitted either. The loose wire is the connecting wire to the aircon, which James must have pulled out. And, says he, you cannot see it from the outside if there are sparks in the engine. He reconnects the wire for free. Now here's a Good Samaritan and he's from KC auto-electrics in case anyone wondered.

The number on my phone goes through to the voicemail of what sounds like a young black woman. She might have been in on the scam, but there is no answer, and what are the chances that she's an auto-electrician called 'Freddy'?

I have been conned. It's a horrible feeling. But that's the thing: conmen always look plausible, otherwise their cons wouldn't work.

And me? I am glad I didn't lose three times the amount. My choice is now to change my default setting to being hyper-suspicious of everyone (including real Good Samaritans, of whom there are many out there) all the time, or being conned once in a decade. I actually think I would rather choose to be conned. But I will never forget what enormously handy things bras are. And brothers.

(Susan Erasmus, Health24, June 2012)

If you've fallen for a clever scam, please tell us about it in the comment box below.


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