Our Dishonest Planet
Stories of Common Hustles and Cons from Around the World
Dec 16 2013
Do you ever get the feeling that everyone you meet is lying to you? Well, that’s because they probably are—the world is full of people who will lie, cheat, rob, and hustle, putting on elaborate cons just to snatch a few bucks. An honest day’s work is for fucking losers, apparently, and it’s far, far easier to steal from the 7 billion gullible suckers roaming the earth. We asked our offices around the world to compile some stories of scams and dishonest rackets—big, small, innocent, fun, or despicable acts—and this is what they came back with. (Some names have been changed at the request of our sources because they admit to having committed illegal acts.)
HOW I ROBBED A BANK
I was pursuing the classical career path in the Swiss finance sector. I’d attended business school, gotten work at the cashier’s desk in a bank, then moved up to the private banking department, which got me my own office. Three months before my training as a stockbroker was about to start, I had an epiphany and realized that this life wasn’t really what I wanted. I quit my job, but I was required by contract to work there for another three months.
If you work in a bank and have all that money running through your hands day after day, you will always look for holes in the security system. What keeps people from stealing the cash is the fear of jeopardizing their careers, but that fear was gone the moment I quit.
Places like nightclubs that have lots of cash to deposit put their nightly take in bank-issued pouches and drop them into a special mailbox outside the bank that leads directly to an underground safe. Every morning, a clerk at the cashier’s desk goes down into the bank’s cellar to collect those bags and deposits the money into the appropriate account.
I knew that very early every Tuesday morning, somebody threw two to three cash bags into that mailbox, containing around 100,000 francs (about $109,000) each. There was no camera surveillance on the mailbox and minimal coverage inside the bank. The path down to the bank’s cellar was not under surveillance either. I imagine they’ve changed that by now.
My assumption when I planned the heist was that if money was “lost” in between the time the customer dropped his bag and when it was transferred to his account, neither the bank nor the customer would be able to figure out at what point exactly that cash had gone missing.
I started coming in early every morning so I could be around at the time the vault was scheduled to be emptied. I told my bosses I wanted a few extra hours since I was leaving soon and needed to save up. One morning around 8 AM I casually went to the coffee machine and made myself a cup. Then I placed it on my desk, making it appear as if I had been working and had just stepped out for a moment to go to the bathroom. Then I took the elevator to the cellar, opened the safe, grabbed one of the three money bags, and stuffed it into my pants. I had arranged for a friend to meet me for lunch in the bank’s canteen, where I gave him the bag. He took it to my place and the whole thing was done.
After five days the police were involved and had interrogated the entire staff. The easiest, and what should be the first, part of a heist like that is to find a way to do it and get away with it. The much harder part is the time after you have accomplished your mission and have to avoid suspicion and handling the constant pressure of not knowing exactly how much the police and your boss know.
Eventually, I couldn’t stand the pressure anymore and gave up. I went into my boss’s office and put the money on his desk. He fired me on the spot, and I was charged for my crimes.
“GARY,” AS TOLD TO TILL RIPPMAN
I’ve been involved in criminal activity all my life, since I was 15, and I’ve been in and out of prison since. I’ve gotten [arrested] for selling cocaine, firearms, three assaults on police officers… It goes on and on. If you keep getting arrested for the same crime, you get bigger sentences, so I move on. Now I am mainly involved in fraud. A friend of mine told me about this scam we call electronic pickpocketing. We use a machine called an RFID reader, which reads credit cards. Why pickpocket when all you have to do is walk past them?
Basically, it can scan things as you walk past. On a busy street, you can walk past people, and it’ll swipe the numbers off their bank cards and put them onto the machine. It logs them all. We go out and collect the numbers, then pass them over to my mate who’s a computer engineer. He does his stuff with the numbers we collect, and that’s that.
I go to busy places and walk about, collecting the numbers. I’ve done it at football matches, easy. You need to be close to people—nearly touching them—for the reader to get the information, but no one’s ever caught me doing this. I’m like a space-age Fagin. There’s no real way of targeting people; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, you just have to try. The most I’ve earned off the reader was 6,000 or 7,000 quid ($9,500 to $11,000) in a session.
Frenchmen Street in New Orleans is the place for live traditional jazz, which means most nights there’s a crowd of tourists who show up for performances at a dozen different venues. Working these crowds is a guy named Emmett who makes his money scooping up multiple copies of OffBeat, the glossiest and most expensive-looking of the city’s abundant free music magazines, and selling them to gullible out-of-towners for five bucks apiece.
The city is home to a host of more dangerous criminal activities every night, but for some reason it’s Emmett who attracts a lot of anger and controversy. The vitriol against him is intense and ongoing. On neighborhood-association email lists, locals brainstorm ways to have him arrested. One of the founders of Three Muses, an upscale Frenchmen Street restaurant, started a Facebook page on which he uploads creepshots of Emmett and posts as Emmett using inherently disrespectful dialect. (“Just got ass rape… again” and “Dey was like dis yo house?” are recent examples.) A coffee shop off Frenchmen Street put a sign over the stacks of free publications that read ONE COPY PER CUSTOMER, PLEASE. Someone also put big signs on the telephone poles along Frenchmen: DO NOT PAY FOR OFFBEAT, IT IS A FREE MAGAZINE. Despite all of this, Emmett is still hocking his magazines.
I moved to Stockholm when I was 19 years old. I didn’t have any money, but I did have an ID card that belonged to some girl who looked like me. I also had a part-time customer-service job with a national internet provider, where I got access to people’s personal information and businesses’ tax-ID numbers.
So my friend and I went to restaurants all over Sweden, pretending we worked at local newspapers. We told the restaurants to send the bills to the newspapers, and I authorized them with the company information I had gotten hold of at work.
I also used people’s ID numbers to create several user accounts on Tradera, Scandinavia’s version of eBay. Whenever I needed money, I’d sell items that didn’t exist. I’d upload a photo of Kate Moss wearing a fur, remove her head from the photo, then say the fur was from some expensive brand. People would send me money for the fur or whatever, and they’d get nothing in return.
Nothing bad ever happened to me during the year and a half I was doing it, and I earned $3,500. The only hassle was setting up all these email addresses. I had a different one for each item that I “sold.” I think there must have been around 40 of them.
If I ever got caught, I would have played stupid and told the police that I’d lost my passport and make them believe someone was pretending to be me.
“MARIA JOHANSSON,” AS TOLD TO CAISA EDERYD
In Paris tourists attract street crooks and pickpockets, which means tricksters are everywhere. They’re at the Sacré-Coeur Basilica, in front of Notre Dame, on the square at Saint-Michel, at Châtelet, and especially at the bottom of the Eiffel Tower. It’s there that a group of men—many of them Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants—fool passing marks into playing bonneteau, the French name for the infamous three-card Monte scam.
“The bonneteau is not really a card game,” according to Georg, who lures tourists to the tables where the sleight-of-hand artists hold court. “It’s a game of chance: once the cards are mixed, you must choose one of three cards in front of you. Only one is a king of spades. If you find it, you double your bet.”
Players usually win small bets at first, and then, as soon as they feel confident, will play for 100, 200, or even 500 euros ($135 to $675); the card shark slips the king of spades into his pocket unnoticed and the player loses. It’s the oldest trick in the book, but according to the Paris police, the 80-plus men who work these tables near the Eiffel Tower bring in a combined 2,000 euros a day.
Even if there isn’t a clear link between Eastern European organized-crime syndicates and these low-level hustlers, a spokesman for the Paris police whom we asked about the situation—and who arrested 33 Romanian bonneteau fraudsters in October—suggested it wasn’t so far-fetched: “Looking at the amount of money they make, it is not ridiculous to talk about a true Mafia.”
FAKE KIDNAPPINGS ARE A REAL PROBLEM
One Sunday evening in 2011, a man we’ll refer to as Carlos got a call while eating dinner with his wife. He heard what sounded like his grandson’s voice crying and sobbing. Thinking the 16-year-old had been kidnapped, he met with the criminals to give them what jewelry he had, but apparently that wasn’t enough for the ransom they were demanding. He pulled out 7,000 reals (around $3,000) from his bank account the next morning.
“The guys were professional,” Carlos said. “They were monitoring us, they called throughout the whole evening… You get really stupid in their hands; you’ll do anything they want.”
He gathered together his valuables and cash in such a rush that he didn’t pause to check to see if his grandson was really kidnapped. In reality, he was sleeping peacefully at Carlos’s son’s home—a fact he only realized while on his way to meet the criminals with the money.
This kind of fake kidnapping has become commonplace in Brazil over the past several years: Why actually snatch a child when you can just make some empty threats and trick people?
That said, calls that begin with begging and screaming (the criminals often use recordings) are hard to ignore in a country where real kidnappings are all too frequent, but the military police told me that the best way to deal with a situation like that is to stay calm, not give the person any information, and attempt to contact the alleged kidnapping victim.
Statistics about this type of crime in Brazil are scarce, since many victims don’t report these scams, but in 2007 the Associated Press reported that there were more than 3,000 complaints about fake kidnappings in the first 45 days of that year alone. Worse yet, it appears there’s little the police can do to stop this wave of fraud—if the cops do arrest the perps, chances are they’ll only be charged with larceny.
ANNA PAULA MASCARENHAS
YOU’VE ALREADY WON
If Canadians want to make thousands of dollars a week, all they have to do is trick their neighbors to the south into thinking they’ve won prizes. Simple enough, right?
The scheme is called “prize-pitching,” and according to a former telemarketing scammer, it works like this: someone in the US gets a call from a Canadian who has some good news—the person they’re calling has already won! Exactly what they’ve won varies; in one case I heard about it was a “boat with sails of the sturdiest canvas and floors of the richest mahogany.” All the lucky winners had to do was pay the border taxes to have it docked near their homes. These fees might be $300 or $400, but what’s a few hundred bucks when you’re getting a top-of-the-line sailboat, right? And get a boat the victims did: soon after they wired money—usually through Western Union—they received a box in the mail containing a foot-long model boat with canvas sails and mahogany floors.
The targeted victims are mostly elderly folks who are probably just happy to have someone to talk to. Once they lose their money to these fast-talking Canucks, they have little legal recourse—the most successful schemes are those that don’t break any serious laws, like the boat trick, and it’s difficult to prosecute scammers for cross-border crimes. And if the guys in charge are forced to shut one of these small-time scammers down after too many complaints, they can just recycle the fraudulent business in a week’s time, using a different name and setting up shop in a building down the street.
Thanks to the political and economic turmoil still shaking up their country, an awful lot of Egyptians have tried to flee their homeland for the sunnier, more stable pastures of the USA. The options for coming to and staying in America legally are pretty difficult, however. You can get a family member in the US to sponsor you, but that process takes about 15 years to complete. You can enter a lottery for a green card, but that takes an enormous amount of luck. Or you can apply for a short-term visitor visa and keep renewing it.
The major problem is that the US requires any Egyptian applying for a visitor visa to show plenty of assets—businesses in their name and about 100,000 Egyptian pounds ($14,000) in their bank account—in order to demonstrate that they’re coming as a tourist eager to inject money into the American economy. (Having a business in your name demonstrates to immigration officials that you have a reason to return to Egypt.) Most Egyptians don’t have those kinds of assets, so those who wish to leave often take advantage of their country’s corruption.
On my last trip to Egypt, in June, I met a lawyer who ran a racket facilitating visitor visas. For a small fee, he is willing to contact a friend at a bank and bribe them to forge a fake bank account that shows the applicant has enough money to qualify. After the visa application is processed, the bank account disappears just as easily. Everyone wins: the lawyer and the banker earn some money for their troubles, and their client gets to travel to America—where, of course, they’ll have to work illegally since that visa doesn’t serve as a work permit.
DOWN AND OUT IN GREECE
There are an estimated 20,000 homeless people in Greece, and they have an economy all to themselves, as I found out when I ended up sleeping on the streets of Athens in 2007. Soon after I became homeless, I was approached by a gang of Georgians and offered work as a drug mule. I know a lot of people who have done something like this, as well as those who pretended to be homeless in order to sell drugs—it’s harder for the police to track you when you don’t have a permanent residence. Mostly, this sort of thing happens in downton Athens.
Gangs will also pay the willing to “protect” their prostitutes, most of whom are from Eastern Europe. I did that for a bit. The job is to keep an eye on the hookers and let the gangs know if anything happens with the clients or the police. Another common practice is getting street people to open bank accounts that gangs can use for money laundering. It only costs $200 to turn a homeless man into an accomplice in a financial crime.
Then you’ve got the professional beggars. In Athens, most of them are well-trained gypsies from Romania, Albania, and southern Bulgaria. They operate in groups, work specific areas, and live in flats or gypsy colonies. If you are not one of them and try to work in their area, you are in big trouble. In certain places you can make up to 3,000 euros ($4,000) per month. Especially during the holiday season, you’ll have pickpockets mixed in with the beggars. They are mainly women, who slice your bag with a razorblade and steal your wallet from right under your nose.
“THANASSIS,” AS TOLD TO ANTONIS DINIAKOS
In post–financial crisis Spain, with a youth unemployment rate of 56 percent, there are very few opportunities for motivated young people. In that sort of economic climate, it’s natural for kids to turn to illegal means to finance their vacations.
According to a study published in June by VFM Services, a fraud-consultant company, travel-insurance fraud is on the rise around the world. Insurance claims for lost or damaged baggage rose 140 percent between the summers of 2012 and 2013; a whopping 45 percent of claims that were investigated were revealed as being false. In the UK alone, AXA Insurance flags 20 or 30 exaggerated claims a month.
It’s pretty much impossible to say who is committing all this fraud, but from what I’ve heard Spaniards are responsible for more than their share. A 26-year-old from Barcelona, we’ll call her Olivia, was willing to explain how she tricked the system.
“This was the first time I’d ever done something like this, but the girl I flew with does it every time she travels. We flew to Oslo on the same flight but sat in separate seats on the way back, making sure not to be seen together in the airport.
“Once we landed, my friend made her way to the baggage claim first, picked up her case and mine, and left. After standing around grumpily for a while, I went to the information desk, made a scene [about the “lost” suitcase], and was given a form to fill out. There’s no point listing shit like iPads or jewelry, though, as most insurers only cover clothes. The next step is to ask your friends and family for receipts for their most expensive purchases. You can say they’re for your tax return if you don’t want to arouse suspicion. Send these [to the insurer] along with an online form and wait for them to approve or deny it. In my case, I got a letter a couple of months later with a check for 1,300 euros ($1,800) inside, which isn’t bad.”
FOOLS IN LOVE
The job I used to have [in Lagos, Nigeria] was very difficult. I worked at a factory from 7 AM to 7 PM and got paid 7,000 naira ($44) for a month of labor. Can you imagine how hard it was? Sometimes I didn’t take buses to save money. I would have to trek all the way from my house all the way there.
One day, my friend told me about internet fraud and how to make money from it, and I started doing it. I wasn’t doing it regularly; I would pop in and out. During the night [the guys] meet white guys online and pretend to be ladies.
They tell them, “I love you, and I want to come over and meet you.” The white guy falls in love, and from there the guy says, “OK, I want you to come over here. What is it going to take for you to come here?”
And they say, “OK, I need to get a visa and passport and ticket and things like that.”
“But how much is it going to cost?”
“Maybe a few thousand dollars.”
The guy sends over the money, and you never hear from them again. The shortest time I got a guy to fall in love with me was only two days. I understand their white life so much that I use their lives against them. They don’t have a choice not to believe me.
JOE, AS TOLD TO ANDY CAPPER
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