Scam artists are a pain in the asphalt

We live in an age of scam artists.  The newer ones come to us courtesy of the World Wide Web and can con unsuspecting victims out of money or cause them to unknowingly order products.

For a decade or so, it was common to find the Nigerian Scam in your inbox.  Fortunately, this one seems to have died out, but not before hundreds of innocent, but gullible, folks individually spent thousands of dollars in order to claim part of the billions of dollars of a former Treasury Official in Nigeria.

Years ago, when I worked for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, folks still had telephones which plugged into the wall and phone directories.

Con artists would go through the phone directories looking for those women who had their names listed in the directories, signifying there was no “Mr.” living there.  These smooth criminals would zero in on ladies with names indicating they were at least 65 years old.  Prudence.  Hortense.  Ethel.  Bertha.  These women were much more likely to be susceptible to various schemes than 30-year old Heather or Tiffany.

Pretending to be a distant niece down on her luck and needing money, the cunning con man would pry information out of an elderly and trusting woman.  For example, “Hello Aunt Prunella.  I’m a distant niece of yours, from back East.”  A high percentage of Prunellas might reply with words like “Are you related to my cousin Ernie, from Ohio?” or words to that effect.  And the con is on.

Because of the wariness I acquired during many years in law enforcement, I am adifficult person to scam.  Many telephone scams are very easy for me to spot.  When I pick up the phone without checking caller ID, I will often hear “Hello, Russell.”  Click.  Nobody who knows me has ever called me by the name I was assigned at birth.  

In L.A., and around the country, there is one group who is famous for paving and roofing scams.  The Gypsies.   The word “gyp” comes courtesy of these folks.  Back in the ’80s, there was a group out of Arkansas called the Johnsons, who provided new roofs and driveways … both of which washed away during the next rainfall.

Here in South Bend, I was visited by a con man-team.  And I KNEW it was a con, but I fell for it anyway.  If that were the end of the story, there would be no story on this end from me.

Why did I fall for it?  They were clever.  And, I felt I was being a nice guy to a group of hard workers.  And, they were from a minority group.  And, beneath my gruff exterior, beats a soft heart.  Here’s what happened:  I have a large asphalt driveway, with a lot of cracks which have developed over the years.  And small batches of weeds came up through the cracks.  Incidentally, these weeds get no fertilizer, seeding, or watering and very little sun.  If they were something you wanted to grow, they would have no chance.  But, I digress.

One day, a car and a panel truck drove to the road leading to my driveway.  The panel truck had a company name on the side, something like Specialty Paving.  That wasn’t the name, but you get the idea.  I walked outside and talked to a young man, perhaps 25.  He was polite and articulate, with a slight accent I could not place.  For some reason, I felt he was Mexican or from Latin America.  Roberto, my yardman here, and Jose, whom I hired in Los Angeles, were both first generation Americans from Mexico.  Both drove old pick-up trucks and marketed their services by putting business cards in my mailbox.  Both very hard workers. 

This guy told me he had done some driveway repairs and paving in this general area and had some hot asphalt left over, so he could offer me a bargain price to repair and pave my drive.  I said, “Give me an estimate.”  He conferred with an older man from the truck and the two of them used some kind of measuring thingie and a hand calculator before the young man came over and said:  “$4,500.”  I gave him a laugh and said “No thanks.”

He was ready with a quick retort.  “That would be our regular price, but because we have the asphalt ready and our team is already here, we can do the job for $3,500.”  “Sorry,” I told him, “but you’re not even remotely close to my budget.”  He shook my hand and they politely left.

Two years (!) later, the young man and the rest of the crew were back.  He said. “Remember me?”  I nodded.  “I see your driveway still needs some work.  We now use a new process, which is not as comprehensive as what we offered before, but it costs only $500.  Cash.”  I asked what I would get for $500.  “We’ll burn out all the weeds in the cracks.  We’ll fill in those depressions.  Then we’ll put down a light undercoat, followed by a layer of heavy sealer.  It’ll look like a brand new driveway.  It’ll look good for 3-4 years and we’ll guarantee it for six months, during which time we will come back and fix anything which is not to your liking.”

Cleverly, he pointed to a small area, just outside my driveway, and said “We are not including that patch in our estimate.”  I shook hands with him and said “Deal.”

In the car was an older woman.  His mother?  And a boy around 10.  In the truck was an older man.  Dad?  And a husky 35 year old?  Big brother?  All of them participated.  They were quite industrious.  Someone used a tool to edge the area between my driveway and my lawn.  Dad used a blow torch to burn out the weeds.  The boy did sweeping.  Mom did something at the truck. 

I went inside, doing research on my (hoped-for) book on early (1887-1917) Notre Dame Football.  Periodically, I peered outside.  I noticed that they had not filled in some of the depressions in my asphalt, as he had promised.  That was depressing.  It would be on his ass and not my fault.  But, it was only $500.

A knock at the door.  When I answered, he said, “You need a lot more work than I had noticed.”  I said, “And I noticed that you didn’t fill in all the depressions you promised.”  He said, “OK, I’ll tell you what we’re going to do.  For the special price of $1,300, we will fill in all those spots and give you an extra layer of our special asphalt sealer.”  I said, “OK.  I know you’ve been scamming me, but, if you do as you’re saying, it’ll be worth that much money to get this done.”

He said, “Here’s a contract for the job” and he pulled out a kinda official looking document, and wrote $1,300 at the bottom.  Seemed kinda OK.  We walked inside so I could sign it with hen scratching which in no way resembled my name, or anyone else’s.  I should also mention that I keep my old police baton (PR-24) inside my front door and I wanted him to see it.  When he looked at it, I said. “Thirty years a cop, so I keep some protection handy.”  And, “I’m the security advisor for our neighborhood.”.\

While he was scribbling on the contract, I said, “What is your accent?”  Lots of ways to answer.  He said, “I’m not going to lie to you.  I’m Romanian.”  Uh, oh.  Where are Gypsies from?  You guessed it.  Why did he preface his answer the way he did?  He knew I knew what some of his ancestors were famous for.

BTW, I recently played in a Fort Wayne Bridge Tournament, in which one of the winners was a lovely Romanian lady.  And, my final home in Los Angeles was one of the residences of Bela Lugosi.  Although he was born in Hungary, that area is now part of Romania.  Not all Romanians are crooks.  Some play bridge very well and some can scare the heck out of you in a movie.

In too fast a time, he was done.  They didn’t do a second coat of anything and did a poor job on a couple depressions.  I knew I had been had, but, at least my driveway was less ugly than before.  I figured I had been taken for $800, but I agreed to pay $500, so I was penalizing myself for falling for the scam.

The guy, dad, and big brother walked towards my door.  I met them 20 feet from the door.  I had already written out a check for $1,300.  On the payee line, I wrote the name from the side door of the truck.  When I handed over the check, the guy said, “We don’t want it made out to that name.  We don’t use it anymore.”  I said, “Don’t worry, your bank will cash it, based upon that being your former account.” 

He made a fuss.  So I added “You can open a new account, with your business name on it.”

Then, dad and the husky brother started walking on either side of me.  I pointed at both of them and said, “I’m talking to only one of you.  The other two of you are trespassing.  Get out of my yard.”  I used my “Big Boy Voice,” which is what I used to teach to Deputy Sheriffs in recruit training. 

He said, “Ok, we’ll take $1,000 cash.”  Now, I was no longer going to be Cap the Social Worker.  I was going to be “Fool me once, shame on me,”,\ etc.

I said, “Go wait in your car.  I used to work with the Bunco Squad of the Sheriff’s Department, so I know whom I’m going to call.  And, when he gets here, make sure you have your business license and tax permit.”

Since I had not shaved that morning, I gave myself a quick clean-up and put on a nicer shirt.  Now I was ready to call for a Deputy Sheriff.  I wonder if they actually have a Bunco Squad.  It couldn’t have taken me more than ten minutes to get ready. 

Where’d they go?  No idea.

The next day, my neighbor (a contractor) told me he saw “those workmen” who were here.  “What did they charge you?  Sometimes you have to be careful that you’re not being scammed.”

I said,  “It’s a long story.”