This could be a piece of fiction. But it isn’t. This really happened to me and I was reminded of it due to my recent post about hoaxes. And I promised the wonderful Diana Wallace Peach that I’d re-post it in full (rather than as a link).
In early 2014 I took my eldest daughter down to London for an audition to a drama school and while she was busy a-singing and a-dancing and stuff I went for a mooch up the North End Road from Fulham Broadway towards West Kensington. It was there that I met The Con Artist.
Now I wobble along a social line that wants to see the best in everyone but I can still be fairly cynical. At the time I was also working for Nottinghamshire Police, so I was used to seeing all kinds of scam activity that the detritus of humanity throws at the rest of us. However, whilst paused to check my phone, I was approached by…
… a middle-aged woman.
Rule Number One – Looks Can Be Deceiving
Don’t expect The Con Artist to look like some kind of spiv, a Flash Harry, a wide-boy. This woman was probably in her fifties and had a kind of scruffy middle-class air about her. You know, probably a nice upbringing but it’s all gone a bit sad and pear-shaped. It was January so she was wearing a big coat, hat and scarf along with several rings that could have been family heirlooms but were probably cheap costume jewellery. And she was probably only about 5’6″ or so. Not at all threatening to a six foot bloke who’s maybe ten years her junior.
Rule Number Two – Listen To Their First Words!
Her first words to me, literally before “hello” or “excuse me”, were: “I’m not a beggar”. It had not occurred to me that she would have been, but my Spidey-sense should have been tingling a bit more than it was. Beggars are pretty up front about taking money off you whereas she threw in a fair amount of guff before getting down to scamming. So after covertly stating an intention to relieve me of some money by means other than begging, she then asked if I was “from around here”. I assumed that this was because she was lost, but no. This was because she wanted a wide-eyed innocent. I was ideal fodder, down from the Midlands for one day. She then attempted to ingratiate herself with me by complaining about not seeing anyone else ‘English’, which pretty much fell flat on its face as I don’t generally bond over casual racism. She regained her thread and, deciding that I was a possible mark, began her sorry tale.
Rule Number Three – Look Out For Convenient ‘Justifying’ Props
Her car had run out of fuel and she had attempted to buy some petrol from a garage ‘down the road’ but they wouldn’t let her fill her lemonade bottle with an explosive flammable liquid. At this point I nodded, knowing about this law. She produced the lemonade bottle as prop number 1, but the most significant items were the keys she was clutching in her right hand. “Of course she’s telling the truth,” you think, “she’s got a whole load of keys in her hand and some of them are definitely car keys.” Yes, but if you think about it, if you have car problems you shove your keys back in your pocket or bag, not wander the streets with them permanently gripped in your hand like some kind of consumerist talisman. She had them purely to make me think about the car and give credence to her story.
Rule Number Four – Do They Want Help Or Money?
She wanted some money to buy a fuel-can so that she could fill up her car. Again, she gestured down the road on her right (back towards Fulham). I then bowled a bouncer at her by stating that I was at a loose end for at least an hour, I could walk back to the car with her, sort her out with fuel and everyone’s happy. She didn’t like that. She said that it was a long way and the garage was in a different direction. And so on.
Rule Number Five – Beware The Phone-y Reassurance
She said she could repay anything she borrowed off me by sending money via PayPal. And she was very keen to exchange mobile phone numbers, so that I would have her details and then be in a position to trust her. This didn’t really make much sense to me, because all I would have would be a random phone number, most likely a cheap pay-as-you go SIM. Her phone was an ancient Nokia which suited her because it went with the slightly decrepit image (and also because it was practically worthless and easily replaced if lost, compromised or confiscated by the cops). Also, at this point, why not suggest they phone a friend? No doubt they would have no credit or some other sob-story.
Rule Number Six – Watch Out For Rapid Inflation
I had my suspicions about her story all the way through, but as I’ve mentioned, I want to see the good in people. It could be that she was telling the truth. How would I feel if my wife was marooned with no money? So I looked at how much money I had spare. She said that a petrol-can cost five or six pounds. I only had a spare tenner. Suddenly the petrol-can was actually nearer seven or eight. (For the record, a five litre can costs £5.99 from Halfords). So in the end, wanting to believe her and being at heart a nice bloke (mug) I gave her the tenner. At which point, the rather superfluous final rule kicked in and pretty much confirmed that she was a Con Artist.
Rule Number Seven – Watch Where They Go
All through the conversation the implied car was on her right (south) but as soon as she had the money she turned left (north) and headed towards the local Sainsburys. I popped into a nearby internet cafe to print something out for my daughter and meandered slowly back towards Fulham, pondering the likely con. While doing so, I saw The Con Artist heading south on the other side of the road. With some Sainsburys shopping. The cheeky cow.
I followed her discretely for a while but I lost her when she turned into the estate on Gibbs Green Close, next to West Kensington Mansions. The “Petrol Scam”, as it is known, features as one of the fairly well-known cons in this article, but most instances tend to occur at motorway services and the scammer is a dodgy-looking bloke, not in London suburbs by an apparently slightly shabby and inept posh auntie.
I thought about contacting the Met Police but realistically they can’t do much about it. She asked for a small amount of money and I gave her it on trust. Very much in that grey area between fraud and civil debt. On the other hand, if she was a serial offender then perhaps my experience would be of interest to them so that they could get some kind of ASBO/Injunction on her. But probably not. I took too long mulling it over and then decided perhaps the best course would be to explain what had happened on a blog, so that others could hopefully spot the warning signs of an impending con. Especially those accosted by a middle-aged cow in West Kensington.