Roguelike people

No technology today. Rather, some advice.

I don't know if there's some sort of grifter convention going on, but I have seen four different short-con artists operating in Wallingford, the neighbourhood of Seattle where I live, in the last three days. Though that might be a slight mischaracterization. One of them was selling from a bag Christmas ornaments that they'd clearly just now shoplifted from Walgreens, which is not much of a "con". One of them might have plausibly actually been panhandling. But the other two were clearly running short cons, and even two is a lot for Wallingford in two days.

For those of you readers not intimately familiar with the short con, let me break it down for you. There are two basic kinds of confidence scams, "short" and "long". The short-con artist -- the "grifter" -- aims to tell the target -- the "mark" -- a story that convinces the mark to part with a small amount of money immediately, and then the grifter disappears forever from the mark's life. (*) They don't care if the mark realizes five minutes later that they've been taken by a short con; the grifter has got their five dollars and has moved on to the next mark. The long-con artist aims to gain the confidence of the mark for a long period of time, take them for a large amount of money, and maintain the mark's confidence even after the scam is over. "The Sting" is a great movie for seeing both the short con and the long con in action; the movie opens with a "Pigeon Drop" short con and ends with a "Big Store" long con.

The short cons that I've see around Wallingford over the last ten years are extraordinarily weak; they're barely a step up from panhandling. The guy who stopped me on the street last night was a perfect example: "hey buddy, can you help me out, I've lost my ferry ticket, well, it's not lost, it's at home on the coffee table but I can't get there in time and my roommate isn't picking up the phone, and I need to be at the ferry terminal to get to my brother's place, he's broken his leg, but here I am in Wallingford because I was having coffee with my friend Cindy at that bakery behind you and we ended up talking longer than I expected, but she's on the bus to Northgate now so she can't help me, but if you can loan me the money for the ticket I'll be back here tomorrow, hey, you can call me on my cell phone and we can arrange to meet, let me tell you my cell phone number and you can call me right now to verify that it's real" and that's when I stopped him, because I kid you not, all that came out of him without him letting me get a word in.

The sob-story short cons are all the same: I've lost my ferry ticket (but strangely enough we're nowhere near the ferry terminal), my car is out of gas and I need to get to my sick mother (but strangely enough the car is nowhere nearby), I'm almost out of my medication (here's the pill bottle, see?) but I've lost my wallet and I can't pay the pharmacy fee, can you help a brother out?

So, a word of advice to you guys:

  • People who mean you well do not stop you on the street. They ignore you, the same way you ignore strangers on the street whom you do not intend to defraud.
  • If the story sounds rehearsed, that's because it is.
  • You are under no obligation to give money to any stranger on the street who spins you a line.
  • Call the police non-emergency line; large cities may have a "bunco squad" that is interested to know where short-con artists are operating.

And a word of advice to any con artists out there who might be reading my blog about programming language design:

  • Too many details! Always you guys with your too many details! Look at all the irrelevant details the con artist gave me yesterday. Real people in trouble don't do that. Con artists always think that details add veracity but they do not; they make it sound like you're trying to convince me of a lie.
  • Giving the whole spiel at once, and having your props already in hand -- the cell phone, the gas can, the pill bottle -- make you seem like you are performing a monologue on stage. It is not realistic. Try a more naturalistic approach.
  • Consider giving up the con and go to honest panhandling. It's safer. Non-aggressive panhandlers I ignore; grifters I report to the police so that they can be arrested.

Next time: We'll finish up 2011 with rogues of a different sort!

(*) They hope; I in fact have been the target of the same con artist with the same "pill bottle" story twice, once in Wallingford and once in the parking lot of a vegetarian Chinese food restaurant by Seattle Center. He was even wearing the same t-shirt both times -- dark blue with "PUNK ROCK!" written on it in big white letters; an odd choice of costume, I thought. It certainly was a great identifying detail when I reported him to the police. I guess you can't remember everyone you meet when you're in that line of work. The off-my-meds punk rock enthusiast's story was utterly unconvincing the first time; the second time, it was just sad. I kinda hope to meet the guy a third time; I'd be interested to find out if this story actually works.

Comments (41)
  1. Travis says:

    Ahhh!!! This article is a disgrace to my favorite game genre:  😉

    You'll enjoy next week's posts then! — Eric

  2. SolutionYogi says:

    "And a word of advice to any con artists out there who might be reading my blog about programming language design:"

    I laughed on that one. I like your sense of humor. 🙂

  3. JMCF125 says:

    That's a new one. Fortunatly, where I live that doesn't happen. Once a poor woman came to my house and I felt sorry for her, so I gave her a bag of rice and a bottle of milk. She wanted meat and money and I didn't give her those things. In the next day I see the bag of rice and the bottle of milk next to my house, unopened. It had happened before with clothes. From that day, I never gave anything to those people.

  4. csharptest says:

    Eric, How can you disregard a story like THAT one, you should have bought him a ferry ticket just for being clever enough to come up with all that 😉

  5. JMCF125 says:


    In my opinion, if those guys where clever enough, they would have convenced Eric, and he wouldn't be here telling this.

  6. Mauricio says:

    Another great movie showing short and long cons in action: "Nueve Reinas" (Nine Queens)…/tt0247586

  7. Oliver Mellet says:

    Several times in Philadelphia I've been given the "I need money for a ticket to Trenton" spiel, Trenton of course being the most expensive regional rail ticket. One guy took to wearing a hospital gown, claiming he just got out of the ER and had no money to get home. He approached me a second time a week later with the same sob story, and I reminded him that I didn't buy it the week before. He got pretty upset, probably out of embarassment at being so obviously caught out.

  8. Gabriel says:

    Hahahaha, really funny. Can you share your answer to the ferry guy with us? I bet it was at least a bit ironic hahaha.

  9. brad says:

    Have you ever met the guy in Seattle who goes door to door with a story about how he and his partner just moved into the neighborhood, and he locked himself out of his house and he just needs some money to pay the locksmith so he can get in to his wallet?

    It's a really good story actually. He makes a point to say that he's a gay black man too, which I assume makes people feel guilty to say no to him.

    Yes! He came to my door several years ago. The best part about that story is that it does not make any sense at all. — Eric

  10. The Claw says:

    You know how a guy successfully got some money off me on the street recently? He said "excuse me, I'm not going to lie to you brother, I'm trying to get some money together so I can buy a drink, can you spare any change?" I was so surprised to not be bullshitted that I gave him a few bucks.

  11. phoog says:

    Oliver: When I was home (New York City) from college one weekend, I was waiting for a red light to change so I could continue looking for a parking spot, and a guy approached me asking for gas money to get home to Long Island.  I gave him 4 or 5 dollars ($7 to $10, adjusted for inflation).

    A few months later, again home from college, again on a quest for street parking, I was at the same corner when the same guy approached me with the same story.  Fool me twice, shame on me, so I called him on it: "I gave you money last time, not again."  His response was to get upset, not because I had caught him out, but because "is it my fault somebody else had the same problem"?  Such an unfortunate "coincidence."  I figured there was no way he'd admit it if I said I recognized him, so I didn't push it.

    When I walked past that corner on my way home, he was gone.  Oh, and a half a block in the other direction from the gas station was a "grocery" that seemed to sell more cannabis (and who knows what else) than any legal product.  So, Eric, since the police didn't seem to be doing anything about the "grocery", I don't suppose they'd have done much about the grifter.  But I didn't try.  This was New York in the 80s, after all.

  12. diadem says:

    The annoying ones are the "short cons" who have a regular area.

    "I've never been here before – I'm terrified of the city and have my kid with me. My car ran out of gas and I have no cash in my wallet. We want to get the hell out of here. You've got to help me. We just need money for gas at the station. I'll give you my licence to prove I'm not some sort of bum. Just return it when I pay you back."

    "You tried me yesterday. My answer's still no. Find another mark."

  13. says:

    As I used to ride the train, I have often been accosted for money for the train… once the grifter was absolutely shameless: took my money and then boarded the same train as me, without buying a ticket.

    One time a friendly guy came up to me and asked if he could have five bucks for a bottle of booze. In his friendly manner he explained what an honest person he was and touted that he wouldn't bulls*** me. So I gave him the money, hahaha. Another time a guy even convinced me to give him money for coke (the bad kind) ,,, but I don't think I would do that again. But I have to say, their honesty definitely makes their begging more palatable.

  14. Brennan says:

    I prefer cons that take advantage of negative aspects of the mark's personality, typically greed.  It tends to not work on good people, and gives negative reinforcement to those negative aspects.  The sob stories, which I've heard before several times, punish the kind, generous and naive.

    Second favorite the people who offer something.  I recently had someone in a common panhandling area offer to wash my car, I took him up on the offer and he walked away.  They also tell people they don't have to pay for parking at the meter on off-hours, and I always give them a bit if they save me from giving to the city unnecessarily.  Better bums than government.

  15. Andrei Rinea says:

    Why don't you tell'em this?

    "Hey, I'll loan you the money, just let me take a picture of you in case you won't return it to me". We'll see how they will refuse it then…

  16. Gabe says:

    When somebody comes up asking for money for X, I offer them X or offer to buy them X.

    "Oh, you need money for food? I was just on my way to lunch, let me buy you a sandwich." It doesn't matter that I'm not on my way to lunch because they won't take me up on it.

    "You don't have any gas? I have a gas can in my trunk." It doesn't matter that I don't have one because they don't want any gas from it anyway.

    "You're out of pills? That's horrible! Let me give you a ride to the pharmacy and buy you a refill."

    I actually got the same lady asking for gas twice in one week. The first time I felt bad but didn't give her anything. The second time I should have called the police.

  17. Josh Starner says:

    I read this because I thought you were talking about rogue-like games too!

    But I got a kick out of the post for giving advice to thieves.

  18. Todd says:

    Brad, that happened to me as well, only he said that his partner worked for Microsoft. I asked him his partner's name, then said I'd go check the directory. He quickly vanished from my doorstep.

  19. Chris B says:

    I always feel somewhat sad when someone approaches me this way, especially at this time of year.  The sad part is that in many cases, these people seems be unwilling or unable to care for themselves and their families.  I refuse to give hand outs to pan handlers, mostly because I feel that if they really wanted help, there are plenty of facilities available to people who are genuinely in need that can be of much more assistance than my two bucks. It doesn't make me any less sad that people are in such position though.

  20. Dave Sexton says:

    I was walking home from work very late at night through mid-town Manhattan when I was approached by a guy in a hard hat.  I thought to myself, "it's pretty late for a construction worker to be wandering around here".  And that's when he called me over – I didn't stop but he started walking with me and said something like, "Hey, I got off work recently but my boss didn't pay me like he was supposed to and I was counting on the money for my bus ticket home.  Could you help me out?"  As he was talking he was pointing to the major construction site behind us.  This was my first experience with a con like this but I didn't fall for it.  I must say though that his props (the hard hat and construction site) were perhaps better than most.  Although the first thing that came to my mind while he was talking was, "Then why did you let your boss and all of your co-workers leave you without a bus ticket?".  I didn't ask of course – I just said that I have no money and kept walking.  It's really sad, though it was also a bit scary for me so I don't feel so bad.

  21. Joel Coehoorn says:

    "The Sting" is good, but I've still got a soft spot for "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels"

  22. Josh Smeaton says:

    "I'm not going to lie to you, I want money for some cheap nasty booze" is just a newer con that works more often. People assume they aren't being lied to, so give some money over for appreciating honesty. Then said con-artist goes and buys some drug (or booze) it's irrelevant. It's the same game, but a different story. You'll find many more people using the "I need a drink" line since it began to work for a few.

  23. Sam says:

    A while ago whilst waiting for the bus there was a couple of decrepit looking guys there. One of them came up and asked me for 30 dollars, because his mate needs a party pill! (*) I refused, thinking to myself "man, I don't usually spend that much money on a bottle of wine for me and my wife!"

    (*) Don't know if this lingo is international. Party pills are legal drugs – fake cannabinoids and the like.

  24. Petr K. says:

    British series Hustle (now in the 7th season I guess) portrays a lot of short cons as well as one or more long cons in every episode. It's backgrounded by some great music and is fun to watch.

    There is also it's spin-off series "The Real Hustle", featuring three supposedly real con artists taking you behind the curtain of many confidence tricks. Not as good as Hustle, but still, could be fun to watch for you.

  25. Darren says:

    My favorite was the guy sitting outside the laundromat in soaking wet clothes, asking for quarters for the dryer.

  26. Rob Kent says:

    My favourite 'long con' goes like this: "My company has just come into a lot of money that we can lend to you to buy the house you currently rent. The repayments on the loan are actually less than the rent you pay out of your meagre wages as a janitor." Then after three repayments, the interest rates double, the repayments quadruple, and the poor victim loses their house and ends up panhandling on the street. But the guy who loaned the money is okay because, firstly, he took out an insurance policy which means he got his money back anyway; secondly, he managed to bundle the victim's mortgage up with a whole load of other dodgy mortgages (which he calls a 'CDO' – not it's not a database framework), get it triple-A rated by Moody's or Standard and Poor, then sell it on as a good investment to Pension Funds and other investors around the world, who eventually lose all their money.

    Is there a police phone number for this kind of thing?

  27. Richard Bailey says:

    Thnks Eric.  Perhaps you could do a breakdown of the language used by grifters verses that used on informertials.   I bet there are some  similarities to conspiracy theorists too.

  28. M Gant says:

    My favorite was the guy who approached me as I was getting into my car and asked if he could borrow my spare tire. Since I (obviously) wouldn't let him have my spare, he asked if he could borrow $5 instead. Pretty clever, I thought!

  29. Brian says:

    @Rob – obviously that grifter works for Goldman Sachs.  Bonus points for inspiring Collateralized Debt Obligations.NET: a new framework for automating vampire squids like them (yes, I finished reading Matt Taibbe's book not long ago 🙂

  30. Ian says:

    You should check out the BBC drama series called 'Hustle'. It's all about the long-con with a bit of short-con thrown in, and is an excellent series for the entertainment value. It's got a little bit of an Ocean's 11 theme, leaving you trying to figure out how they're going to do it before they reveal it right at the very end.

  31. Stefan Wenig says:

    Hey bro,

    Can you believe this? Just an hour ago, I had a session with some friends, and all was well, but then this guy asks me for another beer, and as I process his request, I totally cannot remember what I was just doing and where the hell all the beer was, although I'm positive it's still somewhere in this session, and then I got all confused and eventually crashed, and now I'm here feeling totally hung over, which must be because I've had a stack before that request but now there's only 50 cents left, and now you really need to help a buddy out with another beer.

    (This wouldn't happen again if you could find it in your kind heart to support CPS web programming in C# 5, as described in…/2177631-enable-full-scale-cps-via-async-await-by-allowing- )

    Can't await! God bless you my friend!

  32. Jesse Slicer says:

    @Gabe: that's precisely what I do too. Anyone genuinely down on their luck will get what they need if they take me up on the offer and anyone else will, well, no longer be my problem.

  33. Mason says:

    Down at Westlake I got the story of "I'm unable to get cash from my out of state bank, can you buy something for me at Nordstrom's then I will write you a check to cover it."  There was some sort of logic in there attempting to get cash back from the purchase beyond the sale price, but I had to cut him off.  They wanted in some fashion me to launder their bad checks.

  34. Dan J says:

    Great story, Eric, as usual. 🙂

    Alongside Hustle, allow me to recommend the excellent <a href="…/a>.

  35. Reading (and chickens) says:

    I've only ever encountered one of these guys in Wallingford in the past 11 years, and he came to my DOOR. MY DOOR. Ugh. A new low. (He ran out of gas and his wife was in the car having a baby right.this.instant.) (WHO abandons a woman in labor except to call 911?)

  36. Jessica Trupin says:

    Ha!  Let me tell you about walking around Manhattan one night in the late 80s with a crack addict, looking for an open drug store so I could buy her the diapers she so desperately needed.  

  37. Chris says:

    I always offer to solve their problem without money.

    "Oh, you need a Ferry Ticket? I gotta run down there anyway, I can give you a ride and I'll buy the ticket when we get down there." It's extremely fun to do.

    "Oh wow, you need gas? My car's right there let's go get some!"

  38. Steve says:

    I'm intrigued by the cell phone though – presumably if you called him there and then it would work, so you have his number stored. Is it s stolen phone or is there some element I'm missing?

    The element you're missing is that you've never bought a prepaid cell phone. You buy the phone hardware for cash, you buy the SIM card (that contains the phone number) for cash, and you buy the network minutes for cash. There's no contract; when you run out of minutes the phone stops working until you buy more. So what if I had his number? There's nothing whatsoever that ties the phone number on the SIM card to any person. — Eric

  39. Spike says:

    The best short con sob story I heard was from well dressed man in a suit holding a bunch of flowers.  He was telling anyone who would listen that he'd bought the flowers for his wife after an argument.  But when he got home he found all his belongings on the front lawn and the locks changed.  Would anyone buy the flowers from him for twenty quid so he could get a hotel room for the night? He was standing there all day with various different bunches of flowers.

  40. Damana Madden says:

    I enjoyed this post. I always enjoy your posts. This one was explained well and broken down in a way that was easy to understand. Maybe technical writers should explain everyday concepts more often. Thank you.

  41. Nikoloff says:

    "The element you're missing is that you've never bought a prepaid cell phone. You buy the phone hardware for cash, you buy the SIM card (that contains the phone number) for cash, and you buy the network minutes for cash. There's no contract; when you run out of minutes the phone stops working until you buy more. So what if I had his number? There's nothing whatsoever that ties the phone number on the SIM card to any person. — Eric"

    We fairly recently got a new law, which obligates SIM operators and resellers to register every customer, so even pre-paid services are not anonymous anymore. Of course, this only kinda solves the problem, cause there are a lot of poor people, gypsies, etc. who would happily buy the pre-paid card in their name for a few bucks in their pocket. Then whatever nasty thing is going on with the SIM card itself, the authorities can barely track the homeless guy and even if they did – he's not the one doing the cons. It helps though, just doesn't completely resolve the issue.

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