Classics: Modern variations on age-old hustles

by Brian Clarey

I love a good, cleanhustle, the kind whereyou don’t even knowyou’ve just been fleeced,and when you finallydo figure it out, it’s toodamn late.The Trojan Horse was agood hustle: “Oh look…someone’s given us thisbig, beautiful woodenhorse for no apparentreason! Let’s wheel thissucker on in here andthen go to sleep.” Or the old Irish Tinker driveway pavingscam: By the time your driveway meltsdown into the street, they’re three statesaway and your check has been cashed.And Bernie Madoff whipped up quite anexcellent hustle on people who ought tohave known better… but didn’t, not whengreed got the best of them.All good hustles play on the greed of themark. It makes them weak. Vanity workstoo.The thing about being scammed, though,is that once you do figure it out, it shouldnever happen to you again.In admitting his Ponzi, Madoff exposedseveral other hucksters pulling the samecaper, though not in such grand style.If a man with a brogue accent everdestroys your driveway, you’ll be wise thenext time. And the Trojans made an aphorism outof their fateful bout of naivete: Beware ofGreeks bearing gifts.But the hustles will always live on, Iguess, because PT Barnum had it wrong:There are hundreds of suckers born everyminute, and a lot of them have settledaround here. Some of them have evenmanaged to get themselves elected topublic office.And here’s what I think: I think wordis out among the hustling class that theNorth Carolina Piedmont Triad is full offish, just unassumingly swimming aroundwith too much cash in their pockets.We are marked. That’s why they call us“marks.”Because of this, I offer a short primer ona few well-known hustles that have beenaround for decades — some have evenbeen in use since the Middle Ages — butwhich people still fall for all the time. Toqualify as a hustle, a transaction needsonly three things: a mark, a perpetratorand a one-sided payoff.The fake auction: Here’s an old-schoolhustle used to inflate the price of an itemby exaggerating the demand for it. Takea “valuable” object like a diamond ring,a baseball card or… oh, I don’t know…a commitment to build a computerassembly plant that could create 1,500jobs. Really, only the mark is interestedin the “valuable” object, but by creatingthe illusion that others may also want in,the mark is forced to commit a lot moremoney than he initially bargained for.Sound familiar? It should: It’s the methodDell used when procuring $280 million inincentives from the city of Winston-Salem,Forsyth County and the state of NorthCarolina in 2004. The Pigeon Drop: The Pigeon Drop isone of the oldest and most basic scamsout there, and it’s so easy a child coulddo it — actually, it works better if a childdoes it! The con involves one mark and atleast one sharpie, and the payoff is eithera real or theoretical pile of money thatexists at the end of the rainbow. All thehustler has to do is convince the mark toput up some “good faith” money — whichthe hustler will match, of course — andthen everyone can share in these futureprofits. If done properly, the money hasdisappeared minutes after the mark hasgiven it up. I think of the pigeon dropevery time I see that husk of a baseballstadium near downtown Winston-Salem,which has been approved for $37 millionin tax incentives from the city and county. The Carny Scam: Named for the shadygames of chance utilized by travelingcarnivals, the Carny Scam denotes anycon based on a virtually unwinnablegame, like an impossible ring toss or aballoon dart game with dull darts andhalf-filled balloons. Or, you know, alottery.The Reload: The Reload is based onthe principle of throwing good moneyafter bad — never a good idea, but you’dbe surprised how many people do it,especially after they’ve thrown away anawful lot of “bad” money. It’s the way a lotof internet scam artists work, first stingingtheir marks with a variation on theSpanish Prisoner ruse, AKA the NigerianScam. Hustlers entice the marks to sendone check after another, each supposedlycontributing toward the attainmentof some goal like a stake in a lost Iraqifortune, a wealthy and/or beautiful mailorderbride or maybe even an regionaldistribution hub and attendant groundtransport center for a huge overnightdelivery concern. FedEx, by the way,first singled out the Piedmont TriadInternational Airport in 1998, 11 years ago,for its regional hub. It was initially slatedto go fully online in 2003.There are more scams, of course: the Pigin a Poke, the Honeytrap, the Wire Game,the Melon Drop, the Gas Can… but if youcan’t spot a Trojan Horse, you’ll never seethe Honeytrap coming.