Whenever I could, I always tried to get a look inside the criminal mind, visiting countless vandals, cons, defrocked priests and the occasional psychopath in jail or prison in an effort to get in their head a little, to see what made the person do the things they did.
I played that game a little bit last week, with a long-distance con man who specializes in separating people from their money with a tale he conjured and perpetrates through an instrument we have all come to rely on -- our computer.
He wouldn't give men his name so I'll call him "Arturo," he lives in Madrid, Spain. His con is a simple one: buy a list of hacked email accounts and send mass emails to the contacts on that list -- concocting a story that the holder of the account is on holiday in Spain, was robbed and is in desperate need of money to get home.
Nineteen hundred dollars should do it, Arturo wrote me -- posing, of course, as a Walnut Creek man who has written us before and who, I knew, was safe and warm in Walnut Creek. Send it via Western Union and send the wire's reference number ASAP -- "cause we're trapped here, and really need to get home."
It's an insidious con and, yes, it works. We write frequently about good-hearted people who get the: "help us, we were robbed and need money for a plane ticket" or the "hey, grandma, I've been arrested in Canada and need bail money" and send as much as $5,000 to a Western Union site in the specified country -- completely untraceable, of course, with the recipient knowing you're not likely to hop on a plane and come looking for your money, even if you knew who took it.
We decided to play with Arturo a little bit, telling him an imaginary wife had wired an even $2,000 to the Western Union office he had designated and sensing his excitement as things seemed to be going well for him -- two grand in untraceable hardcore American dollars winging their way to him from across the Atlantic. His polite, carefully worded requests changed when we forwarded a fake reference number, insisted the money had been sent, and asked for an update on our American friend's situation.
"It not here. I waiting. What is MTN number???? I waiting. Really need help man."
Hmm. That didn't sound like my friend "Ralph," the one supposedly in trouble, at all. I wrote Arturo that my wife sent the money and it should be there soon and added: "You sound a little strange? R U Okay?? R kids Okay?"
Arturo/Ralph ignored the personal question and concentrated on his mission, which is to get money from me, of course.
"I need to get home. Waiting."
I pictured "Arturo" licking his lips, hunched over the keyboard in some Internet cafe in Madrid, visualizing how much dope he could buy for $2,000 or, perhaps, doling the money out to his friends for a night in the clubs, billions lost to scammers like him in just this way each year. So I set the hook, told him "the wife" had gotten the address wrong and sent the money to a Western Union storefront across town from the one Arturo had designated for us.
It would have been quite a hike. I picked the location from a handy map of WU locations in Madrid, picturing Arturo on his moped or, I don't know, brand new BMW speeding across town to pick up his loot. Some time passed before he came back online, and I could feel that he was no longer happy with me. I asked him if he had gotten the money and if he enjoyed stealing from people, if he wanted to talk about it, and his response was short and to the point -- and very much unlike his Walnut Creek counterpart.
"f*** you," he wrote, the two of us no longer friends.