The secret life of a con man
GM once spent three weeks casing a mother of three, learning everything he could about her life, routine, and preferences. When he finally found a way in, he robbed her of over $1,000. It was a good score. And because she was a piece of shit, GM concluded, the crime was justifiable.
He later found his research was flawed, however. The woman's husband had recently left her, burdening her with the care of three children. And she was in financial trouble. She wasn't so bad after all. So he gave the money back. Well, half.
"She deserved half," says GM, taking a sip of iced coffee.
"Did you drop the money in her mailbox, or something?" I ask.
"I FedExed it to her." He grins. "With a note that said, 'A fool and their money are soon parted.'"
Why am I having coffee with a grifter on a Monday night? Because he answered my Craigslist post titled, Seeking a Con Artist for Interview. Because I figured there was no other way to get a con artist to open up, I offered $75 and anonymity.
"Okay, so I think you are looking for me," wrote GM in his response. "I do not grift honest people. That is my rule."
And that's how I met GM, a con man with a conscience.
GM had agreed to do an in-person interview the next morning at a coffee shop of his choosing, one with "good escape routes and foot traffic, so I can disappear if I feel you are not being forthcoming." He would approach me, he said, and he promised not to do anything slick. In his emails, he presented himself as principled — a Robin Hood-type who used cons to teach manners to the greedy.
"With these types of people, simply explaining ethical behavior goes in one ear and out the other. But when you hit them in the wallet you have their complete attention.
"Don't be surprised if I am not who you were expecting," he continued. "You should check your initial thoughts or ideas as to what I am at the door."
"I will be as open-minded as I can," I wrote.
GM cancelled two hours later.
The next morning, GM called me from a blocked number to apologize.
"You know what?" he said, "I'm going out to dinner with my fiancé. How 'bout I pick you up after, and we go have that conversation?"
No one can stay anonymous online forever.
Pick me up?
"Where do you live?" he asked. Stuttering, I suggested meeting somewhere besides my apartment.
"Okay, I'll grab you at six," he said. "Don't be late."
I was locking up my bike when I heard GM's voice 50 feet away. "Are you Dustin?" he asked from the driver's seat of his running car. A man on a bike across the street shook his head. GM had guessed wrong. It spooked him. It looked as if he was about to drive away when I came around the passenger side of his car and knocked on the window. That really spooked him. But he didn't leave. He got out and scanned the road behind us, looking for irregularities and for cops.
"C'mon," he said.
I sat down and placed my bag in my lap. I tried to avoid any sudden or suspicious movements, so as to make it seem like I could be fiddling with a recording device or alerting law enforcement listening in on secret microphones.
GM was wearing dark sunglasses and a baseball hat. He looked like one of those concealed poker players on TV, the ones with tells to hide. He turned the car down a street and asked, "Am I what you were expecting?"
"I don't know what I was expecting." What does a con man look like, I thought? GM was clean-cut and reasonably good-looking. He was even-keeled and rather pleasant, actually. But I could tell he was wondering if this risk was worth $75.
A couple of minutes into the drive, we both loosened up. He started talking about the BBC TV show Hustle, and said it was a good portrayal of grifting.
I was relieved when we pulled up to a coffee shop about six minutes into the ride. I considered it Phase 1 in not ending up in a ditch that night. By the time he offered to buy me a coffee, I was pretty confident that GM wasn't a serial killer. He just tricked people out of money from time to time.
I had wondered how GM finds his "dishonest" marks.
Gas station cashiers can't be trusted, according to GM. Some will take a winning lottery ticket from a customer, say it's not a winner and then throw it in the trash. When the "loser" leaves, the cashier reaches in the trash and claims the winning ticket. But the state publishes the names of cashiers who have gotten caught pulling this stunt. This is GM's black list. He uses it to give them a taste of their own medicine.
GM pulls one trick called the Pigeon Drop. It requires a $5 and $50 bill. He enters a coffee shop and introduces himself, makes small talk. Establishes trust. Then he comes back in later when it's busy. As he orders, he holds the $50 bill in plain sight, waving it around. When GM's sure the casher knows it's a $50, he orders a coffee.
"When the cashier brings the order and looks at the $50 in my hand, I quickly order something else, like a blueberry muffin." Now that the cashier is sure GM will pay with a $50, he replaces it with the $5. He says he gets paid every time.
For GM, grifting is a family business. He told me that when he was young, the bank foreclosed on his father's home because of a glitch with the mortgage. Suddenly, GM, his father, mother, and older sister were out on the street. When GM's father couldn't find work, he joined a bank-robbing crew and started hitting armored cars. When his father got busted, the federal judge cleared out the courtroom and asked him to give up the members of his crew. He told the judge to go to hell. He got 15 years.
In jail, GM's father shared a cell with a renowned grifter who taught him short cons like the Pigeon Drop and long cons involving larger sums of money, more players and higher stakes. When he was released, he started grifting, and sometimes brought GM's sister along. He kept GM out of it, not wanting to corrupt his youngest child, but the boy kept his ears open. He learned the Pigeon Drop, he said, over family dinner.
I asked him how he feels during a con like the Pigeon Drop. Do grifters get anxious? I asked if he experienced an adrenaline rush, and if he was ever scared.
"It's a touch of fear, a touch of happiness," he said.
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