March 1, 2009
My favorite Paris scams
of the great things about living in a city is being able to watch
charlatans at work. I grew up in a town with a population of about
7,000 where everyone more or less knew everyone else. You don't see too
many confidence games in a small close-knit community, because of
course bilking someone out of their cash in the street depends heavily
on being a total stranger when you meet and never seeing them again
after you run your scam. So perhaps that's why I get such a kick out of
observing the various types of fraudsters, grifters, tricksters and
hucksters who ply their trade in Paris.
week I saw, within two minutes of each other and on the same boulevard,
not one but two young women separately doing the "gold ring" gambit. In
don't know this one it can be summed up as follows:
"Oh my goodness gracious! I just found
expensive-looking ring on the sidewalk RIGHT next to you! It weighs
almost nothing but it's stamped '18K' so it's obviously SOLID GOLD! No
doubt you'd be glad to give me 20 euros for it! Make it 50!!"
It was interesting to watch them pick a
"happen" to cross his or her path and suddenly lean over to "discover"
the ring on the sidewalk. One of them got some money out of it, too,
after which she strode briskly away down a side street.
Two days later there was a young guy
going around my
building knocking on all the doors and offering free copies of Le Monde, France's
biggest daily newspaper. A day old. Hmmm. Why would a huge paper like Le Monde
be doing a door-to-door giveaway of old news? Somehow I suspect he was
scouting potential burglary targets, but I doubt that he found any here
because we have way too many busybody neighbors who watch everything
that goes on.
of this started me thinking about the myriad diverting kinds of
chicanery I've seen over the years in Paris. This turned out to be such
a rich topic I decided to break it down into categories.
for sympathy, including:
The supposedly blind guy at Madeleine with a white cane and dark
glasses that weren't dark enough to prevent you from noticing up close
that he was always looking around and focusing on different sights. His
perpetual grin didn't help either.
The desperately sad-looking woman
panhandling in the
Sevres-Babylone metro station who remained seven months pregnant, and
near tears, from 1995 well into 1998.
The old woman who used to beg in front
Lauren on Rue Royale every day, bent over double and shaking with palsy
except on the two or three occasions when I saw her arrive for "work",
walking upright and not shaking at all.
The young woman who used to stop people in the street explaining that
she was a nurse from Rennes who came to Paris for the day, got her bag
stolen and now needs money for train fare home -- a plausible story
convincingly delivered, except that she told it to me on three or four
different occasions over a five-year period.
The Senegalese guy in a wealthy, upscale
neighborhood (not mine) who bent my ear for a good ten minutes about
how he needed me to "lend" him 300 francs (about 50 US dollars) to pay
for his airfare to move back to Dakar. I was going to get my money
back. Oh yes. He went on and on about how he had an apartment in Paris,
that I could go visit any time I wanted, equipped with a big TV
and a state-of-the-art stereo, etc., etc., all of which was supposed to
convince me that he was solvent and therefore certain to repay me. But
all of which only made me wonder: if he was moving out of the country,
why didn't he sell his TV and stereo and so forth to drum up the
300 francs? And how was he going to pay me back once he was in Senegal?
actually kind of liked the
guy because he had such a winning line of delivery, albeit patent
horseshit, so I offered him 50 francs, and, get this, he suddenly got
hostile and huffy, refused
to take the 50 (more than I have ever
offered any beggar in my life) and ended the conversation by yelling at
me about how I "don't understand".
a fun fact: in the more than 25 years I have lived in Paris, quite a few
people have knocked on my door claiming that I was obligated to comply with their
wishes, which usually meant giving
them money for one thing or another, and so far not a single one of
them has been telling the truth. None. Zero. Liars all.
The haughtily aggressive bill collector
that I had to pay the previous tenant's outstanding insurance premium.
The "municipal inspector" (but with no
ID) who came by right after my wife Nancy and I moved into our first
place and insisted on coming inside to check the papers for our
renters' insurance. I was so naive at the time I actually let him in
and showed him our policy while he gawped around the apartment and
realized that it was essentially a single room with nothing in it worth
giving away let alone stealing.
And the impressively glib young man
science fiction yellow jumpsuit and goggles and carrying a
complex-looking "gas sensor" (I now think it was a Geiger counter) who
hard to convince us that we were legally obliged to pay
him 200 francs (about 35 US dollars) to use his super-high-tech gizmo
to verify that our gas stove wasn't leaking. We decided to live
Just before Christmas one year I was shopping by myself at the big
Galeries Lafayette department store on Boulevard Haussmann. As I was
making my way through the crowd in the watch department, someone tapped
me very firmly and rapidly several times on the shoulder from behind. I
turned around in time to see a skinny well-dressed guy with glasses
just completing the action of bending over a display case and assuming
a glaringly affected look of poring over the watches as though making
a carefully-considered choice. He was actually rubbing his chin.
I have no freaking idea what that was
distraction as a setup for a pickpocket? One of those asinine "hidden
camera" TV shows?
I once went to a big music hall to see a blues concert for which I had
a spare ticket. Outside were a bunch of young guys, kids really, like
12 or 13 years old, scalping tickets, so I asked one if he would buy my
ticket for its face value. I stressed that I had ended up with a spare
and wasn't looking to make any profit -- I just didn't want to get
stuck with the expense.
And here's the interesting part: there he was
standing all by himself when I approached him, but as soon as I started
talking about selling him the ticket I found myself literally
surrounded in literally three seconds by
a good dozen pre-teen scalpers, who apparently came running in response to
signal, all SCREAMING at
me that I MUST BE
CRAZY (most of them were tapping their temples) to think that he would
buy my ticket when ANY IMBECILE CAN SEE that he's selling, not buying.
never could figure that one out either. Why didn't he just say no? What
threat did I pose to warrant such a reaction? Were they selling
counterfeits? Did they think I was a cop? With my accent? Hey -- maybe
they thought I was trying to pull some kind of scam...
March 31, 2009My favorite Paris criminals (part one)
I love to read newspaper reports on criminal trials.
What I like most is when the defendant gives some fatuous, blatantly
fabricated rationalization for his actions, thus offering an insight
into the simplistic, and usually downright childish, reasoning of the
If the term "reasoning" even applies. Or "mind".
There was a case recently in France that provides a good example of the
sheer blind imbecility of the "tough guy" mentality, and also a
paradigm of how long-term blood feuds, like the ones you hear about in
Albania or on a larger scale the Middle East, escalate and become
Here's the story:
Out in the suburbs of Paris somewhere (note to Americans: in Europe the high-crime districts are mostly in the suburbs) there are two adjacent housing projects, hereafter to be called HP1 and HP2. (Note
to everyone: the residents of housing projects include many fine,
intelligent people. Please don't think I'm trying to ridicule
them all -- just the ones who think they're tough.)
One fine sunny day a delivery truck from a business located in or near
HP1 was making a delivery in or near HP2 and, to everyone's dismay,
accidentally hit a young boy. I don't know if he chased a soccer ball
into the truck's path or what, but it was an accident. The kid was
badly hurt but not killed, he was taken to the hospital, a report was
filed and that was the end of it.
Or would have been, except that that night a group of young men in HP2
were hanging out discussing the thermodynamics of liquid hydrogen in
three-stage thruster systems when the conversation turned to the day's
big incident and it dawned upon them like divine inspiration that what
they needed to do right then was go over to HP1 and exact retribution.
For an accident. Some of them might even have known the boy who got
Their plan was to
take out their testosterone-charged indignation on the delivery truck,
but when they got to HP1 they couldn't find it. So, exercising the
scope of deductive thinking that had put them all in the top
two-percentile on the SATs, they burned another truck that happened to
be the same color. Plus a few vehicles that were parked nearby for good
Congratulating themselves on a job well done, they went home and slept the sleep of the just.
when this event came to the attention of the bright young men of HP1,
they thoughtfully reviewed the case and ruled that justice had yet to
be truly served.
So the next night, after
completing their applications to Cambridge law school, they set out to
punish the vandals, except that when they got to HP2 they couldn't find
them (does anyone see a pattern here?). Obviously, they had no choice
but to pick at random a few young male residents who happened to be out
alone and beat the living crap out of them.
everyone's surprise, this sparked a minor war between the
intelligentsia of the two projects. Various skirmishes took place over
the next few weeks, but gradually the hostilities boiled down to a feud
between two families, one with three brothers from HP1 and the other
with four brothers from HP2.
when their Mensa meeting was canceled, the three decided that it might
be a good time to pay a visit to the four and, in compliance with
Robert's Rules of Order, mediate their differences and strike an
So they got in their
car and cruised around for a while, and, defying the odds, actually
found two of their enemies sitting in their own car in a parking lot.
Words were exchanged, followed by shots (fortunately an unusual
circumstance in France because we have largely effective gun control),
leaving the two HP2 brothers severely wounded.
One died in the hospital, making it a homicide, so the police finally
got seriously involved. It didn't take long to figure out who did what
to whom how and why, and at the trial all three of the HP1 brothers were
convicted of first degree and attempted murder and granted scholarships
for a long post-graduate independent studies program.
But here's the punchline: one of the brothers of the victims, a guy
with one sibling in intensive care and another in the graveyard, told a
journalist afterwards, "We didn't want the police to get involved. We
could have handled this ourselves."
Uh-huh. We noticed how you'd been doing a super-stellar job handling the situation so far.
I love the image of a thick-witted thug telling the police to call off
a murder investigation: "Hey, thanks guys, but really -- don't bother.
We can take it from here."
To which the
police would of course reply, "Oh, could you do that for us? Hey,
great! Thanks! Here, we'll give you all our files. Well, I guess that
about wraps it up for us. Who's up for coffee and doughnuts?!"
April 5, 2009
My favorite Paris criminals (part two)Every
city has its share of crime, and I imagine that criminals are largely
the same everywhere, in the sense of suffering from an unfortunate
selfishness to intelligence ratio. But that's also why, as I mentioned in Part One, I love to read about trials in which the accused tries to justify his actions with some cretinous, glaringly bogus excuse.
the recent case in Paris in which a drunk driver sped away from a
police DUI checkpoint just when an officer was leaning over him inside
the car to take his keys (apparently he was that drunk). The policeman
was more or less in his lap, but at the trial he said, "I didn't notice
that the officer was there."
local miscreant on trial for fraud and grand larceny, when asked if he
had anything to say in his own defense, came up with: "The government
didn't give my son an apartment when he turned twenty-one." I'm sure
the judge is still pondering that one.
there's the guy charged with the theft of a handbag containing a
wallet, cell phone, MP3 player and various other valuables from a car
in a fast food parking lot. When the judge asked him for his side of
the story he declared, "I'm not a thief! I'm an honest citizen! I work
full-time and have absolutely no need to steal anything! Besides, half
the stuff they declared stolen wasn't even in that bag!"
my all-time favorite is the guy who was arrested in a posh neighborhood
of Paris carrying what looked like the front panel of an ATM.
It turned to be a very well-executed fake ATM facade, with circuitry
and batteries and everything, made to fit perfectly over a real ATM,
which is where he would install it at night and on weekends when the
banks were closed. The thing was wired to accept (and keep) cards and
record their PIN codes.
search of the perp's apartment yielded a backpack containing more than
200 stolen credit cards. In the courtroom he had the following exchange
with the prosecutor:
You were arrested in possession of a machine for stealing credit cards.
It's not mine.
Well then, whose is it?
It belongs to a friend. I was only carrying it for him.
Who is this friend? What's his name?
I don't know.
He's your friend but you don't know his name?
How is that possible?
He never told me his name.
Well, where does he live?
I don't know.
So where were you taking the machine for him?
Ahh, he was supposed to meet me somewhere.
And where was that?
Ahh, I don't remember.
Prosecutor (no doubt after a meaningful look at the jury):
right, let's consider the evidence in your apartment. Police found a
backpack containing 232 credit cards, none in your name and all
It isn't my backpack.
So whose is it?
Someone must have left it in my apartment.
I don't know.
But it was in your apartment -- surely you must have noticed that it was there...
But you didn't look inside it or try to find out who owned it?
So you don't have any curiosity about strange objects appearing in your own apartment...
I'm just that way.
I don't get is how the guy could be smart enough to be involved in such
a sophisticated crime (the ATM shell was a finely-crafted, however
ill-intentioned, piece of technology, presumably not of his own
invention) and yet stupid enough to think for one second that anyone
would believe such brainless falsehoods.
could easily have made up a name, or even a nickname, for his imaginary
accomplice, and blamed the backpack on him too. Maybe he figured that
if he just kept denying everything with a relentless barrage of bluster
they wouldn't have enough evidence to convict him.
the case he wouldn't be the only felon ever to have adopted this
Right, Mr Blagojevich?
have satire pieces pending on The Big Jewel on April 15 and on a site to
be named at a time to be named when I convince an editor to be named to
In the meantime, check out:
pickup lines inspired by the recession, paired with
rejoinders for women who don't suffer boors lightly"
just came from YPR,
check out some of the back issues, like for instance:
in personal advertising (on The Big Jewel)
interpretations of Zeno's Paradox
the poet (on The Big Jewel)
2009 by David Jaggard.
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