Blog blabs 2
  My favorite Paris scams and criminals
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March 1, 2009
My favorite Paris scams

        One 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.

This 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 case you don't know this one it can be summed up as follows:
        "Oh my goodness gracious! I just found this gaudily 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 mark, "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.

        Anyway, all 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.

Shamming 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 of Ralph 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.

Heartfelt hogwash, featuring:

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

        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?
        I 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".

Door-to-door malarkey mongers

        Here's 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.

        My favorites include:

        The haughtily aggressive bill collector who insisted that I had to pay the previous tenant's outstanding insurance premium.

        The "municipal inspector" (but with no uniform or 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 wearing a science fiction yellow jumpsuit and goggles and carrying a complex-looking "gas sensor" (I now think it was a Geiger counter) who tried really 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 dangerously.

Inexplicable absurdities

        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 about. A distraction as a setup for a pickpocket? One of those asinine "hidden camera" TV shows?

        Lastly, 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 some subtle 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.

        I 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, 2009
My 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 delinquent mind.

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 self-perpetuating.

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 hurt.
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 measure.
Congratulating themselves on a job well done, they went home and slept the sleep of the just.

Naturally, 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.

To 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.

One night, 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 amicable compromise.

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.

There's 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."

Another 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.

Then 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!"

But 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.

A 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?

That's right.

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):
All right, let's consider the evidence in your apartment. Police found a backpack containing 232 credit cards, none in your name and all reported stolen.

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.

What 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.

He 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.

If that's the case he wouldn't be the only felon ever to have adopted this tactic.
Right, Mr Blagojevich?


I 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 run it.
In the meantime, check out:

"Boorish pickup lines inspired by the recession, paired with rejoinders for women who don't suffer boors lightly"
on Yankee Pot Roast.

      If you just came from YPR, check out some of the back issues, like for instance:

        Honesty in personal advertising (on The Big Jewel)

        Secrets of numerology revealed

        Three modern-day interpretations of Zeno's Paradox

        Meet the poet (on The Big Jewel)



Copyright 2009 by David Jaggard. 
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