Friday, November 23, 2007

In which we are not (quite) scammed

I offer this post both as an entertaining story and a service: don't let this happen to you!

Our family was downtown this afternoon. We had a quiet morning, went to noon Mass and then all went to a Starbucks en route to the main library. Eric needed some caffeine to get going on studying and I needed some food to deal with children's book hunting. Downtown was pretty festive today: no one was working but the many department stores were mobbed and everyone was in good holiday cheer.

As we sat enjoying our food and drink, a respectable-looking middle-aged man came in and asked the cashier for change. The cashier said they'd been super-busy and didn't have any change to spare. The man headed back out but as he passed by our table he hurriedly and distractedly tossed four five-dollar bills in front of Eric and asked, "You got a twenty for four fives?" Eric pulled out his wallet and I looked, curious, because neither of us usually has any cash on hand. The man asked me almost frantically for directions to New York Avenue which I obliged as Eric handed over the one twenty dollar bill I'd seen in his wallet. The man called something over to another customer and then looked down at his hand and showed Eric a one dollar bill, saying "You only gave me a single." Eric was bewildered. He'd already pocketed the four fives so he opened his wallet again. There was no twenty in there this time and he was just about to give the man his four fives back when I was struck with unusual boldness and said, "No. He gave you a twenty." There'd been a twenty in the wallet a minute before and if it wasn't there now, the man must have it. He pulled the twenty out from under his arm and said, "Yeah, but I wanted twenty ones. You don't have em?" He gave us the twenty and took back his one and fives and disappeared quickly out the door.

Pretty slick. In hindsight this all sounds like one of those chain e-mails you read, thinking, "How could someone be so stupid?" But it all happened so quickly that we didn't even realize we'd been almost scammed until the man was out of sight. First, why would anyone want a twenty for four fives? And why did he drop them all on the table before Eric had even reached for his wallet? Second, why does a pedestrian in Chinatown need directions to New York Avenue (obviously weird to anyone from DC)? Third, he picked a man eating with his two children and distracted the wife with conversation keeping us off balance through the entire transaction. The man changed tactics so quickly at the end that we were left thinking we'd been confused--but only for a minute. We talked to the Starbucks employee who said the man had had a lot of cash and we called the cops but I bet that guy made a killing in Chinatown today.

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