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Transient Criminals in Need of Gas Scam

By Lawrence Walsh, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

05/07/04 - Pittsburg, PA - The young woman had a familiar face -- and story.

She and a male companion were in the Giant Eagle parking lot in the Homestead section of The Waterfront at noon on Sunday. She said they were trying to get back to Slippery Rock, but didn't have enough gas to make the trip.

She was frantic and practically in tears as she rambled on about how some people in the parking lot had made fun of their plight.

So where was their car? She pointed to a white Dodge Neon a short distance away with a young man sitting behind the wheel.

"It was the same car we saw last fall and the same guy sitting in it," said Frank, who had just dropped off his wife in front of the grocery store and pulled into a parking space. He had fallen for the same woman's pitch last October in the parking lot of the Olive Garden restaurant in Monroeville. He had given her $5 then.

"She was careful not to specifically ask for money on both occasions, but that's clearly what she wanted," Frank said.

"I said, 'I know who you are.' I told her where and when I had last seen her. She immediately got defensive. She said she hadn't asked me for money. I said she was trying to rip me off."

The woman walked away. Frank stayed in his car. When his wife returned moments later, he saw the couple's white car heading for a gas station adjacent to the store.

He drove over. A man had used his credit card to buy them gas. A Waterfront security car also was at the gas station. Frank told the two officers inside he thought the couple were scam artists. The security patrol car followed the couple's car out of The Waterfront.

Frank said the girl was white, appeared to be in her early 20s, had blue eyes, freckles and "scraggly long hair up on her head. She looked kind of hippie-ish. She looked nervous and might have been on drugs. She said she was from Butler."

Frank said her male companion also was white, appeared to be in his early 20s, "bald-ish and wore baggy clothes. "He was sort of urban-looking."

About 9 o'clock Sunday evening, Frank and his wife pulled into the Giant Eagle parking lot in Edgewood Towne Centre. A young woman hurried to their car. Although she wasn't the same woman who had approached them earlier in the day, she had the same story, complete with the tearful delivery.

Frank and his wife weren't sympathetic and explained why.

The young woman ran over to a dark blue car in another part of the parking lot that appeared to be an Oldsmobile from the early to mid-1990s. A man was sitting in the driver's seat.

Although he didn't get a good look at the man, Frank said the woman was white, "very skinny," had long brown hair and wore baggy jeans. "She looked like she might be on drugs, too."

Frank asked that I withhold his last name because he didn't want either of the couples to find out where he lives and vandalize his home. He said he called the Post-Gazette "to alert others about this scam."

So who are these people?

"Transient criminals," said Allegheny County police Lt. Bob Downey.

Such as the guys in white vans who engage in theft by deception by selling allegedly expensive speakers that aren't worth anywhere near their stated value?

"That's right," Downey said.

And might they also include those who take advantage of older persons at their front doors with a variety of get-rich-quick schemes that only enrich the perpetrators?

"That's also correct," he said.

Downey said the subject of transient criminals was the topic of a meeting Wednesday of the Middle Atlantic Great Lakes Organized Crime Law Enforcement Network in Castle Shannon.

So what should people do when approached by the "sob story sisters?" Call the local police and notify mall operators and store managers.

Vulnerable seniors, who spend the majority of their time at home, are perfect targets for the mobile scam artist. Smooth-talking fraudsters can convincingly get themselves invited inside to deliver any imaginable sales pitch for products or services. Common among these are the home repair, door-to-door scams.

Home repair scam operators appear unannounced at the home and then proceed to "discover" one or a series of "defects" with the house, from shoddy roofing, to cracked driveways, to dangerous electrical wiring or plumbing. Believing these bogus claims, the victim pays the con-artist a down-payment on repairs.

Predictably, the down-payment goes to a job that is never or only partially completed. Sometimes the fraudulent repair person causes damage to the house—using their screwdriver to puncture a hole in a heating duct, for example—in order to document the need for their repair services.

Also be aware of anyone claiming to be an inspector from your local utility company. This individual may claim to be conducting a routine inspection and may request to see your fuse box, furnace, or water meter.

Upon ‘inspection’, this person informs you that a number of regulations are being violated and that certain repairs are necessary to ensure continuance of your water, natural gas, or hydro-electricity.

The inspector then gives you the name of someone who is able to do the job on short notice at a reasonable price. In actual fact, there is nothing wrong with your utilities and the inspector and the friend will split any profit from your ‘repairs.'

In one "Water Department" scam the con would just call and tell an elderly female victim that he needed to do official repairs and it would cost thousands. The next day he would show up at the intended victim's residence and obtain a check for services that were never rendered.

Door-to-door scam operators are usually friendly and appear sincere in their desire to help. Their intention, however, is to find a vulnerable senior—invariably one who suffers from loneliness, Alzheimer's or another dementia, loss of sight or hearing—which would make them susceptible to heavy-handed selling or intimidation.

Once a potential victim is identified, a scam operator will make repeat visits to the home, each time pressing the sale one step further. It is not uncommon for seniors to finally agree to purchase an item that they do not need resulting in an obligation to pay a bill that totals several thousands of dollars.

Questionable door-to-door sales of vacuum cleaners, cleaning products, magazines and home security systems are constantly being reported to law enforcement officials.

Another scheme includes painting the barn, home, outbuildings, or mobile home roofs or attachments. A cheap grade of paint, which has been further cut by kerosene, gasoline or other thinning agents, is used. After the job is completed, the traveler exaggerates the amount of paint required. If the victim balks, the traveler may use intimidation or threatens to call his attorney or even the police. They have also been known to acquire a well-known empty quality paint brand container and pour the poor quality paint inside of them and then claim that nothing but a high grade of paint was used.

A similar scam is also used with roof repair where the quality of the material is misrepresented. The driveway repair is another favorite scam. In most cases, the material used in asphalt paving consists primarily of reconditioned motor oil with a minimum amount of asphalt mixed in.

A unique scheme involves selling oak trees. The traveler will offer to sell young oak trees, plant, fertilize and water the trees as part of the purchase price. It is only after the Travelers have been gone for two or three days that the victim notices that all the trees are dying. On closer inspection, the victim discovers that he/she has purchased tree limbs that have been planted in potting soil and wrapped in a piece of burlap cloth.

The traveler may also offer to prune trees at a cost of $10.00. The victim assumes they mean $10.00 a tree, but when the bill is presented, the victim discovers the $10.00 represents each limb, not each tree.

Another scheme utilized is where they will buy cheap tools directly from a manufacturer, triple the price and sell them either door to door, along busy highway interchanges and flea markets. In addition to tools, they will also sell motor jacks, lifters, hydraulic jacks, handsaws and drill presses.

Young minorities, dressed in ivy league sweatshirts, often use guilt while going around selling magazine subscriptions door to door. They will play on your 'success' by saying "Wouldn't you like to help me to achieve the success you have and live in a nice neighborhood and a nice house like you?"

House Rental Scam - article

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