Five Street Scams Dogging Houston Now

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While we are exposed to them on the internet pretty much every day, many con artists are still working "bricks-and-mortar" real-life scams. Some experts claim that each and every one of us will be approached either in the streets or in our homes by at least one of these low-lifes, so with that in mind, here are five of the most common scams currently out there, according to Houston Police Sergeant R. Calderon, an expert in this particular area of crime.

5. The Fake Utility Employee Ransack Calderon says this one swept through some of Houston's ritzier West Side 'burbs a couple of months ago. He believes the perpetrators were Irish Travelers -- the same Celtic-American group that is also infamous for roofing and driveway paving scams.

In this swindle, senior citizens are approached in their homes. One crook will come to the front door disguised as an employee for one of the utility companies. He will tell the person who answered the door that they will soon be needing access to their backyard, and he will ask that the husband or wife go get their spouse, if they have one, so that he can show everybody in the house in more detail what his company will be doing.

That takes everybody into the backyard and leaves the front door wide open. As the first crook talks about ditches that will (never) be dug and trees that will (not) be trimmed, an accomplice will enter and ransack the bedroom for jewelry and other valuables.

"They were hitting those people hard," Calderon says. "I could not believe someone could go through your house in ten minutes and find your jewelry, your Rolex, your wallet. And then these people will come to us and say, 'He had on a uniform. He had on a helmet and a white shirt.'"

Calderon says HPD didn't make any arrests in those cases, but he believes that they got the word out enough to send the crooks scurrying for cover. "It's shut down here, at least for now," he says.

Calderon advises that you call the company these people claim to work for before you let them in their house, and to check their employee ID. You should probably also be suspicious if these people arrive at your house without some advance notice from their bosses.

4. The Pigeon Drop We've had a personal experience with this one. A fake-African approached me at a MetroRail stop and told me he would give me a huge sum if I would just help him, a prosperous stranger in a strange land, to navigate Houston's banking system.

So far, he told me, he'd been having a hard time: He'd been cheated by pimps and prostitutes (evidently he hadn't brought any of the eight wives he claimed to have over here from Africa) and discriminated against by banking officials and others and was worried that he would be robbed blind. He told me that he was a king and owned several diamond mines in his native South Africa.

What's more, he could tell I was kind, Christian, nonracist and intelligent, and he wanted to reward me for all those traits. Although I knew he was a hustler, I went along for a while in order to write about it later. This almost proved disastrous: After half an hour with the guy, I almost believed that my ship had well and truly finally come in.

Had I succumbed to his patter, he would have brought in a partner and the two of them would have found a way to hand me a parcel of wrapped-up shredded newspapers (or something similar) in exchange for my real cash.

Calderon says this one has been on the upswing in Houston in the last few months. "But we've done a good job in the last few weeks," he says. "We've arrested a few."

Pigeon drop artists work in roving bands, Calderon says. It's vital that police departments in numerous cities share information and photos, and he says HPD has been doing just that. They keep pictures of convicted Pigeon Drop artists on file and show them to fresh victims, and he says that's how they've been able to make quite a few arrests.

I later found a picture of the guy who tried to con me on the San Antonio Police Department Web site. For what it's worth, a very similar scam, right down to the physical description and South African malarkey, was just successfully pulled off on two Austinites. (Many pigeon drop artists are black Americans who pose as Africans or Caribbeans.)

"They are so good at what they do," says Calderon. "When we arrested one of them the other day, I asked him if he felt bad about what he does to those people. He said, 'Well, no. If they are dumb enough to believe it, we're smart enough to take it.'"

3. The Sweetheart Swindle Calderon says this one is a specialty of Houston's Romani (who used to be called the now-offensive term of "Gypsies"). Its name describes it succinctly -- basically, an attractive young woman starts sweet-talking a prosperous older man, often a widower, and soon enough, he's giving his new "girlfriend" pretty much anything she asks for. "They get money, credit cards in their name, we've even had cases where they get access to the house and start taking things out of there," Calderon says. "In some cases, we've had guys lose all their furniture before it was over and done with."

If you are a relative or friend of a man like this, you might want to sit him down and have a talk. Ask him some hard questions. Is he really such a catch that a twentysomething hottie would choose him instead of someone more age-appropriate and possibly equally wealthy? Does she ever part company with him without taking something of tangible value with her? Sure, you might temporarily lose the lonely old fellow's friendship, but he'll thank you for it when and if he comes to his senses.

The Dallas Observer, our sister paper in the Big D, covered this scam in depth earlier this year. 2. Door-to-Door Magazine Scams Calderon says HPD recently busted a guy who purported to be a door-to-door Houston Chronicle salesman. This man, later found to be a habitual criminal, was telling residents of the Heights that they could get Houston's Leading Information Source delivered for three months for the astoundingly low price of $29, but they needed to pay him cash up front. When people asked why they couldn't write a check to the Chronicle, Calderon says the man told his marks that he was an independent contractor. Though the amount he took from each mark was small, Calderon says the aggregate amount qualified as a felony. "It's not advisable to ever give cash to anyone who comes to your door," Calderon says. "Not advisable at all."

1. The Latin Lotto This slightly more elaborate version of the Pigeon Drop is perpetrated by and against Mexicans and Central Americans. As with the Pigeon Drop, roving bands of experienced hustlers take this scam from town to town. Calderon says Houston sees it perpetrated in waves, and then it vanishes for months. "They are constantly on the go," he says. "They don't stay put -- at all."

According to Calderon, a scenario like this is fairly typical: A team -- often one man and one woman -- will wander up to a mark, usually an older person. They will claim to be immigrants who have raised thousands of dollars in donations back in their home country to give to a church in Houston, so that the Houston church can undertake some great endeavor overseas -- like an orphanage. They will ask the mark for a ride to this church.

These swindlers feast on religious people. Calderon says that they will tell their marks that the Lord especially selected them to help them on their mission from God. Later, the marks will tell police, "They seemed like such good Christians, I never thought they would do something like that."

Once in the mark's car, they will claim to have also been gifted with a winning Texas Lotto ticket. Calderon says that the the amount is life-changing but not astronomical, usually between $500,000 and a million dollars. The hustlers will pretend not to know much about American lotteries, but will claim to have called the phone number on the back of the card and had it verified as a winning ticket. They will often also let the mark call the number. That number will be legit, but the hustlers will have figured out a way to re-route the call to a third crook.

That person will say it's a winning number, but that there are two problems. Illegal aliens cannot win the Texas Lotto, they will say, and furthermore, even legal residents must pay all taxes on the prize upfront in cash. The crooks will claim to be illegals, with not enough cash on hand to pay the taxes, and so will need the mark's help on both those counts. They are willing to share the winnings, if only the mark will help.

Then the crooks will pick a number -- say $15,000 -- as the total taxes due and say they have half on hand, and will flash a fat wad of green. If the mark can come up with the other half, the crooks say it will be well worth his time. The crooks will be able to make an even bigger donation to the church than they had thought, and the mark will be compensated thousands of dollars for his time.

Once the hook is set, and the cash is in the car, the female crook will start acting sick. "She will groan and say things like 'We really need to stop and get some medication,'" Calderon says. The mark will oblige, and the woman will go into a big-box store, telling the two people still in the car that she will be back as soon as she gets some medicine. The minutes will drag on and on and she won't return. The male crook will put on a show of growing concern for his female friend. "He'll say, 'I just don't know what's taking her so long. She might have collapsed in there or something. Let me go check on her.'" And that's the last the mark will ever see of either of the crooks and all his money.

In the worst case Calderon has seen, a former public school employee lost his entire life savings to these creeps. "They got him for $35,000," says Calderon. "He'd just retired, and he told me this was the money he was going to take back to Honduras or somewhere like that. He said that was the money he was going to use to build his house with."

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