Know your onions and don't get caught by this scam
If you fall for this distraction scam, you'll end up with egg on your face and a bag full of onions!
Here's a really simple scam. And it is ever so embarrassing if it happens to you. It didn't happen to me (although it could have done) but to someone I met at a work meeting.
He was so ashamed at having lost money in this way that it took me quite a while to persuade him to give me the details. And, even then, I suspect he held back some of the most face-reddening facts.
So, let's give him a name. Patrick.
A typical weekend shopping trip
Last Saturday, Patrick was out shopping with his wife in a London suburb. It was one of those typical weekend shopping expeditions – food, a few household items, but with no intention of buying anything expensive or out of the ordinary. We all do this.
Patrick's wife went into a store, leaving him outside on the pavement. And while he was waiting, a car drove up and stopped next to him.
It was a normal sort of car with two men in their thirties in front and a boy of around 10 in the back.
The driver asked Patrick for directions to a nearby street. Patrick told him the way.
The driver thanked him and then said: “Oh, by the way, I've got a laptop that I need to sell. It's nearly new and in a bag with the charger and everything. It's a high specification model, but I need the money because I have to get my washing machine replaced.”
Patrick said he was not interested, but showed a little enthusiasm when the driver said he could have it for £210 – obviously in cash.
They showed him the computer, let him touch it and displayed the section that indicates the hard disk capacity and the memory. Patrick agreed it was worth at least £210, but said he wasn't really interested as he did not have any cash on him.
That was true – he only had a few coins. But then his wife came out of the store so he asked her if she had some cash.
“Yes, I do,” she told him. “I've got about £90.”
The driver heard this. And to the surprise of Patrick and his wife, he agreed to take whatever cash was around.
“Beggars can't be choosers,” he said. “I need money and I need it now.”
If it sounds too good to be true...
So believing he had an amazing bargain, Patrick handed over the £90. The driver duly handed over the laptop bag and drove off at speed.
Patrick had clearly forgotten the important lesson that if something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.
When he opened the bag, he got quite a surprise. It's not that the laptop was faulty - there was no laptop at all! Instead, there was a five kilo bag of onions in the bag. He'd bought vegetables at £18 a kilo. The same onions were on sale at a market stall for £1.
So what happened? It's simple. The people in the car had switched two bags – one with the laptop and one with the onions. How did they do it? They used the innocent looking child in the back to ask him a question and so distract him.
It was something that any boy that age might have asked: "Do you live near here?" The two bags were swapped in less than a second while he was talking to the child.
The thieves had played him along, using his greed to get a bargain basement computer as bait. Once he showed the slightest interest, they knew he was hooked. It was just a question of how much could they get. It didn't matter if the computer was stolen or not – Patrick was the victim of a distract and switch routine.
What is his chance of recovering the cash? Zero. What is the chance of convincing the police to go after them? Zero. He didn't even take their registration number as they had gone before he discovered his onions. And in any case, he would have been too embarrassed to report the crime.
As for me, a few months ago, a car containing two people and a girl stopped me in the street to ask the way to the next road. I gave them the directions.
This time, they offered me a top of the range satnav. I told them that I could read a map and sent them on their way. A few seconds later, I saw they had stopped someone else - doubtless to try this same distraction trick again.