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The International Brotherhood of Con Men

So I’m out in front of my house at 3:30 am the other night, chasing some noisy raccoons off my front porch, when I’m approached by a bandit of a different sort. Some puny little milquetoast weasel in a ball cap and wire-rims comes up to me all friendly like. Says he’s in a bit of a jam and could really use my help. I’m in a stupor induced by sleep, lack of sleep, antihistamines, and scurrying rodents. He immediately launches into his tale, which he tells in fragments, like so:

He lives up the street. He’s really sorry to do this. His name is Paul South. He just got a call and needs a hand. He’s a neighbour. He’s got a van stranded at a nearby intersection. He imports wine for a living. He knows this seems strange. He lives at number 26. Perhaps I’ve seen his vans parked on the street. His wife works at St. Mike’s hospital, long shifts, night shifts. The stranded van is loaded with a delivery of wine. Perhaps I’ve met his wife. If I help him out—he’s so embarrassed to ask—I could have a case of wine, two cases, whatever. It’s an emergency.

Notice that, through all this, he still hasn’t said exactly what kind of help he needs. He’s too busy trying to draw me into his neighbour-in-a-tight-spot story, which is the only one that’s even remotely feasible at 3:30 a.m. on a residential street. He’s telling it in fragments because that makes it harder for me to find inconsistencies in his narrative. And he doesn’t want to get to the “ask” until he’s sure I’ve already fallen for his shtick—and the harder I fall for it, the more he’ll ask for. I’m not biting. I press the issue. What does he want: A lift somewhere? Use the phone? Call a cab or a tow truck? No. He wants money, so he can “buy some diesel.” I gather “diesel” is the new euphemism for “cocaine.” “This is a classic grift,” I say to him. He runs to his car (!) and speeds away.

This marks the third time in my adult life that some rat bastard has tried this tired old con on me. The peripheral details of the story are always delightfully different, but the basics are always the same. What is the problem? My vehicle is out of gas. Where is your vehicle? It’s just close enough for my story to seem plausible, but far enough away that you can’t verify it with your own eyes. You poor man. What can I do to help? Give me your money. What is my payoff? Why, the fabulous cargo that just happens to be inside my stranded car, which you can trust me to bring to you after I’ve disappeared from your sight with your cash. That, and the everlasting friendship of a petty criminal posing as the nicest guy you ever met.

The first guy who tried this on me was in Montreal; when I insisted we walk to his car, he bolted across the street to hit up some other sucker. The second guy accosted me near Christie Pits. He looked like shit, yet he tried to pass himself off as a professional soccer player for the Montreal Impact, visiting Toronto for an exhibition game. His car was at Bloor and Dufferin (where all the pro soccer players hang out in Toronto). He had game tickets and an autographed ball for me if I could give him 60 bucks. He harangued me for blocks in broad daylight, and as I started asking questions his story kept getting more and more convoluted. He was in a hurry to get to Christie and St. Clair, he said, where he would be visiting with friends. I said his friends could surely help him, and I offered him a TTC token so he could get there—only to reach into my pocket and realize I didn’t have one. Psych! Then I started grilling him. Did all the players drive their cars to Toronto? Why not fly? What hotel was the team staying at? What is the name of the Montreal-based cheese-empire family that owns the Impact? It turned into a quiz, which he was failing badly, but he persisted, talking himself in knots as we went, presumably hoping I’d pay him to leave me alone. By the time we were done his story had been stripped down to its lone truth: he really needed my money.

This week’s contestant was by far the most talented confidence man of the three. It takes nerve to try and pass yourself off as the guy who lives five doors down. For a day or so afterwards I thought it might be fun to deliberately turn myself into bait for grifters just so I could catalogue the many permutations and combinations of this bogus narrative, but the truth is I’m fed up. Even when I manage to wrest control of the confidence game and string the guy along, I still feel dirty and angry when it’s all over. So instead, I just want to get the word out among Toronto’s con artist community: my new policy is to be far less patient with you jerks, so your next story better be good.

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