Five Street Scams Dogging Houston Now
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.
Too good to be true
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 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.
Don't be the pigeon.
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.'"