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He's Got the Skinny on Scams : Ex-Con Offers Crime Prevention Tips in Book, Cable-TV Program

July 25, 1993|LUCILLE RENWICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Richard O'Neal Jones has spent most of his life as a professional hustler, practicing such scams as a welfare fraud ring that made him more than $300,000--and landed him in prison.

Now, the 46-year-old ex-convict from South-Central is using his prowess to warn people about rip-offs like the ones he once organized.

"Tips Against Crime" is the title of a book Jones has written, which is due out in September. It is also the name of his local cable television show, now broadcast in Echo Park, Chinatown and parts of West Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley. Additionally, Jones has written about a dozen anti-crime columns for small newspapers in Southern California.

"Since I'm no longer part of the problem, I thought I'd become part of the solution," Jones said. "It was so easy to motivate people to do wrong that I wanted to use that same experience to get people to act more responsibly about protecting themselves."

In the three years that he has been out of prison, Jones has also been a deacon at the Cochran Avenue Baptist Church since 1990 and served as a mentor to adolescents in a Rites of Passage project run by the Miracle Center Apostolic Church.

"He loves to help people. That's why I think he decided to put together the show," said Gaynetta Hughes, a fellow Cochran Avenue church member who helped Jones produce his first show. "He's friendly, honest and a gentleman. He's real genuine."

But he wasn't always that way.

As a teen-ager, Jones patterned himself after the older con artists in his South Los Angeles neighborhood and devised schemes that amassed him thousands of dollars a week.

"I took pride in the fact that I could make a lucrative living without working," said Jones, whose income now comes from speaking engagements, handyman jobs and the sale of poetry books he wrote while in prison.

Jones' scams included reselling merchandise bought with phony credit and helping people file inflated insurance claims in minor traffic accidents.

But his biggest money-making ploy was welfare fraud. For four years, Jones masterminded a plan to get women already on welfare as many as four separate checks under different names.

More than a dozen women were receiving checks with Jones' help, using fake ID cards based on birth certificates he obtained from different states. Jones split the checks with the women, making enough money to buy himself a house in Lancaster.

But in 1987, county investigators caught up with Jones. He was charged with more than 30 counts of welfare fraud and stealing more than $300,000. In 1988, after pleading guilty to 11 counts of fraud, Jones was sentenced to four years in prison. He was released after two years for good behavior.

Jones said his reformation began when he got caught.

Between his arrest and his sentencing, Jones started a chapter of Crime Busters Anonymous, a group for criminals wanting to better themselves. That gave him the idea to inform people how to protect themselves against criminals.

Once in prison, he started writing to newspapers around the country offering his services as an anti-crime columnist. A newspaper in Alabama encouraged Jones to turn his ideas into a book. From 1988 until his release in 1990, Jones gathered hundreds of scam stories from convicts in various prisons for his book, which explains everything from burglary and credit scams to how to dress to avoid being pickpocketed.

"Would you rather have a flat tire or have your car stolen?" Jones asks in his book. "No robber wants a car with a flat tire. So if you put a small nail behind a few of your wheels, that can stop your car from being stolen."

But Jones wanted to take his hustling knowledge a step further than a book. He wanted to be on television.

Using his savings and money from sales of his poetry books, Jones took classes and bought studio time with the Century Cable company in Eagle Rock in March.

"I realized there weren't many anti-crime tips shows. If there were, they're not by ex-convicts, or they didn't tell people more than not to leave your keys in your car," said Jones.

Jones' 30-minute show, which airs twice a month, reviews the material covered in his book and includes interviews with neighborhood crime stoppers.

Jones is hoping to bring the show to the South Los Angeles area on a Compton religious access channel that is part of Continental Cable.

"I think there is a place for him on our station to share his wisdom and inform people about protecting themselves. This is something we're very interested in," said Erleen Barrett, spokeswoman for the station.

Jones hopes he can overcome his past by being a good role model for youth and a safety educator in the community.

"I don't want to be well known for being an ex-criminal," he said. "I want to do something this time that will benefit people in a positive way."

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