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Why it's easy to scam good guys

A person approaches you and claims to be in need. You fork over 20 bucks. It's a setup, but you have adhered to society's rules of trying to help.

April 12, 2004|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

Ever since our hunter-gatherer days, most of us have striven to get along, to play well with others -- at least with our immediate neighbors -- and to be decent and caring people.

Then there are the jerks, crooks and scam artists of the world.

"You can think about it as cooperators and cheaters," said David M. Buss, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas and author of the textbook "Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind" (Allyn & Bacon, 2004).

As long as the cooperators are in the majority, the cheaters can exploit them. But, if the cheaters get too numerous, the cooperators evolve defenses against them. The cheaters, in turn, must develop new ploys. Buss calls it "a co-evolutionary arms race."

Not long ago, I came out on the short end of that arms race. To be more blunt, I got flimflammed in a Hollywood parking lot, and I've been suffering -- psychically -- ever since.

Here's how the swindle came down:

The woman was dressed for a night on the town, her salt-and-pepper hair swept into a tidy bun. She swooped down on me and my 10-year-old daughter, Nora, late one Friday night as we made our way through the throngs of theatergoers to our station wagon across from the Pantages. She had picked us out of the crowd.

"Do you belong to AAA?" she asked. My stomach sinking, I responded before I could stop myself: "Yes."

"Oh, thank goodness. I need a tow, and I didn't bring my credit cards, and I don't belong to AAA." She gestured vaguely down Hollywood Boulevard.

I told her that I'd been scammed before and didn't particularly trust the situation.

She looked hurt. "Do I look like a scam artist?" she said. No, I allowed, she didn't. And just like that, she had her black patent-leather pump in the door. She lived in Park La Brea. She was a teacher in Inglewood. If I couldn't help with a tow, how about a loan? All she needed -- she held up the wad of bills she was clutching -- was $38 more to cover the towing fee. My brain and my gut were waging all-out combat. I wanted to be a Good Samaritan -- if one were called for -- but I didn't want to be a sap. "I have to get my daughter home to bed," I said. "I can't wait for AAA." She smiled. Still waffling mightily, I opened my wallet, fingering first an Abraham Lincoln and then an Andrew Jackson, then Abe, then Andy, then Abe, then Andy. If I gave her a fiver, I figured, I hadn't lost that much. But I hadn't helped her much, either.

Taking the middle road, I tugged out a $20 bill and handed it to her, along with my business card.

"And, of course, I'll want your name and address," I said, proud that I had finally, um, gotten the upper hand. She scribbled her name, address and phone number on the back of another card and handed it to me. "Thank you," she said, clutching my hand in both of hers. "I'll send the money right away."

Sure, I said, giving her -- how it pains me to say this now -- a hug and admonishing her sternly to join AAA. She was even wearing nice perfume.

Nora and I quickly got into the car and drove off. Once behind the wheel, I felt my head clearing, like a spilled river rafter who gets popped out of a vortex and is able to take a big gulp of air. I reached for my cellphone, heedless of the late hour, and dialed the number the woman had written. The folks who answered had no idea who "B. Hill" was.

I felt like such a knucklehead. I was sputtering with rage, deriding myself as a patsy, a loser, a jerk.

The next morning, I took Nora to a play date. She couldn't wait to tell her friend's dad what had happened. Amazingly, the dad, Jim Davis, revealed that he too had gotten suckered by the same scheme, in downtown Los Angeles. He had forked over $20 to a woman who had asked him to call AAA.

Here I was kicking myself for being a dodo and along comes a brainy guy, who happens to be the associate vice chancellor of information technology at UCLA, to ease my pain.

"I really did want to help someone," Davis said, adding that he had put the odds of getting his money back at 30-70.

Still, he acknowledged, after several days had gone by and it was apparent that he had been taken, "I was a little frustrated."

When I learned a couple of days later that a colleague had also succumbed to the same scam -- near his kid's school, no less -- I figured we'd reached critical mass. Was some Southland entrepreneur running seminars?

Weeks have passed, but my emotions are still surprisingly raw. The experts who study this stuff -- social psychologists -- have helped me understand what happened.

"She was playing on your expectations," said Michael J. Gill, an assistant professor of social psychology at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. "Most scam artists will not look like middle-class or upper-middle-class professionals. That was a very clever addition to her routine.

"I imagine," he added, "that she tried to give you as little time to think as possible." Bingo!

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