Thursday, March 26, 2009

Scam Collecting

In the halcyon days of my misspent youth, I frequently perused the short stories of a US writer whose name was William Porter, but who always wrote under the nom de plume O. Henry. Mr. Porter worked as a bookkeeper for a bank in Texas which found its books rather out of order. First, Mr. Porter fled to Latin America, but returned upon learning that his wife was dying, and ended up spending several years in a Texas prison, then, upon his release, moved to New York City.

O. Henry wrote stories in quite a number of different genres, but always with a very clever ending. One of the genres in which he often wrote is called the caper, and his stories in this genre were my favourites. I do not know where he obtained his material for these stories, whether from inside the Texas prison, where he would have had ample opportunity to meet the unsuccessful practitioners of the trade, or on the streets of New York City, where he might have met some of the profession's more successful members. What is clear is that the stories have a patina of truth, except, perhaps, for the plots, which are a bit too neat, and the characterisations, which are a bit too sympathetic.

I recently went searching through O. Henry's collected works for a quote which is quite applicable to our current milieu. It is in the form of a dialogue between a con man named Jeff and an anonymous narrator, and appeared in the story, 'The Man Higher Up,' which was published in the collection, The Gentle Grafter in 1919:
"There are two kinds of graft," said Jeff, "that ought to be
wiped out by law. I mean Wall Street speculation, and burglary."

"Nearly everybody will agree with you as to one of them," said
I, with a laugh.

"Well, burglary ought to be wiped out, too," said Jeff.
I cannot recommend O. Henry's caper stories too highly, since they have provided me with a modicum of inoculation against people like the fictitious Jeff (and the all too real Max and Jan), whose
profession is no new one. He is an incorporated, uncapitalized, unlimited asylum for the reception of the restless and unwise dollars of his fellowmen.

Coming fresh from reading O. Henry on the school bus, I arrived at the age of 15 in the big, wicked city on a field trip.

'You have one hour. Be back at the bus by then, or we'll leave you,' said our faculty chaperone, and with that we were let loose in one of the safer neighbourhoods of the city.

Naturally, all my fellow students packed into a fast food outlet, part of a chain that had a branch in our village. I tried in vain to find someone interested in exploring, so, since I was unwilling to spend my one free hour in the city doing what I could have done back home, I set out alone to round the block.

I had not gone more than a few hundred metres when a young man in the attire of the lumpen proletariat appeared, running. He paused in front of me, panting heavily, and showed me a watch with a pricetag still attached that must have been the equivalent of about £250, back when cottages were for sale for £750, if one didn't mind rusticating.

'See the price,' he gasped, waving the pricetag at me. 'I let you 'ave it for 20 quid,' he continued between pants, but I didn't have £20, so I could not be tempted by his offer, whereupon he reduced his asking price to £10, an amount I did have.

However, after reading O. Henry, I rather thought I detected something along the lines Jeff would have tried: a £1 copy watch with an authentic £250 pricetag, offered at a markup of 900% by an enterprising entrepreneur.

So I declined his best and final offer.

'Stupid <unintelligible>,' he called me, in an accent that suddenly sounded less appropriate to a member of what Mr. Mortimore's Rumpole refers to as the 'villainous classes' who specialise in burglary, and more appropriate to what I believe the British call 'wide boys,' who specialise in the kinds of money making schemes favoured by Mr. Henry's Jeff.

With that, my panting young watch seller wandered off to find a better market for his wares.

The young man with the £250 watch was the first decent scam I personally 'collected,' by which I mean personally experienced the initial come on, rather than just read about.

I've been told that I seem to run into more confidence artists than most, but I'm not sure if that's altogether true, of if it's just that I like to talk about the ones I've met, or both. I suspect both.

None of my schoolmates, hanging out in the fast food joint, managed to meet any young £250 watch sellers, or, if any of them did, none ever mentioned it.

I, on the other hand, went out where the panting £250 watch sellers might be seen in their natural habitat, and have regaled bored listeners with the story ever since.

And since my encounter with the running £250 watch seller happened when I was just 15, that's been a lot of bored listeners.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Naming of Names

Many years ago, in the West, newspapers had headlines such as, 'Heinous Murderer William "Billy the Kid" Bonny captured by police.' (Billy the Kid was a soldier fighting on the losing side in the Lincoln County Range War, and the newspaper in question was owned by the other side, and desired a rapid trial, conviction, and execution, not necessarily in that order.)

Eventually, in the interest of justice, determination of guilt was restricted to the courts, so American newspapers could only say, 'Alleged Murderer Ted Bundy Indicted.' British newspapers are even more circumspect, writing, 'Dr. Crippen Is Helping Police with their Enquiries.'

After conviction, however, the murder is legally established, and the newspapers are free to write, 'Heinous Murderer Ted Bundy Sentenced to Death.'

In the UAE, news of a murder usually appears in the form: 'Woman found murdered. Police investigators ascertained the identity of the murderer, and M. was convicted by the Court of First Instance, and his conviction has been confirmed by the Cassation Court.'

The UAE newspaper reports of the murder, assuming the body wasn't observed by a large number of people, usually come out about a year later, after the arrest, trial, conviction, appeal, and final confirmation of the conviction. And the murderer is never identified.

So, in most of the stories in this blog, I follow the UAE tradition that there be no names, or 'The names have been changed to protect the innocent.' (Not to mention the guilty.)

In my previous posts, however, I felt that the perpetrators posed a sufficient danger that people should be warned, so I gave the full names of the people involved, and the name of the 'Institute for Strategy and Complexity Management,' as a public service.

Unlike the UAE murderers who are incarcerated for life, and who therefore pose no further threat to society, Dr. Max Nyiri and Mr. Jan Hussing are, to my knowledge, still running around loose.

And my friend's son keep calling Mr. Jan and offering to do more work for him, against overwhelming odds that he'll ever receive any compensation for his efforts.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Mad Max, The Flying Dutchman (part 2)

Max imposed on me three 18-hour days, the first in Dubai and the next two in Abu Dhabi, followed by a week of 12 hours a day on the telephone (via Skype). I put up with this partly out of curiosity, and partly out of a rapidly decreasing hope that Max might provide some slight compensation for my time.

Finally, Max asked me to join him in a conference call on Monday of week 3 to one client who had seemed somewhat interested. Max spent all day Sunday bouncing off me every possibly objection to putting up the €1,000,000 the client might have, and the incantations that would magically turn a 'No' into a 'Yes.' When we finally called early Monday morning, the client was out, and the receptionist asked us to call back. Max sweet-talked the receptionist for 20 minutes, figuring it's always good to sweet-talk receptionists, and, with her boss gone, she couldn't possibly have anything better to do than to listen to Max.

Max continued talking to me on the phone all day Monday, planning for the next day's attempt to reach the client. He was still talking at 11 pm, when he said he had another call. I could hear him mumbling on another phone. Finally, he returned to me, ‘Good news. My friend in Abu Dhabi called. He knows the client we’re going to call tomorrow, and he tells me the client will agree to sign the contract. You will get €1,100 a day for your part. Now we are sending you a contract, and you must sign it and return it now. My wife just called, and I want to go to supper, so I need you to sign and return the contract to us immediately.’

'I have to read it first,' I said.

'I am offering you €1,100 a day, but I can't work with anyone who doesn’t trust me. You will sign now, or else.'

'I have to read it first.'

'I'll give you two hours, then I'm calling back, and the contract had better be signed.'

'Max, it's almost midnight here. I'll sign tomorrow.'

'We are not paying you €1,100 a day to sleep. You'll sign now.'

'Tomorrow,' I said, and the line went dead, but Max SMSed me, 'Sleep well.'

As my last act before bed, I tried to check my e-mail, but the account Max had given me, the account Max said I was to use if I ever wanted to contact him, returned an error. I thought that e-mail had been cancelled, and that I was finally through with Max, but I was wrong on both counts.

The next morning, I read the contract.

The contract said I was to travel around the UAE passing out brochures and promoting the Institute, and I could receive 1/3 of any increase in Institute business in the UAE up to a maximum increase of €5,000, less expenses. Max said he had ordered for me 500 brochures to hand out, for which I’d be charged €5,000 (his cost, about €100), and 100 business cards for which I’d be charged €250 (his cost, about €25), so my best case scenario, where I indeed got credit for bringing in more than €5,000, meant I would owe the institute €5,250 less €5,000/3. It was a five-page contract, and I was to sign on page 5 saying I agreed to all terms and conditions on pages 1 to 4. So Max could easily changes pages 1 to 4 to make the ridiculous conditions even worse for me.

The next morning, rather to my surprise, Max called again, 'Will you sign?'

'No. The contract says I'm a salesman, just selling your institute.'

'You're wrong. You can’t even read English, and you don't know what selling is. You are not a salesman. You don't know what a chance you're missing. You have nothing, and we are offering you €1,100 a day if you join us. E-mail me if you change your mind.’

‘Max, you cancelled my e-mail, so how can I e-mail you?’

‘You are a failure, and you always blame third parties for your failures. I only made you this offer because Jan recommended you, and he has never been so wrong about anyone before.’

‘Max, I only met Jan once for a few minutes. He had cheated a friend of mine, and I just went along to try to get my friend’s money back. That’s all I know of Jan.’

‘I will call Jan and ask him about this,’ and with that, Max rang off. Again, I thought I was rid of him. And again, I was wrong.

The next day, Max called again, ‘Since you won’t sign the partnership agreement, you can’t be a partner. You will be a junior associate, and will only get half the money of a partner.’

‘Max, I still don’t want to sell for you.’

‘You are not selling. Our Institute is unique. We have no competition. I already gave you the names of some of the biggest people in the UAE, people you could never possibly meet on your own. You just go to them and tell them about the Institute. That is not selling.’

‘I don’t know about Dutch, but in English, if you go to someone, tell them about a product or service, and then ask for money, that’s selling.’

‘You don’t even understand English. You are nothing. You have nothing. You said you can’t even afford a battery for your phone, so you have to have it plugged in when you talk to me. Jan and I are both on the boards of Daimler, Barclays, and many other of the world’s largest corporations, and you are nothing. We have awards from INSEAD and many other of the world’s top universities for our software, while you are lower then dirt. I don’t know what kind of people you’ve dealt with in the past, but I’m an ordained minister. I am a very good person who is only trying to help you, but you don’t even trust me.’

‘Max, I checked. On your own website, it says you are on the boards of Daimler and Barclays and many other major corporations. It says your Institute is a strategic partner with many of the world’s largest corporations. It says you have received many awards for innovations in strategy from INSEAD and other top universities. But on their websites, they’ve never heard of you. Max, you and Jan are just a couple of small-time crooks and scam artists.’

‘You are the crook. You are the scam artist. And you’ve just opened your big mouth one time too many. Do you know DNRD?’

‘Yes, Max, I’ve heard of the Dubai Naturalisation and Residency Department.’

‘Well, two years ago, they were in big trouble. Nothing worked. They had me give them a seminar, and all their top people attended. Within a few weeks, everything worked perfectly for them. Now the head of the department always does whatever I ask. When I’m in Dubai, Jan and I have dinner with him. Right now I’m going to call him, and he will cancel your visa and deport you. I also told Jan what you said. He knows where you live, and he says he is going to kill you.’

And with that, Max finally rang off for good.

Which just goes to show. Just because I called Max and Jan two-bit crooks, they are now determined to pummel me with their bag of quarters.

And, at this point, I re-checked the e-mail account they’d given me, with my name on the e-mail. It’s not cancelled, just hijacked. Max can still use it, but I can’t. So I assume every bank in Dubai will get an e-mail, ‘I’ve just changed my e-mail. Please only use this e-mail from now on,’ followed by an e-mail, ‘Please transfer my entire account to Holland.’

Plus, of course, if they ever manage to scam anyone in the UAE, they intend to say it was me and me alone who was responsible, and send an e-mail giving my name with me promising to honour their ‘double your money back’ guarantee for each and every dissatisfied client.

So I can only hope that people in the UAE with money to invest have the good sense not to invest any of it with the Institute for Strategy and Complexity Management, and that UAE banks won’t be taken in by an e-mail with my name on it.

As soon has Max had shown me his ‘business plan,’ it was clear to me that the whole thing was a scam. No one sells an investment guaranteed to return 120%, so Max was not a legitimate PhD in strategy, but a scam artist.

The basic rule is, any time you’re with a scam artist, there must be a mark, so look to the left and to the right. If you don’t see a mark, it must be you. I assumed the customers to whom I’d been introduced were the marks, but I should have been looking in a mirror, only I didn’t see any mirrors. (This is the real reason why the castles of blood-sucking vampires are always devoid of mirrors, in spite of what you might have heard.)

Max had used an old trick: waste enough of the mark’s time that, when the bite comes, the mark is reluctant to admit he has wasted three weeks of his life and just walk away. And it wasn’t easy to go back to the quiet life after three exciting weeks of being bored silly by Max.

But I still wasn’t signing a five-page contract that I couldn’t understand, and one where Max could easily change the first four pages.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Mad Max or The Flying Dutchman

I learned about Jan Hussing and his pyrite parachute when a friend took me to meet him. Jan had fleeced my friend's son, and my friend wanted his son's money. Jan had told the son that, once the son’s employment contract was completed, his employer could not stop the son from changing jobs; Jan further said that it was not, in fact, a real job change, but an internal transfer; finally, Jan promised to double the son’s salary. The net result was that the son lost a secure job and worked several months for Jan without getting paid.

My friend had gone to meet Jan alone, but had not gotten any of his son’s salary. So my friend brought me along, hoping for better results. I was impressed by Jan’s two meters ten height, but told my friend, 'My advice is to give up on Jan. He is never going to give your son his salary. Stop wasting your time.’

A few days later, my phone rang. 'Hello, this is Dr. Max Nyiri with the Institute for Strategy and Complexity Management. We need someone like you. Could you come for an interview?'

My answer was yes. It was a slow week/month/year, and I could have used some work.

I met Max, and he explained: 'We do strategy stress-testing. Most implementation plans run into problems, but our exclusive software can predict and prevent all problems, saving companies 2/3 or more of the costs of implementation. We can also guarantee that they will finish on time and under budget. It is much cheaper to proactively predict and prevent problems than to react to the problems and try to solve them.'

It is quite true, of course, that it is much better to prevent problems than to create them and then be forced to solve them, and every organisation wants to finish all its projects on time and under budget. I was curious to see if Max actually had such software.

(I suffer from the feline’s fatal flaw, and I’m running out of lives, but I couldn’t help myself, I’m too old to change.)

Max continued, 'I need someone like you, with your experience. I want you to meet some customers. Please tell them you work for me. Don't give them your business card, tell them to go through me.' I agreed. I sat and listened as Max gave the above spiel. Over and over. The clients seemed happy to hear it. As it happened, they'd just given Max $5,000 for a seminar on improving their strategy, and didn’t mind hearing again how smart they were for booking the seminar, and how they were going to save their organisation 2/3 of the cost of implementing its strategy, and that they would also be able to guarantee that all their projects finished on time and under budget.

After the clients had gone, Max said, 'I'm only giving you this job because Jan recommended you. Jan is one of my best friends, and I know if he recommended you, you'll be a good worker. And I can see you have a lot of experience, and we need experience. I have 15 young PhDs in Holland working for me, but universities don't give degrees in experience. I need you to come with us to Abu Dhabi tomorrow. Meet us at our hotel at 7 am.'

I had to catch a taxi at 6 am to get to Max's hotel, where we took a taxi to Abu Dhabi. We went from potential client to potential client. Max had a young American named Adam who did all the computer demos, in PowerPoint. Clients didn't get to see the wonderful software Max had told me about. It was the same spiel over and over and over, and I fell asleep during one of the spiels. Max was annoyed.

Max showed me a brochure with his business plan: his Institutes, according to the brochure, each earn more than €100,000 a month, and he's selling the UAE branch for €1,000,000, so it will return 120% per annum. Max was hoping one of these people would hand over €1,000,000, and he said my falling asleep was going to put them off.

We got back to Dubai around midnight. Max didn’t have any money to pay the taxi driver, but promised to pay after another day of travel to Abu Dhabi, and the taxi driver agreed. Max said we had to leave at 6 am for the second round.

The next morning, after just a couple of hours of sleep, I left my place at 5 am, and went with Max to Abu Dhabi again, a trip that ended late that day. The day was much like the previous one, with the same spiel over and over, about stress-testing strategies, and about finding a partner to set up the UAE Institute for Strategy and Complexity Management. After three exhausting days, Max went back to Holland, Adam went back to America, and I hadn't seen any money. Max had said I was an 'equity partner,' meaning that if any of the clients gave Max money, I'd get a share, but no salary, nothing unless one of the clients I'd met gave Max some money. Max said Adam was working on the same basis. I never learned if Adam paid his own way over from the US for his share of the soon-to-come €1,000,000, or if Max covered Adam's airfare. But, by then, I was sure I was never going to see any money, and I hoped I was rid of Max. I'd really gone along to see what this Institute was about, but I still didn't know how, exactly, the Institute proposed to stress-test strategies, or how its unique software could predict and prevent all problems a business might face, while also preventing time and budget overruns.

The next week, however, Max called. He said I was now with the Institute, and I was to only use the official Institute e-mail to communicate with him, and that he’d created an e-mail account for me. He continued talking for about six hours. And he called the next day and every day after that, and talked for six, eight, or ten hours. He always said the same thing over and over and over, about his great software, and his strategy stress-testing. I was too polite to hang up. And I sent back, using his e-mail, polite messages thanking Max for his attention, unwanted though it was.

Talking to Max all day every day meant I missed several other things I’d hoped to do, including the Chinese DVD lady. I apologised that, being on the phone with Max, I couldn’t peruse her DVDs, and said I had to listen to a crazy Dutchman. Little did I know.