The Shell Game

I watched a scene in a movie this week where one of the main characters steals meat from a meat truck, and then sells it to a third party. I was reminded of the word “grift”, which means to “obtain money or property illicitly” (thank you Merriam Webster!)

When I was little, I remember seeing a truck rolling through the neighborhood with consumer goods for sale, “cheap”. The person with the truck was selling stereo equipment, electronics, and household goods. I didn’t think about it at the time, but I wonder if those items were stolen. I also remember walking on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, and watching a game called Three Card Monte. If you haven’t seen this game, it is a version of the old Shell Game, except using three cards instead of three shells. The person running the game has one ace, and two number cards. The challenge is to keep your eye on the ace. It seems simple enough, but it isn’t a game of skill. It is a con game. The person running the game works with other people (in the “audience”) to generate excitement, and create an illusion that winning is possible. My advice to you is that if you ever see a game of Three Card Monte, don’t play. —–

Scams and con games have evolved over the years. Several years ago, I started receiving emails from people pretending to be royalty (or lottery winners), telling me that they needed my help, and that they would handsomely reward me if I helped them. All that I needed to do was to send them a small amount of money to demonstrate my trustworthiness (or to help facilitate a transaction), and a fortune would be mine. I remember thinking “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”. But a surprising number of people have been swindled by this type of scam. I am sure that you have received phishing emails. Those are emails that tempt you to click on a link. The emails are designed to look legitimate, as if they are coming from your bank or your credit card company. There is usually some sense of urgency built into the message (e.g. “your account has been suspended, please click here to resolve the issue”).

Recently a new type of scam has become popular that involves gift cards. Gift cards (like Amazon cards, or Visa or Mastercard gift cards) are not traceable. If someone obtains the number under the “scratch-off” area, they can spend the value of that gift card. Thieves are figuring out ways to obtain those numbers from their victims. For example, some thieves prey on elderly and vulnerable people, making them think that there is an emergency or a hostage situation, and that the way to solve the situation is with to provide the scammer with the gift card numbers.

The most sophisticated grift I have heard of involves the fraudulent use of electronic funds transfers. There was an article in the news recently about a former NBA executive who convinced some of his business partners to wire their money directly to a shell company, instead of the team, for contracted services. He was the shell company, and he convinced companies to send him $13 million. This form of electronic fraud is not isolated. I recently attended a corporate training program on this particular type of fraud. What is so dangerous about this one is that staggering amounts of money can be stolen, and there is no getting that money back. Once money is electronically transferred out of a company, it is gone, and it will probably be transferred several times through different accounts to make recovery impossible.



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