Feb 20, 2024, 06:27AM

Scamming and Being Scammed

My father couldn’t be trusted with my money, but I kept giving it to him.

Money pile e1531497463265.jpeg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Recently, a new “main character” emerged for their minutes of infamy here on this world wide web of deceit. Charlotte Cowles, “financial-advice columnist” for The Cut, published the just-so story of how she placed $50,000 in a shoebox and gave it to a scammer. Along the way, she mentioned how other rich acquaintances of hers got taken for even larger sums of money.

This was a fun essay. Good for her, I suppose. Several parts of the story didn’t add up for me—you can’t just walk into a bank and withdraw $50,000, and the audio from her alleged recording and the alleged check are nowhere to be found—but I’d have run it anyway, because this is the kind of emotional content that will draw a reaction from the peanut gallery. If her tale’s manufactured from whole cloth, who cares? If she happened to be scammed for a mere $500 and decided to add a few zeroes, more power to her. She did the work of writing it, and people did the work of offering assorted hot takes in response (she’s a dummy, she’s being vulnerable and we must respect her, etc.).

Now allow me to share a far less controversial and far more relatable story. It’s relatable, you see, because it happened to me! It won’t set fire to any takes, I’ve never been scammed by anyone else (save for the handful of subscription services I’ve waited an extra month or two to cancel), and my life thereafter turned out largely as expected.

Back in 2000, I had saved about $2500 and was planning to purchase a decent gaming computer—decent for the time, anyway—after a year of hard labor at the Golden Corral. I was hoping to play the original Baldur’s Gate, among other offerings from the era, in what little spare time I had.

“I can get you a great deal on that computer and find you a good office chair, too,” said my dad, who was embarking on his fourth divorce and hard up for do re mi at the time. “Just let me take care of it.”

I was working full time and also speed-running my junior year of college—I graduated a year later at 19—so I said, sure, whatever. I handed him the money. A few weeks later, a fairly mediocre/mid-level Gateway PC and a shitty Staples-issue computer chair arrived at my apartment.

After surveying the products, I said to myself, okay, whatever. Such is life, and mine had been anything but a bowl of cherries (“If life’s a bowl of cherries, what am I doing in the pits?” asked middlebrow humorist Erma Bombeck, a favorite of my mother’s). I later added RAM and a better graphics card. It did a serviceable job of Baldur’s Gate as well as a host of related games, such as Fallout 2 (far better than any of the first-person sequels) and Planescape: Torment (the greatest game of all time, at least from a narrative standpoint). I used the chair until I graduated from grad school in 2012, by which time it was a dilapidated, back-damaging disaster piece that stunk to high heaven after a thousand and one nights of gooning and poopsocking.

About 18 months after receiving the computer and the chair, I started getting calls from debt collectors. As it turned out, my dad paid for these items with a pair of credit cards he’d opened in my name—his own credit was ruined—and then immediately failed to make any payments. I’ve written about this subject elsewhere, but suffice it to say that the next decade sucked and blew as a result of his innocent little hustle. Prior to becoming a lawyer in Pennsylvania, I had to resolve all these bad debts. Alas, he didn’t stop with this particular grift, so I shelled out close to $30,000 in 2007 to scrub my credit report—not quite the $50,000 that Ms. Cowles put in a shoebox, but not too far off once you adjust it for inflation ($45,000; how time flies!).

When I asked him why he did this, he told me that life wasn’t fair. “It was you or me, and I wanted it to be me,” he explained. “You should’ve wanted it to be you.” He’d return to this theme many times in later years, including in a host of philosophical e-mails.

“Are you going to pay these off?”

“Nope,” he said, laughing. “I can’t even pay my own bills, son! But we don’t have debtors’ prisons anymore.” The years have dimmed my recollection of this somewhat, but I’m sure he lapsed into one of his extended digressions about how the debt problems of Charles Dickens’ father, which included imprisonment, gave the son the raw material needed for his own best-selling work. This was something about which he boasted in later years, believing that my surprisingly sustainable career as a writer was tied to his misdeeds as well as his insights (spoiler alert: it is).

At the time, I chalked it up to a lesson learned. He’d scam me like that a few more times over the years, but I was usually happy to fork over the money. He was wealthy once, and I’d lived a charmed material existence as a kid. During his decline, scamming me and other relatives gave him a bit of a thrill, made him feel young again. His life had begun as the darkest tragedy, turned into an against-all-odds, cracked-mirror Horatio Alger tale, and lapsed into bathos amidst the idiotic and completely avoidable plot twists that characterized his final two decades. He wrote it all down, far better than I could ever have hoped to do, and encouraged me to monetize the best bits (spoiler alert: I did, with my best payday clocking in at an absurd $5,000, counting travel expenses, and coming two years after his death in 2014).

Nowadays, my credit rating is somewhere in the stratosphere, and I’ve earned a lot of money over the past decade—precisely as he predicted. Life was easy for me, he often said, and I’d never be a sympathetic main character because no amount of abuse could knock me off the straight and narrow path I was doggedly determined to walk. While I wasn’t some patrician to the manner born, like poor Ms. Cowles, I was a pleasant oaf who did whatever was asked of me without a second or even a first thought. He could keep me out of school for a decade, only to have me turn up there one day and prove inevitably successful in all respects—always in some bland, unnoticed, and thoroughly unexceptional way. He could hit me with a ball bat or a pipe wrench, and I’d eat the blows like a chipped ham sandwich; spit in my face and I’d call it God’s divine dew. Nothing happened, nothing hurt. I was here for it.

Kids turn out how they turn out, and the only knight of the round table who matters, my dad liked to joke, was the legendary “Sir Vival.” It was a title he conferred on me, and one of the few—unlike my assorted academic degrees and certifications—he believed that I’d truly labored to earn. I’d earned it by doing the work. Asking nothing of anyone else. Collecting checks. Avoiding “the demon rum” and other vices that had doomed him.

You and your half-brother, he never tired of telling us, will never be leaders, stars, front men. You’re destined to remain out of sight and, in my case, out of cite. At best, you’ll only be successful. But what the hell else can you do?

  • I had a real estate client who had the same first name as her mother, and who used her maiden name professionally (she saw court ordered psychotherapy patients and did not want them to know her married name).. Her mother had disastrous credit, and since at one time they had lived at the same address, she had to explain to every mortgage broker that she was not her mother. She had to produce documents. Why different social security numbers and birth dates were not enough I do not know.

    Responses to this comment

Register or Login to leave a comment