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Taking us for a joy ride!

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We've all fallen for them: those scams where we've been had for relatively small sums of money, leaving us feeling foolish but with a nice story to tell over dinner. Time we took another look at the genius of small-time scamsters, says BAGESHREE S., herself a sporting victim of a minor rip-off

Sangeeta was still rubbing her eyes Sunday morning when a young man knocked at her door. Pointing to a part of the car porch where the cement flooring was wearing out, he offered to make it as good as new. All for Rs. 200, inclusive of material and labour. Now, who wants to start a Sunday with that kind of mess? "Not today, my husband is away," Sangeeta said, breaking the cardinal rule every good girl is taught by mom: never tell a stranger that father/husband/son is away. It won't take long, there won't be much noise, they would clean up the mess and even put plastic covers on the cemented part just in case it rains, the young man assured her. And not one paisa extra for all this thoughtfulness.Sangeeta didn't look unconvinced. That was when he tossed the trump card: he slashed the price by half. And she began to reason: well, he did look decent, didn't he? Wore clean shirt and shoes, and politely called her "Ma'm". Reading her expression accurately and not waiting for a go-ahead in so many words, the industrious young man dashed off to get his workmen. He was back in 10 minutes with half a bag of cement. "Ma'm, I'll just go and fetch jalli stones, can you give me a 50?" Before her brows could rise in suspicion, he deposited the bag before her and said: "Why would you trust a stranger like me, so keep this bag until I come back."

Some consolation

The guy didn't come back. But she had cement at least, Sangeeta consoled herself, as she slipped into her afternoon siesta. She was woken up by loud noises at the gate and went out to find street corner gaadi dhobi having an argument with a woman. When she managed to make herself heard above the torrent of unprintable abuses, this was what Sangeeta learnt: the man had caught the construction worker from two streets away sneaking into the gate and taking the cement bag."But it's mine," the woman protested. With tears streaming down her eyes she told Sangeeta how some stranger had "borrowed" it, promising to return it by evening. "The mason will kill me if he finds it missing!" Sangeeta would have liked to just let her take it, considering the attention the drama was attracting. But the dhobi insisted on picking every hole in the woman's story: how could she have lent material to a stranger without the mason's permission? How did she head straight for this particular house if she had no clue where he had taken the cement?As he began to roundly abuse seven generations of her forefathers (making Sangeeta's middle-class ears go red), the woman scooted. Just shout out if there's more trouble, the dhobi graciously said before he returned to work.Two days later he buttonholed Sangeeta on her way to work and pronounced: "Let me do this repair work myself. Anyway you already have cement." But Sangeeta is wary of another possible twist to the complex tale and has just been postponing it, unable to say "No" to the Good Samaritan. The bag of cement is slowing turning into solid stone.Catch someone on the street at random, and I bet they will have an equally priceless story to tell on how they got conned. The auto driver who takes them for a ride around the town before dropping them off to a hotel right next to the bus stop. The guy who states in chaste English "Proceeding to Tirupati, sir" and manages to wangle a few tens without asking, who will be spotted in several other locations uttering the same solemn sentence, with only the place name altered. The lads who drop nails just a few yards away from puncture shops. The lottery ticket seller who "accidentally" drops a ticket near your feet and convinces you it forebodes a windfall... The incidents may have cost the "victims" a couple of hundreds, but you suspect they secretly admire the genius that went into such minor scams and don't mind them (at least in retrospect) for the trade off: a funny story to tell children and friends.The most famously entertaining con stories in the recent past have been the 419 series of fraud letters/emails/faxes originating from Nigeria and other West African countries (see box). On salon.com, Douglas Cruickshank says about these "most entertaining short fiction around these days": "Because the letters have a certain rough-hewn charm and indicate a vivid imagination at work, one likes to think these bad rascals are not all murderers but, instead, simply hardworking con artists who've missed their true calling as novelists and have had to take up fiction writing's more lucrative sister vocation: fraud. The 419 writers have a gift for cooking up characters that William Boyd would envy and a penchant for wonderful names that must have Charles Dickens, wherever he is, standing up and applauding."

Lads from Lagos

A website called scamorama.org puts together 100-odd of these letters they introduce as "the literary genre of the Lads from Lagos".These may sound funny to a western reader - that is, when they haven't succumbed to these letters that play on their own greed or guilt. But they are also a sad comment on the levels of unemployment and poverty in these countries, besides, of course, untapped potential.Very few of these emails find their way into our inboxes, considering Indian money hardly holds the allure of U.S. dollars. Maybe also because the con artists know a fellow Third World citizen's ability to smell a rat, considering their own experience in the field. Wasn't a Nigerian who tried to swindle a Bangalore businessman swiftly caught only recently? But surely, we have no dearth of desi artistes who are a shade richer in their resourcefulness, understanding of human psychology and sense of humour. The best I have heard in the con story genre is the one my uncle never tires of telling - in fact, acquires new nuances with every telling like all con tales do. This apparently happened when he lived in a hole of a room in a small town in north Karnataka when he got his first job there. The place had as many cockroaches as rats in Hamlin and he would pull the rug tight over his face even in the worst of summers for the fear of them crawling into his nostrils or ears.Then he saw a small ad in a local newspaper that promised the "ultimate solution" for cockroaches. He couldn't resist it, considering he had tried and failed in every form of extinction operation short of a nuclear bomb (which they are, incidentally, reputed to survive). So, he sent Rs. 58 (from the stipend of Rs. 268) to the address in small print, not heeding to his friends' advice to be wary of such ads.To his great joy, a packet did arrive. After unravelling many layers of newspapers, he found two round stones. With them was a helpful instruction: put the cockroach on one stone and hit it with the other.

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