When I lived in New York, my roommate at the time -- let's call him Phil -- was approached by a stinking drunk on Second Avenue. The drunk asked him to buy a paper bag containing some rare coins for $100. Phil, sensing the goods were stolen and maybe he could rip off this drunk, took a look at the coins. He was no numismatist, but they were obviously old coins in those cardboard holders, with prices in the thousands written on them.
But there was something else written on the paper bag. "If found, please return to Dr. [name] for a reward." There followed a telephone number.
Phil was struck by pangs of conscience. He gave the bag back and told the drunk to call the number for the reward. The drunk would not have any of it: he wanted 100 bucks and he wanted it now.
Phil then convinced the drunk to let him call the number to get the reward. The doctor at the other end of the line, a woman, was relieved and thankful that Phil had found her lost coins that had been her father's and meant even more to her family than the thousands they were worth.
At this point the drunk got skittish and started to walk away. The doctor pleaded with Phil to give the drunk what he wanted and when she got there she would give Phil a reward of $400.
So Phil told the doctor what street corner he was on and described what he was wearing. Then he ran after the drunk and paid him $100 for the bag of coins. At this moment he felt quite pleased with himself -- not only had he been a Good Samaritan and secured the return of the doctor's coins, but he would make $300 that day. Not a bad day's work!
He waited for the doctor to arrive.
And he waited.
No doctor. Phil called the number again. Someone else answered and told him he had called a pay phone on the street.
Yes, Phil had been conned by some very smooth, big city confidence artists. He paid $100 for a paper bag full of trash.
I think he should have been tipped off by the note. Who writes on a paper bag full of rare coins, "return to so and so for a reward"? And who keeps rare coins in a paper bag?
Moreover, Phil should have remembered this basic rule: if a perfect stranger wants you to give him money now in exchange for more money later, no matter how good the deal sounds, you are being conned.
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