Saturday, December 18, 2010

Getting Hustled in NYC

Um, I'd like to keep that in my wallet, please.
Creative Commons, TheTruthAbout
In general, I think I'm a pretty good judge of character and - essential to a traveler, especially a woman who often travels alone - I pride myself on trusting my gut. So far (knock on wood) I've been lucky enough and smart enough to avoid any trouble while traveling abroad. But my ego took a huge blow this fall when I got hustled in New York City.

I was only in New York for about 36 hours, just long enough to eat some pizza, people-watch in Times Square and along Broadway, help out at the gala event for work that was the reason I was there, grab some bagels and head back down the Turnpike to our office in Washington, DC.

When I walked into the gala venue, I was in a great mood. I hadn't been in a major city in going on three months, and I was riding the high of the energy boost I always get the moment I arrive in a city I love. I've been tele-commuting since May, so it had been a while since I'd seen my co-workers and seeing friendly faces I'd missed was another rush. I spent the evening working at the registration table, talking literature and nerve-wracking visa applications with the Polish woman working the coat check for the catering company in between checking in guests.

It was about an hour into the event when a man hurried over to the table, set down his glass of wine and asked if I had any change; he had to go pay for parking and he didn't have any small bills. I'm usually terrible at carrying cash and all I had was the single bill I had tucked into my purse, just in case. "Sorry," I said, "all I have is a $20." Talking so fast that I could barely keep up (and that's saying something: I'm from Southern California, where I grew up talking so fast that my dad would often shake his head and tell me to slow down during family dinner conversation), the man said that was fine, he was just short and needed to pay ASAP, so he'd run to the ATM on his way back from the garage to pay me back. He tossed in the name of one of my organization's board members, saying he was a friend. I was uncomfortable and wished I'd kept my mouth shut about the $20, but told myself I was being ridiculous - he was a guest who needed to borrow some cash, that was all. I pulled out the $20, handed it to him and watched him keep up the same frantic pace as he headed out the front door, tossing a "Thanks" over his shoulder.

About twenty minutes later, my gut was telling me that this guy was not coming back, and I was berating myself for breaking so many of my own rules about dealing with strangers:
  1. Listen to your instincts, not the person's appearance. The guy was wearing a suit and tie, so my brain said, "Honey, look at him, it's fine," even while my instincts were screaming "Bad news!"
  2. He used a nickname for the board member he claimed to know that I'd never heard him called by. It had the intended affect of making me think the guy just knew our board member better than I did, even while it set off alarm bells in the back of my head.
  3. When someone's talking very quickly and not quite making eye contact, they're not up to anything good. Based on this guy's behavior, I'd say that rule #1 in the Hustler's Handbook is "Never stop talking, never stop moving, or it'll give them a chance to think."
  4. Do NOT tell people that you have cash. My automatic response to people on the street who ask me, specifically, for money is "I'm sorry, I don't have any change." (Which is usually true, but that's beside the point.) This is where broken rule #1 came in, which, combined with the fact that I was surrounded by hundreds of people, many of whom I knew, made me feel safe enough to confess that I didn't have what I thought he was looking for in a little too much detail.
  5. He wasn't consistent about what he wanted. First, he needed change. Then, when I didn't have change, he was short. Alarm bells clanging all over the place, and I still let myself be blinded by #1 and steam-rolled by #3.
An hour later, I was furious with myself. $20 wouldn't have bought me much, but it was enough to make a difference in my budget for the week. At the end of the event, I told my co-workers what had happened, struggling to look at it as a lesson well-learned at a time when the loss of $20 didn't leave me desperate - but it still stung. It turned out that one of the cater-waiters had also been hustled, and our bookkeeper was kind enough to reimburse both of us and consider it part of the expense of the event.

I was very grateful to have the $20 back in my purse, but was still upset with myself for being such an uncharacteristically easy mark. (And, really, at an event that costs hundreds of dollars per ticket, who hustles the event and catering staff?! Probably someone who knows that New York society is too smart to fall for their lines...) But I've learned an important lesson, with injury to nothing but my ego: even in what you consider a comfort zone, don't let your guard down completely and always trust your gut.

9 comments:

Heather said...

I'm such a trusting person and probably would have given him the money -- good reminder for me that not everyone has honest intentions :-(

Stella said...

OMG! What a sneaky so and so!!

Living in NYC has definitely taught me to trust my instincts and be a little tougher than if I was back home in Australia. It's sad that if someone REALLY needed it here, I'm not sure if I'd give it to them for lack of mistrust in this city.

So happy you got your $20 back :)

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

Heather - I know, I can be the same way, which is why I probably needed the reminder to trust my instincts on who to trust!

Stella - One of the many conflicting sides of NYC, right? One day you might find someone who'd give you the shirt off their back, and the next you'll meet someone else who would take yours if you gave them half a chance! I'm happy I got my $20 back, too - and got a lesson in following my own rules in a situation where I wasn't totally at a loss for what to do next.

Ayngelina said...

Oh what a terrible story, I have never heard of the scam and probably would have fallen for it as well.

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

Thanks Ayngelina, that makes me feel a little less gullible! I definitely wasn't expecting that kind of thing in the setting I was in, but it was a good reminder that it always pays to keep your guard up just a bit.

Gray said...

Don't beat yourself up too much, Jessalyn. Even smart people fall for cons once in awhile. That was a particularly smart one, I have to say. I wonder how he knew the name of the board member? Was there a sign somewhere at the event? I'm really glad you spoke up to your coworkers and got your money back.

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

Thanks, Gray. There wasn't a sign, so I'm assuming he just wandered around, eavesdropping on/joining in conversations until he got a handle on a name he could use. I'm glad I spoke up too: two places I went the next morning were cash only - I would have been very cranky if I'd missed out because I didn't have any on me as a result of this guy's scheme!

LeslieTravel said...

Sorry you got scammed at a work party- that's so random and upsetting! Seems like a strange con. This guy had to dress in a suit and study up on the board members' names at a corporate event, just to get $40 from two people. That's beyond weird! I've lived in or near NYC all my life and I've never heard of that scam. Guess there are opportunists everywhere.

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

It does seem like a strange con. But I learned my lesson and I still love NYC - and the reactions in the comments here just go to show that, despite the opportunists, most people are genuinely concerned about those around them and would never dream of taking advantage.