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Caught by a con

Published October 05. 2009 02:55PM

I never thought I could be scammed.

As a seasoned journalist who lives by the professional creed, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out," I thought I was immune to scams.

But I'm a lot more humbled this week and I'm feeling pretty stupid. When I told my story to my girlfriend, all she could say is, "Pattie, how could you be so dumb?"

In my defense, all I can say is, I let my heart get in the way of my head. I wanted to help a poor guy struggling to feed his family.

So here's what happened.

To protect the guilty, let's change the name of the scam artist to Conrad. Con for short.

He knocked at my door last month asking if he could cut my palm trees. He already cut my neighbor's trees and did a good job so I hired him. I must say he trimmed my canary date palm better than it's ever been done.

Two weeks later he came to my door again saying he was desperate for work. For $50, he offered to clear away the weeds and brush along side the canal behind my house. Technically, it's not my property. It belongs to the golf course. But the weeds are an eyesore so I told him to do it.

But first, he needed $70 to buy special weed killer for the hard-to-kill Brazilian pepper tree. Sounded high to me but I figured if he got the roots, the tree wouldn't keep invading my property.

Minutes later, he rang my doorbell, asking me if I could pay the $50 before he did the job because his wife just called to say their electricity has been turned off. He needed to bring $60 to the power company to have it turned back on.

The way I see it, I believe we should help the poor, especially the working poor. So I gave him the money. He did return and cut down the weeds. But he never bought the weed killer, claiming he would be back later.

He never came back. Don't you think I should have learned from that?

I didn't. When he came back and said, "Please, I'm desperate for work," I believed his long tale of woe. All he needed, I figured, was someone to help him get back on his feet.

Dave needed some landscaping work done in his front yard so I talked him into hiring Con and his small crew.

"What do you know about this guy?" asked Dave. "There's something about him I don't trust."

I assured him Con would work out fine. When Con said he needed $250 to buy a tree and mulch for the job, I gave it to him, knowing full well he didn't have the money for supplies.

All he needed to do to earn a few hundred dollars was show up and do the work. It didn't happen.

Instead, he rang my doorbell (he knows a sucker when he sees one), claiming the truck broke down and he needed $100 for a part so he could fix the truck and do Dave's job.

He told me he and his wife clung to each other the night before and cried because of their desperate financial situation

"If I had money to fix my truck, I could earn enough money to feed my family," he said.

Just to let you know how dumb I am, I believed him. I believed him when he said he would "be right back" and would work in my backyard.

Of course he never came. He never did Dave's work either.

So I was out $350 and never received the supplies or the professional weed killer I paid for.

Unbelievably, Con came to my door the next day for more money. He said he had to use the money I gave him to fix the truck for "other things." All I can tell you is it got ugly. I ended up calling the police.

That's when I learned from the police that I was the fifth victim to report giving Con money for supplies but he never did the work. Apparently, the "other thing" he had to buy was drugs, I was told.

"If you only lost $350, consider yourself lucky," said the police officer. "A 92-year-old guy was taken for $700."

That elderly guy can be excused for falling for Con's scam. But I'm supposed to know better. I've won plenty of awards for investigative journalism. Shouldn't I have had the smarts to check out this guy before I handed him money?

But I couldn't see the scam. All I could see was the need to help someone get back on his feet.

The police officer said Con goes around pulling this scam time and time again. He suggested I alert readers.

His suggestions: Hire only workmen who are bonded and insured. Don't take their word for it. Ask to see proof.

Make sure you get promised work in writing. A work order should spell out exactly what will be done. A warning sign I failed to see was that Con never put anything in writing, even when asked.

It hurt to lose the money. It hurt more to lose my faith in people. And I hurt, too, for Con and his family who will always be in a desperate situation.

I hope I'll be smarter in the future when I'm hiring contractors. But most of all, I hope I won't let my experience with Con stop me from trying to help others.

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