I was asked in a radio interview last week what the best way for the public to protect themselves against door to door scammers was.
My answer was to not ever do business with strangers who come the doors. After all, this isn’t the 1950s. We don’t need Avon ladies and encyclopaedia salesman knocking on our doors any more for us to find out the latest in overpriced make up and outdated information sources.
But, even so, there’s something about a smiling face and foot in the door that makes suckers of us all.
Following the death of Steve Irwin, a Tamworth woman went door to door collecting donations for an imaginary wildlife charity. We saw the same after 9/11, the Indonesia Tsunami and the Japanese earthquake.
Often attempt to tug at your heartstrings is personal. The con artist will pretend that they are your neighbour and have locked themselves out of the house. Sadly, the locksmith will only give them access if they pay in advance. But with their wallet locked inside, that’s just not possible.
One particularly devious con artist in San Francisco used to follow genuine locksmiths around and, while the tradesman was working, he’d approach all of the other houses on the street, pointing to the locksmith truck as evidence he was telling the truth.
In the past few years, the Australian suburbs have been invaded by travelling con artists offering to do cheap work like resealing driveways or repairing roof tiles at rock bottom prices. They’d be able to offer this special deal since they’d ‘just finished doing some work on another house on the street’ and they had some materials left over.
The con artists will either take a deposit and take off or trick the homeowner into believing the job was done. For example, one Irish con man used to reseal driveways by pouring sump oil over the bitumen. The gleaming black looked uncannily like wet tar.
Even on the legal side, the techniques used by supposedly legit salespeople border on the fraudulent. Most door to door charity collectors requesting a monthly donation work for marketing companies, taking up to 90% of your donation. “Free energy audits” are used by electricity resellers to get you to switch providers. Surveys and questionnaires are an ideal way to get your personal information and prime you for a visit from the relevant company.
However, my favourite door to door swindler would have to be Alfred Laflin, an Queensland man who used to visit houses around Brisbane offering to replace every single light bulb in the house with a brand new bulb for a few dollars. The deal was so good that most people jumped at the chance.
Alfred would replace all of the bulbs, show the homeowner they worked and then proceed next door where he would sell the light bulbs he just removed to the neighbours.
Nicholas J. Johnson is a Melbourne magician, author, entertainer and collector of scams.