liars and cheaters and con men, oh my

by Toni

She made the dumb mistake of trying to steal it all right before Christmas. Three weeks before, to be exact, and if she’d picked any other month, I probably wouldn’t have caught on quite as quickly.

She didn’t come in a villain package. She was 26, married with two kids, and when you met her, there were a few things you noticed right away: she had some sort of defect with one eye (it didn’t track with the other) and then inside of a couple of seconds, you quit noticing because of her smile and warmth and vivaciousness. She was pretty. Not gorgeous, not beautiful, but pretty, and she made you comfortable.

I needed someone capable in the office, someone versatile, so I could finally have time to write.

I interviewed a lot of people for that position–accounting / clerical –and there were several very good candidates, so if the top two choices had fallen through, there were others. She had a personality that caught my attention and there was an easy-going charm about her that I knew would give her an edge on the phone. Still, had it not been for her stellar references, there might have been a toss-up between her and the next candidate, a young man who probably had a little more experience, but who interviewed with the personality of a stick of wood.

His references barely remembered him, so they couldn’t really vouch for him. Her references raved. The references were from very large corporations; I’d looked up the numbers myself instead of relying on the ones on her resumé, called directly, went through the phone system and the secretaries, so I knew the people I spoke to were legitimately employed at the companies in question.

They could not say enough good things about her.

So why wasn’t she still working for them? I’d ask, and was told that it was an unfortunate matter of their company having completed a big project and then laying off extra employees, last one hired, first one fired. She had the unlucky misfortune to be late to the game. This was typical in the area–there had been a lot of construction surges and downturns in the previous five years, so I understood how that could happen. I understood how a young mom could be trying to build a career only to have it sidetracked, and with the economy the way it was, have a hard time finding a stable place. Each reference stated they’d hire her back if given a choice.

I would find out later that those references were relatives or, in one case, a friend of hers.

It’s hard to prove fraud for a telephone reference, especially when it didn’t occur to you to record it.

The insurance background check was the last hurdle, and she was clear. She went to work for us some time in October. We had a new accounting software package, but since it was new to us, we also did one other thing: we made her manually track what she did for the day. We were a small company–tiny, actually, so this wasn’t abnormally difficult.

This was pre-online banking. This was get-a-statement-once-a-month times, and if you wanted your bank balance, you had to call and talk to an officer of the bank because the tellers wouldn’t tell you over the phone.

She made me laugh. Daily. I enjoyed her company, and really liked her. We had a lot in common. She was one of those rare people I didn’t mind being around every day, and I’m fairly grouchy and introverted and would just as soon be a hermit most of the time, so this was a major feat. Three weeks before Christmas, she came into the office in tears. She’d just discovered she was pregnant for her third child. She couldn’t afford to lose her job, and didn’t want us to think she’d misled us. We told her not to worry–she had already won over some of our crustiest clients and she worked hard, was very efficient, and we figured we’d find a way to work something out. We couldn’t offer her maternity leave, but when it was time for the baby, I could hold down the fort for a while ’til she could come back. She was elated.

I think she cashed the first forged check that day.

She came in for the rest of that week and everything seemed perfectly normal. We talked about what we were going to get for our kids for Christmas. Our Christmas was going to be relatively small that year because we were climbing out of a construction slump and we were just that month starting to have a real turn-around. We didn’t want to over-do it or be too optimistic, and there were a lot of reasons not to be. We hadn’t even done the first bit of Christmas shopping yet, but that was okay because that year was going to be the first in a couple of years that we were going to be able to shop a little ahead of time instead of just a day or two before. I didn’t explain that to her–almost everyone here in this state had been through some tough times. Just being able to afford to hire her had been a victory; we’d seen companies two or three times our size go belly up the previous few years and we’d managed to survive.

She told me the things she’d been able to buy her kids. It was going to be one of their best Christmases, she said, because she finally had a good job.

We’d not only survived, we’d managed to grow, and now, here was a young family, benefiting.

She’d cashed several more forged checks by that Friday.

She started missing work the first couple of days the next week. Morning sickness. I understood that, and she was great about calling in.

I went to make a bank transfer, and there was no money in the accounts. None.

I double-checked the accounting program, and there was money according to the balance showing on the computer, but somewhere, there had been a mistake. Thousands of dollars of a mistake, and my honest first assumption was that we’d written a check we’d forgotten about and hadn’t remembered to tell her, or else we’d input a deposit twice. I then compared the computer register against the manual one, and the balances were the same.

But some of the entries were vastly different.

Which didn’t make sense. The room grew icy cold, my hands felt numb and there was a chill up my spine. It was a surreal out-of-body moment where I could not believe what I was seeing. I was almost certain I was making a mistake, that there was a logical explanation for this, and it had to be somewhere in that data. Because it could not have been purposeful. The numbers on the ledger grew large and bold as the world around it grew fuzzy and I thought you’re making it up. You’re just making it up because somewhere you screwed up and you’re just wishing for a better excuse. Right? I couldn’t possibly have been that naïve.

I went to the bank the next day and had a copy of all of the checks pulled. The bank was quick to help, and by that afternoon, I had copies of everything that had cleared to that date. I normally wouldn’t have seen these checks for another two weeks, when the bank statement came in.

Multiple checks had been made out either to cash or to her or to people we didn’t know. The signatures had been forged; she’d endorsed the back. When I compared these to the checks on the computer, I discovered a flaw in that program (which ended up being the demise of that program, nationally). A check could be written, printed and then voided and never show up as having ever been written.

By going through the blank checks in the office, I realized there was one more check out. It would turn out to be a very large one, which coincidentally matched the amount of the very large check we were expecting. I put a hold on the account.

Two days before Christmas.

The police issued a warrant for her arrest. She called in sick again that day. Then she said she didn’t think she’d be able to come back to work for us because the morning sickness had gotten so bad, and she knew it wasn’t fair to us to not work for another month. She’d understand that we would need to replace her. We confronted her over the phone with the facts; explained that there was a warrant for her arrest. Explained that she had one shot at not being arrested for Christmas, and that was to turn herself in. We’d work with her through a first-offenders program, and this was strictly because she had kids. She’d have to plead guilty, but she’d get to stay out of jail and repay while she was on probation and, once she’d paid everything and if she stayed clean for a year, her record would be expunged. She agreed.

She failed to show up the next day.

The police don’t care if someone’s having Christmas, by the way, if they’ve stolen thousands of dollars. In fact, it often makes the criminal a wee bit easier to find.

There were witnesses, handwriting proofs, and evidence galore. When the police arrested her, her car was packed with luggage–she was moving to Arizona, to live with a sister.

Later, I would see a photo of evidence of all sorts of new toys and electronics they’d found at her house.

We really didn’t have much of a Christmas that year; wouldn’t have had any, had it not been for family who stepped in and helped. My kids were 8 and 4.

I was 28.

Crime wasn’t new to me. I’d had enough of it in my life at that point, and was aware enough of the world to realize it was common. But it was the first time I’d experienced a targeted, systematic con aimed directly at me. It was the first time my judgment had completely failed. Everyone who’d met her was stunned, but that didn’t help assuage the fear that if I could so completely misperceive something of that magnitude, how the hell could I trust what I believed about anyone else?

The financial damage she did lasted a very long time. The economy here was about to take another downturn and we’d struggle. But what she took from me was more valuable than money: faith. Faith in my own judgment, a willingness to trust. Eventually, I’d realize I didn’t want to let the actions of one person poison my perceptions of everyone else I met, and I’d find a balance, but it would take a long time. It would take even longer to forget.

This past Christmas was the first Christmas day I didn’t think about her. Not even once. And I didn’t realize it until a month later.

17 years.

What she gave me, though, turned out to be more valuable than what she took.

She didn’t come in a villain package.

~*~

I write about crime and try to find the absurd and a way to deal with it while showing its repercussions. I think reading about an interesting villain failing to succeed will always hold a certain lure. So what draws you to crime fiction?

~*~

If you’re anywhere near Denver from Thursday through Sunday, come on out to Left Coast Crime. A ton of us will be there and we’d love to see you.

21 thoughts on “liars and cheaters and con men, oh my

  1. Kathy Reschini Sweeney

    Wow! How awful.

    What ever happened to her? I’m guessing she never made any kind of restitution – but did you ever find out the consequences?

    I was hoping to get to Denver but had to cancel – have a great time and I’ll see you in April in Pittsburgh.

    Reply
  2. norby

    Toni-

    I’ve worked retail for over fourteen years, and the thieves and scam artists, they’re amazing. They come in all sorts of packages-the guys you spot instantly to the grandmother who has been one of your best customers.

    Don’t ever be too hard on yourself for having the wool pulled over your eyes-they’re good at it, why do they think they decided to make a living this way?

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  3. JT Ellison

    So glad you posted this story. It’s not only a good lesson but a great example of a true villain. Nicely done. And Norby’s right, that’s why they are called “Confidence” men.

    Reply
  4. Rae

    A great post, and a great story – unfortunately, one of those life events that’s much easier to talk about than to live through. I dealt with a similar situation many years ago, when someone who reported to me fleeced our small company out of about 10 grand. It was unsettling, to say the least – this person was considered to be the organization’s very best employee.

    As to what draws me to crime fiction: it’s the battle of good vs. evil, with good usually winning; plus, the framework of the genre requires a beginning, a middle, and an end (as opposed to, say, literary fiction, but that’s a whole different topic 😉 There are so many dastardly villains in the world today, from evil captains of industry to obnoxious DMV clerks, and we so often feel powerless against them. It’s great to be able to vicariously vent our spleen through the derring-do of Elvis Cole or Jack Reacher; or imagine ourselves in the shoes of the little guy in extraordinary circumstances who still manages to win in the end. And when the bad guys get squished or shot or go splat in some wonderfully gruesome way, well, that just makes it all the more satisfying.

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  5. toni mcgee causey

    Alex, you’re so right. It’s one of those blessings / curses of being a writer. I may hate going through something, but there’s always this sort of third eye observing both the situation and my reactions and the reactions of those around me so that I’ll be able to write about it later. In situations like the above, it taught me more about human nature in one two month period than the previous two years.

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  6. toni mcgee causey

    Kathy — actually, she did make restitution in little dribbles at a time, until about two years later, there was a sudden lump sum in several thousand. Her probation officer got suspicious about the sudden increase in the amount. I’m not sure of the chain of events after that, but the company where she then worked had not known about her prior history (they were much larger than we were, so I’m not sure if they didn’t research their employees or if it just didn’t show up somehow). That company had been doing really well and then had slowly started sliding into financial trouble, and they put two-and-two together and investigated and discovered she’d been doing the same thing to them. I believe she spent more time in jail that time. I’m not sure what happened to her after that.

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  7. toni mcgee causey

    Norby, thank you. Yeah, it’s kinda hard not to feel like an idiot, but then, that’s what con men thrive on — people feeling foolish and not telling anyone, and so they can perpetuate the scams.

    And you’re right — it’s the grandmothers that I think shock me the most whenever I hear about crime.

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  8. toni mcgee causey

    JT, thanks. (Hope you’re feeling better!)

    And Rae, LOL — yep, the going splat and squishing of the bad guy is very very satisfying. It’s been one of the things that has been the most fun about writing about a woman whose life is somewhat out-of-control, put into a tailspin by someone running a con or out to rip her off, and she’s got to figure out how to come out of that tailspin and not only survive, but win.

    And the nice thing was, we did win, and that was a terrific feeling. 😉

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  9. Catherine

    There is something about finding out in life that criminal acts can come from people with no warning labels that really shakes away a certain innocence. A boy on the fringes of our group growing up was raping grandmothers by the time we were 20. The statement by one poor old lady that stuck in my memory, was that it was worse than Nazi germany, because she had thought she was safe and then this boy/man walked into her life.

    I had always felt uneasy around him, although I could not of imagined at that point what he would go on to do.

    Any illusion I had that I could trust my own instinct of sensing wrongness in an other person was shattered for a long while when my former bosses youngest son went on to murder a girl. He left her in the scrub that most of the teenagers in my town used to sneak away to drink a beer or two in a horrific state. All murder I think is horrific, but there are some that sicken further. This man that grew from a sunny natured beautiful child did that.

    I can see Toni why losing your faith in your own ability to discern ill will in others would of been challenging to say the least.I’m glad you’ve worked through it to the point that you can find a positive now.

    Crime fiction is where characters wearing ordinary faces commit inexplicably wrong acts in a contained slice of anothers imagination. I’m mostly obnoxiously positive,(so I’ve been told) however I think crime fiction provides an outlet for the more cynical, darker side of me.

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  10. Pammy D

    Jeez Toni!

    Been there and it sucks. I had a close friend steal thousands of dollars in insurance checks. I had an old business partner forge insurance forms to make it look as if he had paid me thousands of dollars, so he would be re-imbursed. The insurance company sent me a form questioning the transaction. I could have potentially lost my license. Betrayal from a trusted someone within the fold, is incredibly devastating.

    I agree with Rae’s take on the splat and squishing thing.

    I also think it’s great fun to write about those experiences and have heinous FICTIOUS things, happen to those types of characters. As you know, I even got my ‘AHA’ idea for my novel from the true life (no pun intended), demise of one of those nasty persons in my life.

    I now have a saying – ‘Dear God, don’t make me an instrument of your destruction. But could you clue me in on it, when it happens?’

    Good post, Toni.

    Pammy D

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  11. allison brennan

    I’m so sorry this happened, Toni! My grandma got conned once–and she was living on retirement. Lost most of her small savings account (about $5,000.) in the late 1980s. She felt stupid and foolish. But it wasn’t her fault. Cons are sociopaths. They don’t think about the consequences of their actions. They have no understanding that their thefts hurt other people. The sad thing is that most financial cons aren’t even investigated until the dollar amount lost is in the six digits, or if there is a consistent repeat crime and the cops have enough evidence to work with.

    I’ve read that the elderly and religious people tend to be the most easy to con because they are more trustworthy. There was some famous con–I can’t remember much, I read it in a true crime book–where a guy joined a church, got to know everyone, sold insurance (or something like that) and fleeced almost every church member when he bolted a few months later. (Because, as one victim said, he went to our church, we knew him, why wouldn’t we trust him?)

    We’ve all trusted people who couldn’t be trusted–with our money, our secrets, our friendship, our children. One of my day care providers pled no contest to child abuse of another baby in her care. Believe me, I felt guilty for years that I left my son there for four months before this came out. That was one of the kicks in the ass I needed to start writing.

    Most villains don’t look like villains. Awful lesson to have to learn first hand. 🙁

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  12. Louise Ure

    The villain package. You nailed it, Toni. And that’s why it’s so much more interesting to read (and write) about the everyday evil among us. A villain doesn’t have to be a serial killer to to seriously bad.

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  13. toni mcgee causey

    Catherine, how horrifying, on both cases. It’s always a shock to experience it, and I think a lot of people deal with it by ignoring it. In fact, I think most people try to never admit to having had a close brush with it (and frankly, I thought twice about posting)… because it makes a person feel exposed, I think. But to be so close to such violence as you did would indeed be shattering.

    (I generally don’t see a lot of men post on the topic and that makes me wonder why… is it that it shows a vulnerability? Because I know it’s not because it hasn’t happened to them.)

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  14. toni mcgee causey

    Pammy, I knew you’d understand. 😉 And I hate that so many of us have experienced it first hand.

    Allison, you’re right, I think the elderly and the religious are especially vulnerable because of an innate trust. And I think that’s why it bothered me so much, is that I thought I was taking all of the precautions a person could take to protect our company, and I still managed to pick the one person who was intent on doing damage. That’s sort of mind-boggling. Probably every other candidate was fine. Charisma–not all it’s cracked up to be.

    On the child-care issue — that would be devastating, but you can’t blame yourself for not having esp. There’s no way to see things when you’re aren’t physically present all day, and the point of dropping off a child is to be able to leave and go to work. We trust that there is a system in place, trust that good people who are working there will be honest, will report abuse, but that’s an awful lot of trust, and awful loss of control. (And people wonder why I tend to be a control freak now.) 😉

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  15. Fran

    We do like to believe we’ve got good instincts, but I suspect each and every one of us has been conned on one level or another. Scary stuff, and Rae nailed it on the head about retribution through the Coles and Reachers.

    I look forward to attending your panel in Denver!

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  16. Catherine

    Toni,

    After I posted that I thought that I should add that although my trust in my own perception was shaken or shattered at one point, it is such a small thing compared to what the victims, their families and the families of the criminals go through…

    I think my experience was more collateral damage from the ripple effect that crime causes.

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  17. toni mcgee causey

    Hey Catherine,

    You know, I think that’s what makes crime hard to talk about (and maybe why fiction is so much more accessible)… we tell how it’s affected us, then turn on the news and see someone who’s had it so much worse. But what you were saying is still so true; when we’re exposed to crime, when we realize someone right there in front of us was capable of so much worse than we thought, it brings all our ability to judge into question. I think that’s only human, really.

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  18. Zoe Sharp

    Toni – wonderful post. Not only that, but a grippingly well-told story, all the more creepy for the ring of truth!

    Writing crime fiction allows us to write wrongs. It gives us the opportunity for justice – sometimes rough – and closure in a way real life so rarely does.

    When two kids stole my first motorcycle, wrote it off and got away with a slap on the wrist, the police officer in charge of the case warned me I was not allowed to go round and stamp on their fingers, so I wrote little bits of them into my next book and did nasty things to them in print instead. Not as satisfying as nailing their heads to an occasional table, but less likely to see me end up in jail … 😉

    Reply

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