Hot Check

Written in


A little while back, I wrote up the story of one of my very first cases as a Robbery Detective, An Innocent Thief. In that case, I wasn’t the first one on the scene to talk to the suspect and victim, I played follow up. In today’s case, I was the first officer on scene but didn’t talk to the suspect. This case happened several years ago when I was a young patrol officer. I responded to a call at a small car lot. This car lot sold high-end used cars including Maserati, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Vipers, and Corvettes. The call was for an auto theft that occurred a few hours previously. We will call the victim Bob and the suspect John.

When I arrived on scene, I spoke to the victim (Bob) who was one of people there who did car sales. He explained to me that a well dressed, twenty-something year old man (John) came to the lot in a taxi cab a few hours ago to look at one of the Corvettes on the lot. John told Bob that he was in town on business and saw the car in the lot and just had to see it. While not specifically saying it out loud, John implied that he flew into town and didn’t drive there. After a quick test drive where John displayed his driver’s license but did not let his information be written down, John said that he would like to buy the car. When Bob offered financing, John said he’d pay in cash, or to be more specific John said he would use a personal check to pay for the car. Bob told me the car was priced at $50,000 and told John that they only take cashier’s checks for such a large amount. Bob told me that John said he was only in town for business, in a hurry, and didn’t have time to go to his out of town bank to get a cashier’s check and instead offered to call his bank to verify he had enough money in his account to cover the check. Bob said that he agreed and John dialed up his bank, spoke to someone on the phone there before handing it over to Bob. Bob spoke to the bank over the phone and after verifying that John had the money in his account, happily accepted the personal check in exchange for the Corvette. A few hours later, Bob called the bank himself and was told the account on the check did not exist. It was at this point that Bob realized he had been conned.

Obviously when Bob talked to the ‘bank’ the fist time, he wasn’t talking to the bank at all. Before proceeding, count all of the red flags you noticed in this story. While not completely unheard of, John arrived in a cab and was well dressed. He claimed he was in town on business, implying that he flew into town so this wouldn’t be completely out of the question. But in Bob’s experience, he later said that most people drive up in their own cars because they live in the area or a city over. Bob had never sold to an apparently out of town guest before. While it’s possible that someone in town on business would notice a car they just ‘had to have’, it would probably be more likely for them to arrange to have it shipped to their home instead of driving it away. If an individual apparently flew to an Austin for business, they would most likely have a return ticket. It’s possible that they might be from Dallas or Houston and wouldn’t mind driving back three to four hours home with a car, but if they flew already then they most likely want to fly back. If they were from anywhere else then this would be a very long trip in a Corvette and roadtrips in a Corvette are not as common as you might think. Since this was unique to Bob, it counts as a flag and should have raised his suspicion level. With a raised level of suspicion, Bob could have casually asked for more details like we do in the Cotton Eye Joe Questions. Bob could have asked “Where are you coming from today?”, or “Where did you fly in from?”, or “Do you plan to drive this all the way back to your home?”. Any of these questions would have helped Bob see more potential flags.

A lot of people don’t want their driver’s license information copied down for test drives because they are worried about their credit being run behind their backs. Bob said that they don’t run credit without consent and should have insisted on taking down the driver’s license information. While it could have been fake, if the picture matched the suspect, we would at least have a photo of John. This is another red flag and by itself not enough to warrant stopping the interaction, but it is added to the list of flags. If Bob would have stuck to his company’s policy, he would have written down or copied the driver’s license from John. It’s very likely that if this was a real license, John would have refused and would have left without taking the car.

Another flag here is the implied scarcity or urgency of the transaction. John said he was in a hurry and by saying he was from out of town this puts time pressure on Bob to make this sale or lose it forever. As a general rule, anytime there is an implied urgency to a transaction you should see that as a very larger red flag and try to slow things down and get an outside look at the situation. Marketing techniques like “Act now”, “50% off today only!”, “Only if you buy now”, and things like that are all using this scarcity / urgency tactic. If Bob had taken notice of how John’s words made him feel, (like this was a sale he had to make right now with a sense of urgency), he may have noticed the red flag and asked for another set of eyes on the situation.

Bob already knew going against company policy by accepting a personal check was a bad idea, but because of the sense of urgency he went for it. This is why the implied scarcity / sense of urgency tactic is so effective; it can cause people to ignore their senses to get things done now to avoid losing an opportunity. Bob then let John dial the ‘bank’ on John’s phone. This is a red flag. As we’ve previously discussed, always use your own information or look up contact information on your own, never depend on information from another person for something like this. Had Bob taken a few minutes of his time to look up the bank on his own and call them himself, he would have found out that John was lying. Had Bob further investigated any single one of these flags, this con would have fallen apart. Think about it from John’s point of view; he had to successfully engineer a story that was convincing enough and urgent enough that Bob would be pressured to accept it without digging further into the details. In this case, John won the interaction. I don’t know how things turned out in the end or if John was ever caught because I wasn’t the investigating detective on this case, but my guess is that John got away and that this wasn’t the first nor the last time John did this. I hope Bob learned a valuable lesson from this and hopefully by reading this case study you can learn from Bob’s mistake without the cost he went through.