Not every scam
I hear about is as real or widespread as you might think.
receive panicked warnings on social media about some new virus or con game
that’s going around and while these might be inaccurate, I tend to think it’s a
good thing that people share possible dangers in order to protect each other.
That being said,
a friend recently sent me a questionable scam story that was doing the rounds
online and I thought it would be worth discussing how we can better understand
and assess potential threats.
The Stolen Handbag Scam
warning had been passed around Facebook and Twitter about a new scam that was
targeting women who were living on their own.
The story went
A woman put
her purse (handbag) in the child seat of her shopping trolley. While walking
around the supermarket, someone waited until she was distracted then stole her
wallet from her bag.
noticing, the woman reported the theft and went home empty handed – but the
scam was far from over.
day, she received a phone call from security at the store who told her they’d found
the purse, though her money and credit cards were gone.
to the supermarket, security was baffled since they never found anything, nor
had they called the victim.
home, the woman found her house had been burgled; the bogus phone call merely a
ruse to get her out of the house.
An Unlikely Story
We saw a lot of these stories when selecting scams as material for The Real Hustle and while most led to some sort of con worth exposing to the public, occasionally the story would break down and prove to be either made up or exaggerated by public hysteria.
this particular story poses a few questions.
as a warning about a new type of scam that could potentially target a large
number of people but if this ever actually happened (and I believe it certainly
could have) there are too many circumstances that would need to align for a bag
thief to pull this off.
victim’s address needs to be readily available unless the thieves are willing
to follow every victim on the off chance that one of them might live alone in a
building that can easily be burgled.
victim’s phone number must be available to make the bogus call and lure them
out of their home.
victim’s keys must not be stolen, or they would/should call a locksmith
point is important because the nature of this scam “report” is to tell people
that a stolen purse/wallet might lead to a burgled house, but this would be a
natural concern if the whole bag (and house keys) was taken.
about it: how many people position their purse or wallet in an open bag that’s
readily accessible to thieves?
Obviously, some people really do have a lapse of concentration and leave their valuables wide open for light-fingered opportunists, but most pickpockets and bag dippers learn to gain access and locate common hiding places, all the while using natural situations to get close, then get away.
street (or supermarket) thief gets, they are quick to toss the personal
property (and credit cards unless they have a safe way to use them) and keep
only what they can spend.
their victims home or burgling their houses is an invitation to get caught and
for the most part, pickpockets and house-breakers are two separate types of
None of this
is to say it never happened but we’d reject this as a scam for The Real
Hustle because it’s highly unlikely to happen more than once in a blue
A thief might
get lucky and see a purse and on stealing it, find an address and phone number.
He or she
might recognise that address as a vulnerable location that’s safe to break into,
then somehow deduce that their victim lives alone and only needs to be
lured back to the supermarket for them to gain access to the rest of their
All of this
might have happened one time but it’s extremely unlikely that a gang of bag
dippers have somehow learned to profile potential victims reliably enough to
make this a successful long-term scam.
And the truth
is that supermarkets are a terrible place to steal from people and unless it’s
a spur of the moment theft, most thieves are too aware of the multiple risks of
being caught by cameras, security or other customers.
Taking Things With A Pinch Of Salt
All stories in
all forms of media deserve to be considered with a healthy dose of critical
thinking but when passed around on social media or WhatsApp, these stories can
take on a life of their own.
I like that
people are passing information to warn each other but there’s a worrying trend
Real cons and
scams tend not to be shared so widely as these made-up or exaggerated stories
which seem to gain more traction with the public.
frustrating to me since I find the real scams to be fascinating and the fake
stories to be naive, foolish or uninteresting.
On The Real
Hustle, we had a pretty good sense of what made a worthwhile story for the
Even if a scam
happened rarely, the fact that it could happen and that all sorts of people
might be vulnerable meant there was value to informing the public.
A simple but
ingenious variation on this type of scam was featured on an early episode of The
Real Hustle where we sent an unexpected prize to our potential marks: a
night out on the West End with a meal and tickets to a show.
When they came
home from their night on the town, their house had been emptied of everything
This scam has
certainly happened and could happen to anyone if the thieves are willing to
case their target and invest in a couple of restaurant vouchers plus cheap
tickets to a show.
is that the bag scam needs an unlikely sequence of events to create a random
opportunity, while the fake prize swindle engineers a guaranteed sequence of
events to fool the mark and create perfect conditions to rob them blind.
The Vegas Hotel Room Scam
ago, while speaking at a corporate event in Las Vegas, I heard of a scam that
had targeted someone in the past.
breakfast, a hotel employee approached a guest by name and asked if he had his
hotel room key. The employee examined the key and returned it but later, the
guest found his room had been robbed.
was that the bogus employee had heard the victim’s room number when being
seated for breakfast and switched the key under the guise of checking he was a
this is an interesting scenario but the risk of being caught is enormous in
such a hotel where cameras are everywhere and any thief could easily be caught
in the act or their actions quickly be retraced.
I can accept that it might have happened once but when I was told this story it had already become a sort of urban legend within that company and anyone who heard it was on guard for something that is less likely than winning keno.
Much like the
stolen handbag, this is a one-off opportunist scam at best.
this: At a corporate event some years ago we set up a competition where
attendees could swipe their room keys, enter their names and room numbers to
potentially win a prize.
deception collected the magnetic strip information containing dozens of key
codes along with corresponding room numbers AND the names of everyone who fell
Is this likely to happen at your next corporate event? No (unless I am booked to be speaking about deception), but it illustrates the real problem of protecting vulnerable data or property and knowing when circumstances expose you to potential theft.