I’ve made the crime pages! Whoo-hoo!
… but wait a minute… I’m a middle-aged gringo!
… and I’m connected with this absolutely brilliant crime caper… in which the crook, with the healthy assistance of the State Department’s “Tourist Warnings” manages to keep the urban legend of taxi-driver robbers alive and well… and profit from the same.
In a recent post to a traveler’s internet discussion group on Mexico, a contributor named Cole recounted a tale that rang familiar with a number of other readers.
He said that he and his friend had been in Mexico City shortly after Christmas when they were approached by a tall, well-dressed, middle-aged American man near the Alameda Park. The man, who identified himself as a lawyer from the Price Waterhouse Coopers accounting firm, said that he was in town on business and had just been robbed of all his belongings by a taxi driver. And he wondered if Cole and his friend might be willing to lend him a hand.
After appearing to call his wife and child back in New York, the man, who identified himself by the name of David Weinstein, articulated his request: he wanted the two travelers to loan him US1,500 for his return flight to New York later that day. He would pay them back immediately upon arriving home, he assured.
“We agreed because his ‘line up’ until this point was so good,” said Cole. “He was so smooth that when he called his ‘wife’ collect, he greeted his ‘son’ and asked him to get his mother on the phone.”
But just as the two friends were about to hand over the money, Cole began to feel uneasy. He suggested that they accompany Weinstein to the airport and buy the ticket for him, and then the man himself started to appear flustered.
“If it wasn’t clear earlier, it was obvious at this point that he was a shady character,” said Cole. “My friend and I left him with our money, thankfully as soon as possible.”
They had made a wise decision. The man the two travelers had met matched both the physical description and the modus operandi of the legendary “Mexico City scammer,” a con artist who has taken on the proportions of an urban legend in the capital in recent years. Like the killer hiding in the back seat of a car or the alligator living in a city’s sewer system, his is a tale that reappears with regularity and conviction. But the volume of first-hand testimonials, the consistency of detail in reported encounters, and a widespread reputation suggest that the scammer is more fact than fiction.
Cole’s discussion group post sparked a flurry of corroborating accounts. One contributor named Anthony described how in December of 2002, he too had met a reputed Price Waterhouse Coopers lawyer who claimed to have just been victimized by a taxi robbery. He was hoping that Anthony might loan him money for a flight back to New York.
In this case, the scammer had added an especially tear-jerking element to his con: if he couldn’t fly back home that day, he said, he would have to miss his son’s football game the following morning. Luckily for Anthony, he didn’t fall for it and left the man alone.
Richard Grabman, a resident of Mexico City, says that he has been hearing tales of the scammer for several years now, both on the bulletin boards and in person. “I had to translate once for a slightly distraught German tourist trying to tell his story to one of the charro cops (the cowboy-outfitted officers who patrol the Alameda on horseback),” he says. “And I’ve heard other people tell about the same guy. But I don’t think this is a particularly new scam; the only twist is that the guy uses the perception of Mexico City as a place full of criminals to make his tale more plausible.”
A SMOOTH OPERATOR
He also seems to have a particular gift for storytelling that makes him effective even with the most experienced travelers.
“This guy was so smooth!” said one anonymous near-victim. “I am the most cynical and untrusting person of all time, but I can easily see how anyone with even an ounce of compassion would fall for his elaborate story.”
The scammer is so consistent in his story that any particular detail of his profile is likely to spark a response of “Yes, I met that guy once!” or, “Oh my God, I think my friend got conned by him two years back!” from members of Mexico City’s ex-pat community. The same is true for members of the city’s tourist information crew.
For Lesley Ordoñez, a staffer at the information module near the Templo Mayor, it is the Price Waterhouse Coopers name that triggers a response.
“Yes, now I know who you’re talking about!” she exclaims. “I met him when I was working at the tourist module in the Zona Rosa, and he gave me a business card with that name on it. He was very friendly and very talkative. He had these long, detailed stories. But there was something about him that seemed kind of weird.”
At the Price Waterhouse Coopers office in New York, however, there is no familiar response to either the scammer’s name or his exploits. According to David Nestor, the company’s director of public relations, no one by the name of David Weinstein has ever worked for the firm. And he says that their General Council’s office the logical place for a complaint to be referred has not been contacted by anyone alleging to have been victimized by a company employee in Mexico City.
At the tourist module at the Catedral Metropolitan, Alejandra Luna recalls hearing about the scammer when she was working in the Zona Rosa three years ago. But Luna expresses surprise to hear that the man is still in operation. She says she recalls hearing of an incident where he tried to con the same tourist for a second time or perhaps it was that he tried to scam a tourist while a previous victim was within earshot. Regardless, she says, the end result of the story was that he got roughed up a bit.
It would appear that getting roughed up by a reluctant victim is really the only punishment the scammer has to fear. Officer Laura Herrera at the municipal police outpost across from the Alameda says that her agency would have little interest in pursuing a case like this. “If people are willfully depositing money into his account and not getting it back, well, that’s more of an act of bad faith,” she says. “Really, we’ve got our hands full with other more blatant crimes.”
So with little chance of the local police chasing him down, expect the legend of the middle-aged lawyer from New York who has just been assaulted by a taxi driver to continue to grow. And if you happen to cross his path, or the path of someone with a similar story, keep your wallet tucked away and remind the person that consulates exist for just their very situation.