Selling bricks

Angus has a hard time believing that this scam really worked:

German police said on Monday that they have arrested one of two British men suspected of selling bags that they said held laptops and mobile phones but which in reality contained potatoes.

Authorities believe the pair tricked around 40 people in two German states driving around in a car with British number plates, convincing them to hand over cash for the electronic hardware but giving them spuds instead.

It does seem implausible, doesn’t it? My guess is that the reporter is leaving out a few details and that there were at least some phones or phone-like objects at the top of the bags to make them look real. This is a variation on the classic “selling bricks” scam. Magician and self-described former con man Simon Lovell explains the method and psychology that make it work:

Have you ever been stuck in traffic and seen a guy, carrying a box, walking through the cars? Have you ever seen him offer the contents to somebody and walk away with cash? If you have then you’ve seen somebody buy a brick.

The box is one for a top of the line video camera. A cursory look inside the box lets you see the camera. Well, you see the plastic and polystyrene around a camera shape, but you can see the lens and a few controls visible through the holes the manufacturer strategically places in the packaging to entice you to buy it in its more normal habitat of a store.

The price the guy is offering it for is less than a third of the retail price. Obviously it’s stolen but, what the hell, a bargain is a bargain isn’t it?

If you buy it, you larcenous little devil, you deserve the punishment. You bought a lens and a few cheap controls positioned around a brick to give the package weight. This scam is also done with video machines, CD players, televisions, and, in fact, just about anything that comes in a box.

When he offers it to you, you have only a few moments to make up your mind. The traffic will be moving in just a second and you don’t have time to examine the product. It’s a take it now or lose it forever deal. Enough people take it to make this quite a profitable little trade when the con man has nothing else to do for fun.

That’s from Simon’s informative and entertaining book How to Cheat at Everything. Originally published in the small-run, expensive magicians’ press, it’s made the leap to mass market paperback and covers in detail everything from bar bets and carny games to high-stakes card cheating. Highly recommended if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

If you’re in New York City you can also catch Simon’s live show at the Huron Club, where he demonstrates his cheating skills and off the wall sense of humor.

Comments

  1. Barzelay says:

    I love scams like this. Were it not for the guilt, I would absolutely love to scam people all day for a living. Don’t misunderstand: I would feel terrible if I ever actually did something like this. But figuring out how to do it, the exhilaration, convincing people to buy it–all of that would be so much fun.

  2. Jerry Brito says:

    Reminds me of “buying a pig in a poke,” which means buying something sight unseen. The expression dates to the Late Middle Ages where a common confidence trick was to offer a suckling pig in a bag that would later turn out to be nothing more than a cat. Savvy shoppers would make sure to inspect the goods before handing over their cash, giving us another proverb: letting the cat out of the bag.

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