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Wednesday, May 27, 2015


 I’m always interested to learn about occupations as you never know when a character may materialize. Throw in money, scams and Florida, and you have a very interesting story.
Recently, I attended a meeting of the local Mystery Writers to listen to author, private investigator and a former federal probation officer Rory J. McMahon speak on financial fraud. He served on the Special Offender Unit that supervised special career criminal offenders on probation. Among those criminals Mr. McMahon kept tabs on was a man he considered to be the grandfather of the advanced fee scheme and the mastermind of a legendary con detailed in the 1973 book ‘Fountain Pen Conspiracy’.  

After noting that Fort Lauderdale remains the ‘Con Man’s Capital’, McMahon discussed offshore banking schemes and the legendary Bank of Sark (that was actually set up on the Island of Guernsey).  Now one wouldn’t think a 3 mile long island off the coast of England with a population of six hundred people would figure in a $100 million+ rip-off of banks and companies around the world, but then again a ring of high school friends from St. Louis in the late 1960’s managed to pull off it off for a number of years.   

The con? The men rented a  third floor room above a hairdresser shop and set up a desk with a phone, a fax machine and a lot of expensive stationary.  There the fraudsters sold forged letters of credit to other con men along with Certificates of Deposit or loan certificates to banks and companies, all based on a certified but very false balance statement reflecting bank assets of $172 million.
Mr. McMahon also discussed other advanced fee schemes. While there are scads of variations of the con, at the core is a scam where money is given for services the promoter has no attention of providing. Ever get an email where the sender is looking to send his money to U.S. but needs the recipient to fork up a small sum in good faith? That’s an advance fee scam.

Another example happened several years ago in Florida when the legal community was rocked by a scam that entailed selling investors on settlements that were in the works with a guaranteed rate of return.

My takeaway was the common trait among most of the infamous swindlers is they are charmers. However, the good ones are also pragmatic. The mastermind of the Bank of Sark purportedly used one P.O. Box for his numerous, simultaneous cons for why have many boxes when want one will do just as well. The fraudsters also watch their start-up costs. The Bank of Sark’s initial outlay was a third-floor room, a phone, a fax, an accountant paid off to certify the bank’s assets and first-rate stationary.
For a federal probation officer, I’d venture to say a healthy dose of skepticism and a ‘no nonsense’ attitude are useful traits for the character. When he learned of the death of the infamous scam artist in South Florida in the early 2000’s, Mr. McMahon wanted to see the body.  Since he didn’t get to see it, he was willing to bet the con artist is actually still alive, on an island somewhere, running scams over the telephone.
What interesting careers/jobs have you learned about recently?

J Carol Stephenson

***These notes are my own recollection/interpretation of the presentation and any errors are mine.**




Anne Marie Becker said...

I'm fascinated by con artists and their scams. (And when you mentioned Guernsey, I immediately thought of a book I read for book club - The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I remember really liking that book, though it had nothing to do with cons (that I remember). LOL Now I want to go back and watch the Sting and other con-type movies. I think what fascinates me most is the psychological element to a con. You have to convince people you're legit, and people have to want to buy in. These charmers know how to manipulate!

Rita said...

I've learned if you can think it, it can be. I've met a few small time con guys. What gets me is their ability to find people who can be easily taken in. Recently here abouts there was a guy telling everyone he was a war hero. What a putz. He was mixing up battles and wars. The only way he could have been in the Korean War was if he went as a boy scout. But for months he got away with it. Mostly with women. Like you said a charmer.

jean harrington said...

I enjoyed this post especially this passage: "When he learned of the death of the infamous scam artist in South Florida in the early 2000’s, Mr. McMahon wanted to see the body. Since he didn’t get to see it, he was willing to bet the con artist is actually still alive, on an island somewhere, running scams over the telephone."

Way to go! Never let down your suspicion. Especially not if you write mystery/crime/thriller fiction.

jean harrington said...

Oh, and BTW, Anne Marie you mention The Sting. One of my all time favorite movies. When I saw it, at the end, the theatre audience broke into applause. The hook at the end was that good. The entire audience was conned, and they acknowledged it by clapping. Now is that fine writing, or is that fine writing?

Sandy Parks said...

Fascinating, love the stories. I have a continuing character who is a con man so enjoyed this.

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