The Depravity of the Distressed Stranger

Early Sunday morning, around 1:30AM, my doorbell rang. I was working on a few projects, and was still up. I opened the door to an apologetic man who introduced himself as my neighbor, 4 houses down from mine. He was about 6 feet tall, clean-shaven, and wearing blue jeans and a black leather jacket. He smelled like alcohol and was functional but intoxicated, and he admitted as much. He explained that he was a lawyer and just got home from his holiday party, and that after entering his apartment, he stepped back outside and inadvertently locked himself outside. Upon seeing my light on he figured someone was up, and was hoping that I could help him get ahold of a locksmith.

I grabbed my phone and dialed a few nearby locksmiths for him, but we had no luck at that hour. We took a walk down to his place and examined the lock, hoping we could conjure up a solution. His unit is on the second floor and his window was unlocked. He asked if I had a ladder, which I did. I went to my garage to grab it, but realized it would be far too short to reach the second story window. Complicating matters, it was raining, and he was drunk, and ladders should be operated in neither condition.

But oh! He’d remembered that his girlfriend, a registered nurse who was at work had a spare set! He called her 3 times on my phone, and it upon ringing would immediately prompt him to leave a message. Cell phones famously can potentially cause electromagnetic interference in medical devices, such as ventilators or blood pressure monitors, so it wasn’t surprising that an on-duty nurse would have her phone off.

After 30 minutes of effort, we had gotten nowhere. Dejected, he sheepishly asked me I could lend him 40 dollars for cab fare to get to and from the hospital. He promised to drop it in my mailbox the next morning, plus 50 extra bucks for my trouble. I declined letting him compensate me for my time, and I gave him 40 dollars. It was cold, it was raining, and we had exhausted our options. This is what neighbors are for. He thanked me, told me I was such a great neighbor, and gave me an unwelcome hug.

I wished him luck and watched him walk away. It was in this moment and no sooner that I felt uneasy for the first time. I suddenly realized that I just gave a man $40 cash, with no collateral. I knew his name, Sean, but couldn’t remember his last name. My only priority over the last 30 minutes had been helping this man. In my deep conviction of this man’s plight, I had glossed over details.

But now, no longer blind from compassion, I began to question.

-Why did he need 40 dollars for cab fare? That seemed like a lot, but maybe the hospital his girlfriend works at isn’t close, and he wanted to err on the side of caution.

-Why have I never seen him? I admittedly don’t know many of my neighbors, I reasoned. Plus, I’ve been told numerous times that I have poor facial recognition skills.

I walked down to his apartment and looked at his mailbox. No Sean. Both units appeared occupied by a family with the last name of Lopez. My uneasiness was beginning to transform into a deep, guttural nausea. After a few minutes of searching public records, there it was. That building was purchased for $31,000 in 1981 by its current inhabitant, Leo Lopez and his family. Incidentally, this was a fantastic investment for Mr. Lopez.

Being the victim of a con hurts. It makes you feel stupid and naïve, unable to see what is now so obvious to you. It makes you feel vulnerable, and for a brief period I felt unsafe in my own home. For the first time in my life, I slept with a knife beside my bed. Not that I think I could ever bring myself to stab another man, but my mind had been hacked and I’d lost my bearings.

Certain cons, such as the Nigerian Prince scam, prey on greed. Their victims are baited by the lure of getting something for nothing. They are, of course, still victims. The more troubling cons though are engineered to exploit that which is virtuous in its victims. Generosity. Compassion. I later learned that there are a whole class of cons of this nature, commonly called “distressed stranger” cons.

Oddly, upon realizing I had been had, I didn’t experience anger. I didn’t lose any sleep over $40 dollars; I was kept awake by sadness. Considering the depravity of a man who is willing spend a half an hour of a stranger’s goodwill to take him to the tune of $40 is depressing. His presentation was choreographed and premeditated. He watched each of my planned, failed attempts to help, as I slowly navigated my way through his itinerary. Surely this was not his first go, and to his credit, he was masterful. His craft earned him 80 dollars an hour, which is not bad money. But this line of work is clearly not for a man who is saving for his retirement. The need to generate 40 dollars quickly and dishonestly seems like an obvious marker a variety of deeper problems. A small part of me hopes he was swindling to support a habit. At least in this scenario, I can believe that his mind was altered in a way that makes him not himself, instead of his true nature actually being that of a depraved, dissolute predator. In this scenario, I can imagine him someday showing up at my door again, but this time having reached step 8. And this thought is less sad.



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