When a nondescript, mousy guest named Tim Heidingsfelder, checked into our hotel, he did not fall prey to the need to draw attention to himself. He knew that cardinal rule of fraud. He had an sizable advantage on most fraudsters though. His characteristics didn’t draw attention, and he wasn’t particularly charismatic. Tim Heidingsfelder had the type of characteristics that most fraudsters could only dream of having, in that he could get lost in just about any sea of faces. No one noticed Tim Heidingsfelder when he checked into our hotel, but the attractive, young women at the front desk didn’t notice him either.
Tim Heidingsfelder probably regarded his unremarkable characteristics as a curse for much of his life. He was never ugly, even during puberty. He never had acne, freckles, or any blemishes on his face, but his bone structure just wasn’t very attractive. He had no chin, no discernible cheekbones, and his eyes were relatively common. As he grew into a man, he found his dating opportunities somewhat limited. They weren’t non-existent, but the rejections he received in high school helped shape the man Tim Heidingsfelder would become.
When Tim Heidingsfelder decided to commit his first act of fraud, however, he found his unremarkable characteristics ideal. As a fraudster who planned to live the high life and buy the most expensive items he could with other people’s money, he didn’t want people to notice him. He didn’t want people to remember or recall his features.
Those of us who worked in a hotel never noticed that how it provides the perfect climate for anyone seeking anonymity. Most hotel employees offer every guest a hearty, “Hello!” when they check into their hotel. The better ones might even strike up a casual, fun conversation with the guest, “Hey, you’re from Michigan? Go Blue!” The best hotel employees do whatever they have to do to make that guest feel welcome and special. Yet, if those Michiganders ran into that friendly employee, hours later, even the best hotel employees probably wouldn’t remember them. The average hotel employee sees so many faces in one day that most guests get lost in a sea of faces. Unless guests make themselves known, and this requires some effort on their part, most hotel employees wouldn’t be able to pick them out of a police lineup.
Tim Heidingsfelder wasn’t an outgoing type, but from what I heard, he wasn’t a quiet, loner either. (I only had one interaction with him, as I’ll detail below.) No one noticed Tim Heidingsfelder in the course of that day, and his daily routine allowed him to remain as anonymous as every other guest in our hotel. Throughout his elongated stay, however, Tim Heidingsfelder couldn’t help noticing how attractive the young women working behind the front desk were every time he passed.
It’s all about the money, is the first cardinal rule of fraudsters, and those who attempt to try to catch them. A fraudster needs to keep their crimes small and unremarkable, so they don’t hit the queues of investigatory agents. As most fraud investigators will tell us this might seem relatively easy, but it’s much harder to fight off greed. The second cardinal rule for fraudsters, based in part on the first one, is don’t bring unwanted attention to oneself. For Tim Heidingsfelder, and his unremarkable features, this was the relatively easy rule to manage. The man could slide in and out of just about any room unnoticed. Yet, when a late 40’s/early 50’s man stands face to face with an extremely attractive young woman, and that young woman looks through him, but doesn’t see him, it can cause such a man to do things he wouldn’t otherwise do.
The traveling businessman is the bread and butter of most hotels. Depending on the needs of their business, some businessmen can stay at a hotel 100 days a year. “First of all, you can forget the idea of having a family,” a traveling businessman informed me one day as we discussed the plusses and minuses of his profession. “Why?” he asked, repeating my question. “What kind of child would I raise being on the road an average of 100 days a year. What kind of marriage would I have? The life of a traveling businessman has its perks of course, but those of us who have done it for any length of time know it’s a lonely, sometimes grueling lifestyle.” I witnessed the effects this lifestyle could have on a person secondhand, and I saw them gather at the front desk to have conversations with front desk employees just to have a few normal, non-business conversations in a day. I also noticed most of them centered their focus on the attractive women behind the front desk. It dawned on me, after the traveling businessman told me about the pratfalls of the profession that making an attractive young woman laugh could provide them a respite from their empty, relatively meaningless existence.
Tim Heidingsfelder was not a traveling businessman, but he was apparently as lonely as they were, and this otherwise unmemorable man needed to try to make one of these young women behind the front desk laugh. Based solely on his appearance, we later guessed that Tim Heidingsfelder probably had few opportunities in life to do so.
When he stopped by the front desk for whatever reason he dreamed up, Tim didn’t just stop to say hello, he didn’t just pick up a fax, or engage in the various business-related conversations that occur between hotel employees and guests. Tim Heidingsfelder stopped to chat. He stopped to shoot the stuff with some of these attractive, young women. He stopped to get to know them, so they could know him.
The best looking young employee at the front desk also happened to be the friendliest. Cheri Lee was so attractive and so skilled at engaging in short, friendly conversations with guests that she quickly became a favorite among the hotel’s businessmen and long-term guests. It took some of us naively entering into these conversations, to do our job and add to the guest’s enjoyment, only to be whisked aside by them, to realize they didn’t stop to chat. They stopped to chat with Cheri Lee. After a few of these chats, Tim Heidingsfelder asked the other front desk employees where Cheri was one day. When they told him that she had the day off, he was visibly disappointed.
As with most of the lonely, traveling businessmen who stayed at our hotel, Tim Heidingsfelder found Cheri delightful, and it probably excited him when he made her laugh. He probably didn’t fully acknowledge that the hotel paid her and everyone else on staff, to laugh at guests’ jokes. Some of the guests we talked to on a daily basis were genuinely funny. Some of the times, we laughed politely to fill the void after their punchlines, and some of the times, we laughed because it was good customer service to let guests think they were funny. Cheri had a gift for making all of her laughs sound the same. Tim Heidingsfelder enjoyed this so much that he pursued their professional relationship to its fullest extent. He probably didn’t have designs on her romantically, but after a couple of conversations with Cheri, he did everything he could to leave an impression on her.
“I’m a writer for The Simpsons,” Tim told her. “The Simpsons creators sent me to your city to scout it as a probable location for a future episode.” Was this lie something he dreamed up before he made the hotel reservation? Did he scheme it out beforehand with an algorithm of answers should anyone question him, or did he develop it for the sole purpose of impressing Cheri? How many lies did he think up before he landed on this one? Did he nix some, because they weren’t impressive enough? Did he nix others, because they were too grandiose and subject to fact-checking. We don’t know, but we think he locked in on The Simpsons’, Goldilocks lie, because it didn’t violate any of the imposed or self-imposed cardinal rules. Yet, this seemingly harmless lie would eventually prove to be a depth charge that once detonated would expose all of his plans.
Tim Heidingsfelder did accomplish his initial and shortsighted goal of impressing Cheri however. When I arrived at work the next day, Cheri was all a twitter about it. “Did you know we have a celebrity in the hotel today?” she said artfully spooling out the scoop she had. “I know you’re a fan of The Simpsons, and I know you’re a writer,” she told me. “Well, we just happen to have a guest who is a both a writer and a writer for that show.”
“Seriously?” I asked.
“His name is Tim Heidingsfelder,” Cheri said. She told me that he was at the hotel on an elongated stay to scout our city as a probable location for a future episode.
“You’re kidding me?” I said. “That is so cool.” I thought about how cool it might be to meet him. I thought about how cool it would be to see our city depicted in the cartoon, and I thought about how cool it would be to talk to a paid writer to learn from his path to success.
When I finally met Tim Heidingsfelder days later, he didn’t look like a writer, but what does a writer look like? Do they all look like James Joyce, professorial and bespectacled with patches on their elbows? Tim Heidingsfelder didn’t look that way, but either did Ernest Hemingway. I was not the least bit suspicious in other words. I talked with Tim Heidingsfelder with a co-worker standing over my shoulder listening. He unsuccessfully hid his laughter while two writer nerds talked craft.
“This is just so cool meeting you,” I said, “and I love what you plan on doing for our fair city.” The man was cordial and apparently as impressed with me as I was with him. Throughout our introductory conversation, I told him that I was a writer and a huge fan of The Simpsons. “As a writer, I always pay attention to the credits that list the writers of the show,” I said proudly, “and I don’t remember ever seeing your name.
“Well,” Tim said. “You probably pay attention to the opening credits. Right? Yeah, I’m what you call an uncredited writer. I have yet to have one of my episodes aired,” he said with some chagrin.
“Shows, like The Simpsons,” he furthered, “have a number of staff writers, and most of us have never had one of our episodes picked up.” That was a great answer, because I read and watched a number of “behind the scenes” and “the making of …” stories about my favorite TV shows. I knew about writers’ rooms and head writers, and it wasn’t much of a leap for me to believe that most writers on staff don’t receive accreditation. I figured that if I really wanted to find his name, I could look at the long list of names that appear at the end of the show. I never did. I was never that interested or suspicious.
While Tim and I talked about the craft of writing, I could tell he wasn’t as into our conversation as I was. I figured that was the natural order of things. I figured he was one of the lucky few that someone paid to write, and I wasn’t. I also figured that by the time I met him, he had been a paid writer for so long that it was no longer special to him. Tim Heidingsfelder gave me no reason, at this point in our conversation, to suspect that he was anything less, or anything more than a writer for The Simpsons.
At one point in our conversation, I feared that I was playing the role of the fan, an annoying, uninformed and pathetic fan. I thought my end of the conversation was mundane, in other words, and I searched for a way to impress this man. I wanted a knockout blow. I wanted some little nugget of information that would prove I wasn’t just a fan to him. I don’t know what I hoped to see this man do, raise an eyebrow, smile an appreciative smile, or what, but I didn’t think my question would gain me anything. I just wanted to make an impression.
I searched for that knockout blow while asking him other insignificant questions, such as what he thought was the best joke he submitted, and he said, “Oh, there have been so many. It’s hard to pick one.” I asked him what it was like to be in a writing room, and I thought of a couple other nerdy, fanboy questions, but I couldn’t come up with that one big question that would blow him away. After a few more exchanges, hit me.
What I didn’t know at the time was that I was holding onto a question that would accidentally reveal Tim Heidingsfelder’s harmless lie for what it was and eventually his legacy of fraud. The moment after it dawned on me, I couldn’t wait to ask it, as Tim continued to answer my previous question in a congenial manner. The moment he finished, I launched into what I considered a knockout question that I thought might lead to one of those curious/impressed smiles that allowed him to launch into a discussion of his memories of the years he spent writing next to Conan O’Brien.
I don’t remember what he said, or if he decided to leave it blank, but I remember he began backing away to the elevator. That should’ve raised a red flag, but it didn’t. I didn’t think there was anything suspicious about that at the time. He was a guest at our hotel, and he had to take the elevator to get to his room. I thought he was signaling that his interest in our conversation was beginning to wane, or he had to get back to his room for a phone call or what have you. This happened on a daily basis at our hotel. With the benefit of hindsight, I now remember how uncomfortable that question made him. I remember his face turned three sheets of red in the aftermath of that question, but it meant little to nothing to me at the time.
My co-worker, who had been listening to this conversation throughout, noted the uncomfortable silence between Tim and I following that question and he capitalized on the moment to embarrass me.
“Conan O’Brien? He’s a talk show host, on another network,” my co-worker said. “What do you think all Hollywood people know each other?” He began laughing at me. He thoroughly enjoyed the moment. Tim Heidingsfelder joined in on that laughter, in a good-natured way.
“No,” I said looking Tim in the eye, seeking to have him join me in informing my irritant friend of Conan’s early days. “Not many people know this, but Conan used to be a writer for The Simpsons.” This might be common knowledge now, but in the nascent days of Conan’s talk show, it was knowledge only fans of both parties had.
Unbeknownst to either of us, this innocent question spelled out a cautionary tale for all fraudsters and potential fraudsters. A fraudster might think they’ve worked hard to prepare themselves for every scenario. They might think they’ve built a mental algorithm to prepare for any scenarios that might come their way. They might even sit down and write out an algorithm out to prepare for anything and everything that might expose them. As even the most gifted fraudsters will probably tell anyone who’s interested, a fraudster cannot prepare for every situation. “You just have to learn to roll with the punches, but if there’s one thing you take from our discussion today let it be this, don’t create your own situations to unwind. Don’t create your own spider webs.”
Tim Heidingsfelder could’ve said something as simple as, “No, Conan O’Brien and I never worked together,” or “No, we never crossed paths.” He could’ve said something simple as, “I don’t know what years he worked on the show, but I never had the opportunity to work with him.” It wouldn’t have taken much to throw me off a trail I wasn’t on in other words. I thought I was in the vulnerable position, trying to impress a man I never met before. If he characterized my question as one coming from a nerdy, fan boy, I would’ve slinked off with my tail between my legs, but he didn’t know enough about The Simpsons, or his lie, to throw me off a trail I wasn’t on. Knowing everything I know now, this would’ve been a perfect place for The Simpson’s character Nelson Muntz to say, “Haw Haw!” as Tim Heidingsfelder all but sprinted to the elevators.
Most fraudsters are smooth talkers, and we think that a late 40’s/early 50’s fraudster should know when to push and when to pull out of a conversation. We think that every fraudster, but particularly a seasoned fraudster should know how important it is to say something, some of the times. Some of the times, we have to fill the blank before others do. Some of the times, it’s just as important to leave the blank alone, to allow the other party, or parties, to fill in the blank for them, as my co-worker did when he attempted to portray me as a Simpson’s nerd who knew more about the show than the actual writer.
Fraudsters learn how to fool people at a very young age. Deceiving the people who know and loved them most is excellent training. Salesmen learn such things in training classes. Trainers tell trainees to try to sell the product to their intimate friends and family first. “Not only are they great potential customers,” trainers say, “but the interaction allows you to work on your sales pitch.” Fraudsters follow the same methodology, as they try to see if they can fool their good friends, their aunt Gladys, or their own mother first. Doing this, is a way to practice the art of deception to see if they have any talent for it.
As a former liar, I often wonder what separates those who lied, stole and deceived in their preteen years and those who continue to do so well into their adult years. Lying, stealing and deceiving those who loved me most almost felt like a rite of passage in my early teen years, but I hated it when they caught me in an act of deception. The embarrassment and shame that followed proved almost physically painful to me. No one trusted me. They called me a liar and a thief, and the only way I found to avoid that was to stop lying and stealing. It sounds so simple, and it is, but some people enjoy deceiving people so much that they keep doing it. Perhaps I’m approaching this from an autobiographical stance, but I believe that the mentality of caring what happens when friends and family catch us in a lie provides something of a dividing line between those who will pursue a life of deception to whatever ends and those who will use whatever abilities they unearth along the way for honest gains.
Everyone who lies, steals, and attempts to deceive people in all the ways they dream up are not going to be good at it in the beginning. They’re going to get caught, and what they do in those moments will define them. Fraudsters don’t want anyone to catch them, of course, and they don’t want to go through the embarrassment and shame of their acts, but if they don’t find a way to deal with the shame, it will impede their progress. It seems to me that a fraudster needs to develop some sort of mechanism that permits them to avoid caring about what their loved ones think of them, and once they clear that hurdle, they will feel free to lie and steal from total strangers. The proficient fraudster will combine that lack of concern with some effort put into covering their trail. No matter how prepared the fraudster is, no matter how smooth they are at fooling their mother, their aunts, and all the men in their life, a situation for which they are unprepared will find them.
Those who discover they have some talent for deception, but find that can’t go on knowing what others might think of them, use whatever talent they have in ways that are more productive. They might use that knowledge or talent to catch other fraudsters and liars for law enforcement, or they might go to work for a fraud department in a fortune 500 company. They might even become magicians, actors, or writers. These three crafts call for a mutually agreed upon level of lying and deception. Those who cannot find a way to channel their gifts productively continue to deceive people, and they find that like a great wine, or a great bottle of scotch, they get better with age.
The man who called himself Tim Heidingsfelder engaged in larger acts of fraud, and he was probably well prepared to defend himself on that front, but he failed to do his homework on his otherwise harmless lie to impress Cheri. Who would? We could say that what a fraudster does in that moment for which they are unprepared defines them, but who would think that a simple lie about writing for The Simpsons to impress a girl might start unraveling a complicated yarn of deception they’ve worked years to build?
The only thing I knew in the aftermath of my interaction with Tim Heidingsfelder was that the man was not sufficiently impressed with my knowledge of The Simpsons that day in the foyer of the hotel. I didn’t think about it too much, until I began seeing him in the foyer of the hotel. I had numerous opportunities to correct the record, but this man constantly ducked me. I didn’t think he heard me a couple times, and I didn’t think he saw me a couple others. Over time, a troubling pattern began to emerge, until I found his evasion somewhat noteworthy.
“Why does he always do that?” I asked Brian, the front desk manager at the hotel. Just prior to that question, Brian was speaking with Tim Heidingsfelder. The moment Tim spotted me coming to the front desk he moved the elevators.
“Because you’re a nerdy fanboy, and no one wants to talk to nerdy fanboys,” Brian said. That was a great answer, as Brian unknowingly put the onus back on me.
“Ok, but I thought he and I had a great conversation a while back,” I said. “I was beyond polite to the man, and I think he would enjoy talking about how jealous I am of him, but every time I walk into the room, he runs away.”
“Well I know you pretty well,” Brian asked, “and if I saw you coming, I’d walk away too.”
“I’m serious here,” I said.
“You think it’s suspicious?”
“It’s odd,” I said. “That’s all I’m saying. It’s odd.”
“Does everyone have to love you?” Brian said. “Maybe he just doesn’t enjoy talking to you.”
“Fair enough,” I said, “but you know me, I’m not the type who has to be involved in every conversation. As you said, I’m kind of a quiet guy, and when I walked up to this desk tonight, I had no plans of saying anything. I was just going to stand here and let you two talk. If I was rude, or an overbearing person, perhaps I could see it, but this guy jets like I have a communicable disease any time I enter the room?”
Brian did not begin investigating Tim Heidingsfelder that night, but Brian did not view the man with the least bit of suspicion before our conversation, and soon thereafter, he began spotting some unsual dots that he thought might lead to come connections. I might have initiated some suspicion, in other words, but Brian did all of the investigative work. He dotted the I’s and crossed the T’s to find Tim Heidingsfelder’s alleged criminal activity. Brian examined the credit card history on Tim Heidingsfelder’s account history, and he found that Tim Heidingsfelder switched credit cards a number of times. That, in and of itself, was no reason to call in the cavalry. Guests, particularly business travelers, regularly put a number of business cards on their account. At times, and for a variety of reasons, those cards max out. This is particularly the case with extended stays such as Tim Heidingsfelder’s. The company furnishes their business travelers with a number of cards, and some of the times businessmen puts their personal cards on the account and the company reimburses him. Long story short, a guest switching cards in the middle of a stay is no reason to investigate on their account. When Brian analyzed Tim Heidingsfelder’s account, however, he found that a number of the previous credit cards placed on his account were declared stolen.
When I saw Tim Heidingsfelder sitting in Brian’s office, I knew he wasn’t there to discuss his stay at the hotel. His face was three sheets of red again. Brian caught him. Seeing those three sheets of red, I recalled the look Tim gave me after my Conan O’Brien question.
The local police soon followed and frog marched Tim off in handcuffs, and I sensed the script flip from a Simpson’s episode to one of Scooby Doo as I watched the police walk him off in handcuffs. I waited for a “And I would’ve gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for you, the meddling fanboy” exit, but it never arrived.
The police later informed us that Tim Heidingsfelder was a pseudonym he used, and they managed to find his real name. They informed us that two other states wanted him on credit card fraud.
How many of us have had the best laid plans, only to fall prey to some human need for interaction, to have someone, somewhere impressed by us? Tim Heidingsfelder probably could’ve engaged in fraudulent activity for years, perhaps decades, if he continued to cross his T’s and dot his I’s, but he fell prey to the desire, some might say need, to have someone notice him for an average of two minutes a day. The line on Tim Heidingsfelder is that he stole tens of thousands of dollars from unsuspecting victims, but that could’ve been nothing more than a good start for the man. He could’ve increased that total exponentially. He could’ve destroyed people, and left true carnage in his wake, if he could’ve just managed to control his need for human contact a little better.