“Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we start to deceive,” Walter Scott.
‘It’s not as difficult as some believe to deceive,’ law enforcement officials and other fraud investigators will tell us. If a fraudster wants to commit a random, small, and manageable act of fraud and walk away with a nominal amount of money, chances are they’ll probably get away with it. The thrill of the chase is often too much, and the financial rewards are too great for most fraudsters to walk away from one simple and manageable act of deception. They want more, and they don’t care who they have to hurt or what they have to do to get it. Therefore, if law enforcement officials are unable to crack their relatively simple and small act of deception, the law enforcement official often sits back and wait for the nature of the beast to take hold.
Most acts of fraud involve cat and mouse techniques that allow fraudsters to make up the game plan as they go along. A fraudster has to be quick on their feet, they have to know when to push and when to pull, and they have to prepare for various missteps along the way. There are no step-by-step rules to committing acts of fraud, and this might be what attracts some to the lifestyle. Check that, there is one rule, the cardinal rule all fraudsters should know if they going to attempt to deceive. Don’t create your own entanglements, and to do whatever they to avoid bringing any attention to themselves.
“But it’s human nature to call attention to ourselves,” we say. “Some of the more honest, dishonest people might even say that the whole reason they started deceiving people in the first place was to garner some attention from a parent, an authority figure, and everyone who told them they would never succeed in life.”
“Fair enough,” they reply, “but anyone who wants to get away with stealing other people’s money needs to keep a profile so low that it might be considered unnatural in that frame.”
It’s all about the money for fraud investigators and law enforcement officials. It’s the trick question their trainers ask them in training class. “Which type of case do we want to pursue?” they ask.
Trainees might answer online, offline, bank fraud, or credit card fraud.
“Wrong,” the trainer says. “It’s all about the money. Every one of your answers is right and wrong at the same time. The answer is not one form of fraud. It’s all about how much money can you save for the customer? The answer is all about how much money can you save the company. The answer is it’s all about the money.”
If a fraudster is able to keep their greed, in check, they might be able to get away with it for a time. Keeping a low profile, in most cases, should be more important to the fraudster than a high dollar figure. Fraudsters know that if the law catches up to them not only will they probably go to jail, but the law enforcement officials will also take that money away from them, so most fraudsters primary goal should be to try to keep their schemes simple, small, and manageable. Doing otherwise brings unnecessary attention to them in this cat and mouse game.
With that cardinal rule in mind, a hotel provides an ideal climate for a fraudster seeking anonymity. The best hotel employees greet each guest with a hearty, “Hello!” when they check into their hotel. They might even strike up a casual, fun conversation with the guest, “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 same friendly employee, hours later, even the best hotel employees probably won’t even 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 can require some effort on their part, most hotel employees wouldn’t be able to pick them out of a police lineup. With that level of anonymity, a fraudster can engage in a number of acts of fraud undetected, unless they bring unnecessary attention to themselves.
When a nondescript, mousy guest named Tim Heidingsfelder, checked into our hotel, he did not fall prey to this very human need to draw attention to himself. His characteristics didn’t draw anyone’s attention either. He was late 40’s/early 50’s single man of average-to-below average appearance, 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. We didn’t notice him, in other words, but perhaps more important to Tim Heidingsfelder, the attractive, young women at the front desk didn’t notice him either.
There was nothing noteworthy or remarkable about the man, and Tim Heidingsfelder probably regarded this as a mixed blessing. 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. As a lonely late 40’s/early 50’s single man, however, he probably looked back at the attractive, young women who checked him into the hotel, but didn’t notice him, with some chagrin.
Tim Heidingsfelder wasn’t an outgoing type, but from what I heard, he wasn’t a quiet, loner either. (I had only one interaction with him, as I’ll note below.) No one noticed anything in particular about Tim Heidingsfelder in, 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. Regardless, the cardinal rule of fraud, the very human, and male, need to have young, attractive women notice him must’ve been gnawing at him.
Tim Heidingsfelder was not a traveling businessman, but he was apparently just as lonely as one, because 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 can only guess that this man probably had few opportunities to do so in life. Therefore, when he stopped by the front desk for whatever reason he dreamed up, Tim Heidingsfelder didn’t just stop to say hello, he didn’t just pick up a fax, or engage in whatever business-related conversations he dreamed up. He didn’t just chat while opening his parcels in the manner a businessman will, he stayed to shoot the stuff with some of these attractive, young women. He stopped to get to know them, so they could know him.
Like many of the traveling businessmen, and other males who stayed at the hotel long-term, Tim Heidingsfelder focused most of his attention on the best looking young woman at the front desk of the hotel who also happened to be the friendliest. Her name is not Cheri, but for the purpose of clarity, we’ll call her Cheri. Cheri was so attractive and so skilled at engaging in friendly conversations with guests that she became a favorite among the hotel’s businessmen and other frequent guests within her first week of employment. They focused all of their attention on her whenever they stopped at the front desk to chat. After a few chats memorable chats with Cheri, Tim Heidingsfelder asked the other front desk employees asked where she was one day. When the other employees at the desk told him that it was her day off, Tim was visibly disappointed.
As with most of the lonely, traveling businessmen who stayed at our hotel, Tim found Cheri delightful, and it probably excited him when he made her laugh. He probably didn’t fully acknowledge that the hotel paid her to laugh at guests’ jokes. Some of the guests Cheri talked to on a daily basis were genuinely funny. Some of the times, she laughed politely to fill the void after their punchlines, and some of the times, she 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 the extent of their professional relationship. He probably didn’t have designs on establishing a relationship with her beyond a professional one, but after a number of memorable conversations with Cheri, Tim made the fateful decision of trying to make a greater 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.” To Tim, this probably seemed like such a harmless lie. He probably figured it was a Goldilocks type of lie that created a substantial impression without being so grandiose that she might fact check him. Yet, the lie would eventually prove to be a depth charge that once detonated would expose everything he planned.
Was that lie a part of the master plan all along, or did he make it up for the sole purpose of impressing Cheri? We don’t know, but if it was the latter, we could say that he impulsively outed himself in a way that might cause fellow fraudsters to shake their heads in dismay, because he didn’t spend enough time accounting for all of the Q & A’s that might follow. Regardless, why he chose that particular lie, it would prove to systematically unravel the house of lies he built.
Regardless the outcome, Tim Heidingsfelder did impress Cheri. When I arrived at work the next day, she was all a twitter about it. “Did you know we have a celebrity in the hotel today?” she asked. “I know you’re a fan of The Simpsons, and I know you’re a writer,” she told me. “And, well, we just happen to have a guest who is a both a writer and a writer for that show.”
“You gotta be kidding me?” I asked.
“Seriously, 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.
“That is so cool,” I said. I thought about how cool it would be to meet him. I thought about how cool it would be to see our small city depicted in the cartoon, and I thought about how cool it might 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 real writer, but what does a real writer look like? Do they all look like James Joyce, professorial and bespectacled with patches on their elbows? Tim Heidingsfelder didn’t have that look, but either did Ernest Hemingway. I was not the least bit suspicious of his appearance in other words. I chatted with Tim Heidingsfelder with a co-worker standing by my side listening. He unsuccessfully hid his laughter while two writer nerds talked about the craft.
“This is just so cool meeting you,” I said, “and I love what you plan on doing for our fair city.” Tim Heidingsfelder 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.” I said this as a writer attempting to show some collegial respect. I was not, in any way, attempting to call him out or put him on the spot.
“Well,” Tim said. “You probably pay attention to the opening credits. Right? Well, I’m what you call an unaccredited writer. I have yet to have one of my episodes aired,” he said with some affectation of chagrin.
“Shows, like The Simpsons,” he furthered, “have a slew 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 didn’t receive front line 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.
While Tim and I talked about the general 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.
I did want to impress Tim Heidingsfelder, however, and I thought I was making a decent impression, but I wanted a knockout blow. I wanted some nugget of information that would create what I considered a substantial impression. I wanted to prove that I was a big fan. I searched for that nugget while I asked him 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, it hit me. I thought I had that question that would knock his socks off and prove that I wasn’t just another fan, but someone who had some true knowledge of the show on which he worked. What I didn’t know at the time was that I was politely holding back a question that would accidentally reveal Tim Heidingsfelder’s legacy of fraud for what it was. 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. I politely waited for him to finish. Once he did, I launched.
He might have said something as he backed away to the elevators, but I don’t remember that as much as I do him backing away. I didn’t think there was anything inordinately 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 so often that it was part of the routine. With the benefit of hindsight, I now remember how uncomfortable that question made him. I remember how 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 our conversation throughout, noted the uncomfortable silence between Tim and I following that question and he capitalized on what he assumed was my naiveté. This particular employee was always looking to capitalize on my moments of weakness.
“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 asking laughing at me. He thoroughly enjoyed the moment.
“No,” I said looking Tim in the eye, seeking to impress the man further. I had an expectant smile on my face. “Not many people know this, but Conan used to be a writer for The Simpsons.”
Unbeknownst to either of us, this innocent question spelled out a warning every fraudster and potential fraudster should consider before linking themselves to cultural icons. Don’t mess with nerdy fanboys. Nerdy fanboys know things that 99.9% of the population doesn’t. A fraudster might think they’ve worked hard to prepare themselves for every scenario, but the minute they run into that nerdy fanboy their best course of action is to simply walk away. They might build 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, but nerdy fanboys will trip a fraudster up in ways they least suspect. As the most gifted fraudster would probably tell a novice, or any interested party, a fraudster cannot prepare for any and every situation. “You just have to learn to roll with the punches, but if there’s one thing you learn today it is this, don’t create your own situations to unwind. Don’t create your own spider webs. Just walk away.”
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, I think The Simpson’s character Nelson Muntz might 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, fraudsters have to fill in 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 the art of deception at a very young age. They hone their craft by fooling those people who know and loved them most. Trainers teach potential salesmen this in training classes. Trainers tell them to try to sell the product in question 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 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 an excellent 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 a lot in their preteen years and those who continue to do so well into their adult years. Lying, stealing and deceiving those who love us most almost feels like a rite of passage in our pre-teen and teen years, until they catch us. Anyone who lies, cheats, and steals is going to get caught, and some are going to get caught more often than others. How many times do we have to get caught, before we evolve from a person who occasionally lies, cheats, and steals to a liar, cheater, or thief? How many times can we deceive people before their suspicions become heightened suspicions that they become condemnations? “You’re just a liar. That’s all there is to it. Going forward, I’m not going to believe another word that comes out of your mouth.”
I don’t care how many deflections, defense mechanisms, or justifications we build up to that moment, that hurts. It’s especially painful when it’s someone we love, and it can to be condemnation of our character if it comes from someone who knows us better than anyone else. Even the best thief, liar, and cheater has to find it embarrassing and shameful in that moment. The embarrassment and shame that followed such exchanges proved almost painful to me when I was younger. My closest friends and family members stopped trusting me. They labeled me a liar and a thief, and the only way I found to avoid all 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 a dividing line happens right after these accusations. What do they do about it? Do they care? 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.
Those who discover they have some talent for deception, but find that can’t go on knowing what others might think of them, might use whatever talent they have for deception 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, writers, or any craft that calls for mutually agreed upon levels 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.
Tim Heidingsfelder’s best course of action would’ve been to offer one of the replies I offered above combined with a compliment for my knowledge. The reason I write the latter is that I felt he wasn’t sufficiently impressed with my knowledge, and I worried that our conversation exposed me as nothing by a fanboy nerd. I felt like a fool, and I felt compelled to make it up to Tim, or recover my pride, but every time I entered the foyer of the hotel, Tim flew to the elevators. The man stayed in our hotel for so long, and he did this to me so often that the pattern of his quick exits began to bother me. Some of them, like the one that happened below, were so exaggerated that I considered them 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 flew off in the opposite direction.
“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, “and I was beyond polite to the man. I am a nerdy fanboy, but I think he would enjoy talking about how jealous I am of him. Wouldn’t you? He seemed to enjoy that conversation the first time, now every time I walk into the room, he runs away.”
“And you think that’s suspicious?” Brian asked.
“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 don’t have to be involved in every conversation. As you once said, I’m kind of a quiet guy, and when I walked up to this desk, just now, 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 day, but he did not view the man with the least bit of suspicion before our conversation. Soon after it, he began investigating the man’s account activity. I planted the seeds of 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 the businessman even puts his personal card 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 an inordinate amount of the previous credit cards placed on his account were declared stolen.
I entered work one day to see Tim Heidingsfelder sitting in Brian’s office. 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 meddling nerdy fanboys” exit, but it never arrived.
The police later informed us that Tim Heidingsfelder was a pseudonym, and they managed to find his real name. They informed us that two other states wanted him on credit card fraud.
“Don’t bring unnecessary attention to yourself,” is the cardinal rule of all fraudsters. We can only speculate that some level of Tim’s fraudulent activity spanned years, but we can also speculate that some germ of his activity probably spanned decades. We don’t know Tim Heidingsfelder’s criminal record, but even if he had one, we can speculate that he succeeded in deceiving people more often than not, and that he crossed all the T’s and dotted the I’s he needed to maintain the levels of anonymity required for successful deception. We also know that if he was able to abide by that cardinal rule, he probably could’ve engaged in fraudulent activity for years, perhaps decades, to continue living the luxurious lifestyle on other peoples’ dimes to which he’d become accustomed. Yet, Tim Heidingsfelder was obviously a lonely, middle-aged man whose middle-aged crisis led him to fall prey to a very natural, very male need to impress a beautiful young woman.
One horrible element of the prolonged prison Tim Heidingsfelder probably received was that he probably relived every relived every second of his unraveling. I wonder if my name, or at least my face, popped up in his ruminations, or his nightmares. I wonder what he said to his fellow inmates about me. My guess is that he never gave me a second thought, because he probably could not see the connection between our conversation. If he did, my guess is that he focused less on me, and more on Cheri, and how that moment of weakness led to his downfall. If he did provide every detail of his downfall to his fellow inmates, and they chastised him for choosing a “ho before dough,” my guess is that he said, “You didn’t see her.” My guess is that “You didn’t see her” became the refrain of his pain that all of his fellow inmates could repeat over the years.