“Don’t bring unnecessary attention to yourself,” they say, “It’s the cardinal rule of all fraudsters.”
“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 or an authority figure they craved.”
“Fair enough,” they reply, “but if we decide to steal other people’s money, and we want to get away with it, we’ll have to keep a low profile that might be considered unnatural in that frame.”
Some might say that their primary goal of fraudsters is to find new and different ways to steal your money, but they know if they get too greedy, they will get caught. Anyone who has worked fraud cases will tell anyone interested that the job is all about dollar figures. Most cases that don’t achieve a certain dollar figure doesn’t even hit their queues. As with everything else in life, working in fraud departments is all about the money. How much money can we save for the customer and the company. Thus, if a fraudster is able to keep their ambition, and greed, in check, they might be able to get away with it for a time. Keeping a low profile, in most cases, is 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 is try to keep their schemes simple, small, and manageable. Those who investigate fraud for a living will agree that most acts of fraud are not near as complicated or ingenious as we might think. In this cat and mouse game, fraudsters use a number of methods to avoid detection, but the number one rule, the cardinal rule for all fraudsters is “Don’t bring unnecessary attention to yourself.”
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 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 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 him, 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 behind the desk who didn’t notice him with some chagrin.
Tim Heidingsfelder wasn’t an outgoing type either, but from what I heard, he wasn’t a quiet, loner. (I only had one interaction with him, as I’ll note 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. Regardless, the cardinal rule of fraud, the very human, and male, need to have young, attractive women notice him was just gnawing at him.
Tim Heidingsfelder was not a traveling businessman, but he was apparently just as lonely as one, 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 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 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 woman at the front desk of the hotel 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 quickly became a favorite among the hotel’s businessmen and other frequent guests. They focused all of their attention on her whenever they stopped at the hotel to chat. After a few chats, Tim Heidingsfelder asked the other front desk employees asked 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 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 employed at the front desk, 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 professional, but after a couple of conversations with Cheri, he did everything he could to impress 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. It wasn’t such a grandiose lie that she would fact check him, he probably figured, but it was big enough to impress her. He probably figured that it was a Goldilocks lie that didn’t violate the cardinal rule of all fraudsters. Yet, the lie would eventually prove to be a depth charge that once detonated would expose everything he planned.
Was the lie something he dreamed up when he made the hotel reservation? It wasn’t unusual that a guest failed to affiliate with their company on their account, but Tim wasn’t officially affiliated with Fox on his account, or The Simpsons on his account. Did Tim Heidingsfelder plan this ruse as the reason for his stay at the hotel, or did he make it up on the fly to impress Cheri? Again, we don’t know, but if it was the former, we could say that he impulsively outed himself in a way that might cause fellow fraudsters to shake their heads in dismay. If it was the former, and Tim Heidingsfelder spent any time planning to use it to impress Cheri, 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.
Tim Heidingsfelder did accomplish his initial and shortsighted goal of impressing Cheri however. 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 said artfully spooling out the information 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 would 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 appear to be a writer, but I wondered 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 by my side listening. He unsuccessfully hid his laughter while two writer nerds talk about the 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.” 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 Tim Heidingsfelder on the spot.
“Well,” Tim said. “You probably pay attention to the opening credits. Right? Well, 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 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 this man, however, and I thought I was making a decent impression, but I wanted that knockout blow that would create a substantial impression. I wanted some little nugget of information that would prove I was a big fan to him. I searched for that 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 of these exchanges, it hit me. I had a 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 holding onto 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. The moment he finished, I launched into that knockout question.
“Do you know Conan O’Brien?” I asked him. “Do you know him personally, or have you worked with him in any capacity?”
I don’t remember if he said anything to that, but I do remember him backing away to the elevator. 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. 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 this conversation throughout, noted the uncomfortable silence between Tim and I following that question and he capitalized on what he assumed was my naiveté.
“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 was 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 two warnings every fraudster and potential fraudster. Don’t mess with nerdy fanboys. They 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 you up in some way you 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 away from me.
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 the art of deception at a very young age, to fool 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 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 loved me most almost felt like a rite of passage, but I hated it when they caught me. Anyone who lies, cheats, and steals is going to get caught, and they’re going to experience some level of shame and embarrassment when they do. The embarrassment and shame that followed prove almost painful to me. 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 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 the dividing line happens right there. Do they care? What do they do about it? 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, 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.
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. I worried that our conversation exposed me as nothing by a fanboy nerd. I felt like a fool, and I wanted 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 other 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 was a nerdy fanboy, 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.”
“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, 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, he found that a number 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, and if Tim Heidingsfelder was able to abide by the cardinal rule he probably could’ve engaged in fraudulent activity for years, perhaps decades. If he continued to cross his T’s and dot his I’s, he probably could’ve continued the luxurious lifestyle he created for himself in his extended stay at our hotel on other people’s dime. He wasn’t living small, so he probably would’ve tripped up sooner rather than later, but who’s to say it couldn’t have increased exponentially in the years that followed. We can only guess how long, and how much more luxurious living Tim Heidingsfelder could’ve avoided falling prey to the desire, some might say need, to have someone notice him for an average of five minutes a day.