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Urban Rhythms

The Grifters

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 8/29/2001

A friend of a friend swears that the following story really happened to somebody he knows:

Two women were driving home after a party. They'd been drinking. On the way home, they decided to stop off at a convenience store. So they enter the store, acting a little silly--laughing and giggling and what have you. Just then, a man in street clothes comes up and identifies himself as a police officer.

"You've obviously been drinking," the man booms in a stentorian voice. "You've been drinking and driving," he elaborates, pointing to the brand-new late-model luxury import that the women had arrived in. (Disclosure for you sticklers for accuracy out there: I'm embellishing the dialogue, for my own personal amusement.) "At this point in time, I have more than enough grounds to impound your vehicle and arrest you both for driving under the influence."

The women beg for mercy, no doubt exuding wave upon wave of alcohol fumes, until the man at last relents and allows them to park the car and call a cab. He confiscates their car keys, though, "for their own safety," assuring them that they can pick the keys up at the police station in the morning.

The next day, the women learn that the man was not a police officer. Nobody turned in any keys. And the brand-new late-model luxury import has disappeared, never to be seen again.

You can draw a lot of morals from the incident: Don't drink and drive. Don't go laughing and giggling in convenience stores. And, most particularly, never hand your car keys over to strangers.

But the aspect of this story that strikes me the most is how easily this could have happened to any of us. Suppose the man had been on the level? The victims may have had no reason beyond his word to believe he was, but they also had no reason to believe he wasn't--and no reason, given that assumption, that he wasn't indeed capable of arresting them and impounding their vehicle. And once the city took the car, the woman would have had the devil of a time getting it back. We have become so accustomed to municipal employees taking a high hand with our property, who knows what they will or won't do? I suspect the city would clamp a Denver Boot onto our toes if it could, and if it netted an extra dollar.

Since we know that public officials are capable of anything, it is easy to fall for a clever con artist. I suspect that many of us--like the two women friends of the friend of my friend--are pigeons ripe for the plucking when confronted with the face of "authority." It was only a matter of time before the confidence community caught on to this, and the word appears to be spreading.

In Washington, the city's inspector general has just issued a report describing a scheme whereby some police officers work with towing companies to rack up exorbitant towing and storage fees from unsuspecting car owners. According to the report, officers rove around until they spot an illegally parked car. They then call a towing company that swoops in, confiscates the vehicle, and conveniently forgets to notify the owner. By the time the owner gets wise, he or she is on the hook for hundreds of dollars in storage bills. The inspector general alleges that some officers receive kickbacks from or financial interest in the towing outfits for assisting these so-called hide-a-car schemes.

What makes the scheme feasible is that Washington, like most municipalities, enforces its parking regulations so zealously. At the same time, the District appears cavalier about protecting its citizens. There is no limit on the fees a towing company can charge for storage. There is little regulation of the companies allowed to confiscate vehicles. And the bookkeeping on confiscated vehicles is incredibly poor. Such a system, the inspector general concluded, invites corruption.

Officials in San Diego seem about to reach a similar conclusion about red-light cameras. The city's 19 cameras went dark in June following a series of court challenges by citizens. An audit is underway to determine if the cameras work as advertised.

A few weeks ago, a San Diego Superior Court judge dismissed complaints that such cameras violate an individual's constitutional rights to privacy and to confront an accuser, but the judge also criticized a partnership between the city and the private company that installed the cameras. Under the deal, the city of San Diego, San Diego County, the state of California, and the company split the revenue from each traffic citation, an arrangement that has netted each player between $1 million and $2 million in the few months that the cameras were in operation. The judge said the company couldn't be relied upon to evaluate data from the cameras objectively if it has a financial stake in the results.

That common-sense ruling notwithstanding, a growing number of local governments are embracing red-light cameras. Officials claim they are motivated only by the public safety. They act as though the millions of dollars those cameras generate are incidental.

Just goes to show you: Compared to politicians, confidence artists are mere amateurs in the game of scamming the public.

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