Friday, 28 June 2013

The Gold Ring Scam - How Not to Do It

The famous gold ring

In January 2013 I visited London for a three-day conference at University College London.  It didn’t begin until 11am on the Saturday morning, so I briefly visited the Wellcome Collection to see their exhibition on death.  Afterwards I was ambling along Euston Road, my mind on what I had seen, when I vaguely noticed a man walking in the opposite direction.  It was still quiet, traffic light, and we were the only pedestrians on that stretch of pavement.  As he got close, he stooped and picked up something.  With an exclamation that shook me from my reverie he straightened and showed me what was between his fingers: a chunky gold ring.

I stopped and he said something like “Look what I‘ve found!”  His accent was heavy, Eastern European.  I made some non-committal remark, slightly on my guard, ready to carry on walking.  He tried the ring on his finger but it did not seem to fit, demonstrating that it was no use to him.  Still holding the ring he said in fractured English that he was a tourist and did not know what to do with it, so would I take it.  I didn’t know what to do with it either, but said I would hand it in at a police station.  I was already wishing I hadn’t stopped because I had no idea where the nearest police station was, and it was going to be a problem finding the time to hand in lost property.

He gave me the ring and it felt solid and heavy, a signet rather than the wedding ring I had first thought it.  Putting it in my pocket I started off again, thinking he was nice for not having kept his find, which he could so easily have done.  I had only got a couple of yards when he was back next to me, gesturing to his mouth and saying repeatedly “you give me money for food”.  I still couldn‘t make out if this was a con because for that to have worked he would have needed to somehow create a feeling of obligation on my part.  He hadn’t done that because I had told him I was going to hand in the ring.  All he had done so far was to inconvenience me.

There was no reason why I should hand over money to a random person in the street simply because he asked for it, and this seemed extremely odd behaviour for a tourist, so I said no.  I started to walk away again, when he became slightly agitated, walking along beside me and saying over and over, “you give me money”.  I kept saying no, more and more firmly, and we walked on like this for a few more yards, the volume between us steadily rising.

Becoming increasingly anxious, he started pushing me towards the buildings as I tried to get away from him.  This made me annoyed and I told him to go away.  At this point he started saying “give me back my ring, give me back my ring”.  Thoroughly irritated by what was clearly a con, I pretended to be confused.  “But it isn’t your ring, you found it on the pavement.”  “It is my ring,” he kept replying, then he pulled out a large bunch of identical rings from his pocket.  “It is my ring, is my job.”

Now he was pushing me as I tried to walk, and I was being sandwiched into the front of a building.  He was a small chap so I didn’t feel threatened physically, but I was concerned he might try to pick my pocket.  I told him to go away in very strong terms, and he jumped back, looking shocked, perhaps actually fearing violence from me. At least it cleared some space between us.  I had a thought.

“Are you legal?” I asked him, and when he looked puzzled I said slowly, “Are you here legally?”  At this he stepped backwards a few paces.  This was a winning strategy.  “I know,” I said, “let’s find a policeman and sort this out.”  At the word “policeman” he set off at a very brisk pace in the direction I had come.  I carried on my way, one rather tacky, and worthless, gold ring the better, wondering at the man’s incompetence.

I learned afterwards that this is a common trick that seemingly originated in Paris, mostly run by Romanians who initially migrated here for the 2012 Olympic Games.  The conventional method is to create a sense of conspiracy by the ‘finder’ offering the ring for sale at a price that would be extremely good, say £20, if the ring were actually gold and worth something.  The moral slope is a shallow one, sharing something apparently lost rather than stolen, so it can be easier to reel in the victim.  Many of those conned curiously seem more amused than angry by the experience.

There is this alternative procedure which I experienced, but it seems less reliable as the scammer has already handed over the ring before asking for something, though it appeals to someone’s good nature, requesting a quid pro quo, in a way a cash transaction does not.  It seems that most people who realise it is a trick simply hand the ring back, perhaps more concerned about a confrontation than I was, so it is generally a low-risk activity for the scammer.  Possibly the rationale for this variant technique is that most victims will intend to pocket the ring, which does create a sense of obligation the confidence tricksters can exploit.  In that case, I suppose you can’t really complain if they succeed.