Two days ago I was driving up Amsterdam Avenue in NYC, en route to pick up my daughter at Columbia University before returning to Rhode Island for Thanksgiving, talking hands free on my cell.
That’s when my world unraveled.
I’m working on a non-fiction book with tips for avoiding financial frauds and know that all con artists share the same basic approach: 1) scope out the target, 2) isolate the victim, and 3) create an artificial sense of urgency. But it’s far easier to be coldly analytical in front of a computer than when you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time with a 260 lb. guy screaming into your ears.
The cross streets were somewhere in the 80s, and I stopped for a red light. A pedestrian, his face wrinkled with concern, pointed to my hood (or was it my Rhode Island license plate) and mouthed something urgent.
“Hang on,” I said to my friend and rolled down the window. “What are you saying?”
“Your engine is smoking, man,” the pedestrian called over his shoulder, continuing on his way.
“Oh, wow. Thanks.” When the light turned green, I pulled forward a few feet, wrapped up my phone call, and stopped behind a tow truck, which was double-parked in typical New York fashion.
Frankly, I was confused. There was no warning light on my dashboard, no steam I could see. But I popped the hood, hopped out of the car, and circled to the front, now running late to meet my daughter, thinking to myself, It’s always something.
That’s when a guy, no front teeth, six foot four, maybe 260 lbs., joined me. He was wearing a garage uniform, his name in cursive over the breast pocket, the lettering illegible. I wore a similar uniform during high school and college, when I worked in a gas station during the summers.
He gave me his card and said, “I’m Yanni. Your engine was smoking.”
“What year is your Subaru?”
“Two thousand and ten.”
“Get me a rag,” he said, getting aggressive, surprising me with the command, because all the mechanics carried rags when I worked at a service station. “You hit a pot hole and dislodged the pins. Good thing I’m here. You could have cracked your engine block. You got any antifreeze?”
“I can fix your car. Pull across the street so I can stretch out.”
Which I did.
Yanni was bossy, and his order was odd. But there was less pedestrian traffic on the other side of Amsterdam, fewer cars parked on that side of the street, no stores, scaffolding and plywood covering the sidewalk, an easier place for him to work…or to work me over.
But I wasn’t thinking about step number two in most scams—isolate the victim. I was concerned about my daughter who was waiting on 113th and Broadway, worried about my car, still confused by the lack of smoke, by the failure of my dashboard to register a problem, both annoyed and relieved by Yanni who, however overbearing, seemed to be a stroke of good luck.
“Your sensor burned out. You need to get it replaced,” he said, reading my mind. “Go get some water.”
I locked the car door, popped the hood for Yanni, and ran to a pizza parlor to get a few jugs of bottled water.
When I returned, Yanni pointed to a stream of antifreeze running across the ground. “That’s from your engine. I fixed the pins. You need to watch out for potholes.”
I didn’t remember hitting a pothole. For that matter, I didn’t remember “pins” from my days in the garage. What I remembered were the valves at the bottom of radiators that make it easy to drain the fluid.
“Start the engine,” barked Yanni, pouring water into my radiator, closing the hood, calling his boss, saying “2010 Subaru” into the cell phone. “You got a Visa? We don’t take Amex.”
“What do I owe you?” I asked, Warning, Will Robinson sounding inside my head. There was no way I was giving my credit card to a guy off the street.
“Three hundred and eighty dollars.”
“That’s what we charge at the shop.” Yanni hovered over me, growing angry, never cocking his fist, but he was intimidating nonetheless.
“Let me talk to your boss.”
Dialing on his cell, Yanni muttered at me, “I fixed your car.” He handed me the phone.
“I think you guys are scamming me,” I said to the boss, getting inside my car, rolling down the window, the big man looming outside.
The boss was calm. “Your heat sensor burned out. You need to get it checked.”
“I’m not paying you three hundred and eighty dollars until I check you out. This is crazy. It feels like you’re scamming me?”
“This is what I get for helping you,” screamed Yanni outside my door, berserking something into one of my ears, the boss talking into the other, the exchange chaotic, my stomach in my mouth. “I fixed your car. You’ve got to stop hitting those potholes. This is the thanks I get? Give me my phone.”
I did and then pulled out mine, called my daughter. “I’m in a bad place, sweetheart. I’ll be ten minutes late. I’m okay, but I need to call the police.”
“Oh my god.”
“I want my money,” bellowed Yanni. “It’s three hundred and eighty dollars.
“Call me in ten minutes if you don’t hear from me,” I said to my daughter, getting out of the car.
“It’s three hundred and eighty dollars,” the big man screamed again, louder this time, making me reach for my wallet.
But then I stopped, already suspicious about the artificial sense of urgency but now growing angry. “I’m not paying you a dime until we get the police here. If they say it’s okay, I’ll pay you the full amount.”
“I don’t have time to wait.”
“Which means no three hundred and eighty dollars.”
“I have to go. How much will you pay me now?”
“Twenty dollars more than you deserve.” I gave him a twenty—for him to save face and, frankly, for me to save mine. My chances in a fight would have been slim and none.
Yanni snatched the twenty and called over his shoulder, “You have my card. You better send the rest of my money.”
The crisis was over. I picked up my daughter, and we drove to a garage, where the mechanic said two things: “Your car is fine, and those pins don’t exist.” He mentioned the drainage valve at the bottom of the radiator, little changed from the days when I worked in a gas station.
Later I connected with an officer at the NYPD. He said he had not heard of this particular con but would put out the word. He gave me a phone number for a consumer affairs division, which regulates tow trucks, surprising because this incident seems less regulatory and more predatory.
My older sister made, perhaps, the most frightening observation of all. “What if it had been a parent traveling alone, with two kids in the back?”
So, Yanni, you’re right. I have your card, which says, “Ask for Yanni,” and lists a cell number ending in “0245” and a service number ending in “2555.”
I’m not posting the card on the off chance it’s stolen, not fair if it belongs to somebody running a legitimate business. But I am putting out the word and hope this post saves somebody $380—or whatever, especially if you’re shopping near that area on Black Friday.