Spotting the wild handler: the clipboard scam

Four women and a guy sat down next to me and lit up.  The women were holding clipboards–SCORE!  

There’s this bizarre scam that you see in any heavily touristy area of Paris.  Young women pretending to be deaf wander around with clipboards and try to get you to sign what is allegedly a petition.  When they get someone to sign, one of two things happen:

  1. In the best-case scenario, they hit you up for a “donation.”
  2. In the worst-case scenario, while you’re distracted, someone picks your pocket.

I have always heard that there is a “handler” hanging around, watching them in case of trouble, but I’ve never been able to spot one–until today.

My task was made ridiculously simple by the fact that the little team gathered for a smoke break–right next to me.  I was at the Place St-Michel, sitting on the edge of the fountain enjoying my own fine American tobacco product, when four women and a guy sat down next to me and lit up.  The women were holding clipboards–score!  

My level of interest in having this guy figure out that I was filming him was low, and consequently, I didn’t get a great video.  What you’re going to see in the following film: the girls have just successfully scored, and their mark has walked away.  The handler wandered over unobtrusively while they were taking her money, and then walked away–at the beginning of the clip, you see him (gray t-shirt, with a courier bag over his shoulder) walking away “stage right.”  Then he takes up a position leaning–not very unobtrusively at all–against a lamp post.

As they smoked their cigarettes, the women chatted amongst themselves–clearly not deaf.  The guy pretty much ignored them, chatting on a cell phone instead.  In which language?  I don’t know.  I was listening for Bulgarian, Rom, or Romanian–but, what I heard sounded more like a dialect of Arabic.  A mystery, since this is stereotypically a scam perpetrated by Roma, and personally, I don’t know of any scam in Paris associated with Arabs.  (There is a whole ecosystem of scams in the world, with different ethnic groups dominating specific sectors of that ecosystem in Paris.)

I have a lot of respect for the guys that you see all over Paris hustling to sell souvenirs, bottles of water, whatever–they’re just trying to make a living like everyone else, exchanging goods for cash.  I have a fair amount of respect for an inventive beggar, too–begging can be much harder and more creative work than you might imagine, and there are some really good ones.  I have zero respect for people who rip other people off, who scam them; I have less than zero respect for people who scam others not by manipulating their greediness (e.g. with a get-rich-quick scheme), but by taking advantage of their kindness.  That, I think, approaches the lowest of the low: fuck them.


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