The Lack of Confidence Man

By Mark Strozier/ Flickr
By Mark Strozier/ Flickr

By Lad Tobin

From the second I read the subject line of the email—“More Information Regarding Your Apartment Check-In!”—I felt queasy. Having spent weeks looking for a one-month rental in New York and only finding places that were booked, bleak, or insanely expensive, I’d gotten used to the idea that our plan wasn’t going to work. But then, just minutes after requesting information about a beautiful apartment I found on craigslist, Gibbson’s response popped into my inbox:

Hello tobin! i am so glad to hear from you that you would love to take my apartment! I will be more than happy to keep and maintain the place for you on your arrival. The cost for a month will be $3000 and i am willingly and ready to give you discount of $600 so you are require to pay the sum of only $2400. You are require 50% of the total fund ($1200) to secure the dates you have chosen also a security deposit of $200. You are require to pay $1200 + security deposit of $200 = $1400 the total fund to pay to secure and book the dates for you will be $1400. The apartment is much available so you will need to give me more information with the exact date that you will be checking in so that i can book the date for you to avoid other people to book for the same date, i do not like disappointment so i will be more than happy to know the exact date for check in so that i can keep and retain the place for you and your wife. Here is the link for more information or pictures https://post.craigslist.org/manage/1275981629/368jey

I will be glad to hear from you asap. Regards Jeff Gibbson

This was way too much information for me to take in all at once: we already have the apartment? We’re getting a discount? But we need to send the deposit right away so no one else books it first?

Part of my queasiness was sticker shock: after all, $2400 for a single month’s rental was a lot of money and I am more than capable of feeling buyer’s remorse even before I buy; still, we knew from the start that this “small-towners spend a month in the big city” experience was not going to come cheap. No, there was something besides the cost that was making me feel like I was being pulled into a bad dream.

And that’s when I had to confront an uncomfortable question: was I really so petty (or, worse, so prejudiced) that I was bothered by a few uses of non-standard English, by the fact that this Mr. Jeff Gibbson was clearly a non-native speaker of English? Even while I knew that this might be what was bothering me, I deeply hoped it wasn’t. After all, I was by temperament, politics, and occupation (I teach college students how to write) conditioned to be sympathetic and open to struggling writers, including non-standard speakers of English and so I knew it would be illogical, un-PC, and flat-out unfair to draw any negative impressions or inferences about someone’s character based on a couple of unusual idioms. I could painfully imagine how well—or how poorly—I could write my own version of that same letter in my pitiful, supposedly “reading comprehension” French (“Bonjour, Gibbson, Je suis tres joyeux…”).

But there was more than an inelegant turn of phrase that made me nervous about Gibbson’s note; there was also his unsettling eagerness. I knew from all my fruitless searching that there was a seller’s market for what Gibbson had to offer, so why was he so amped up about my interest and so eager to close the deal right away? There was his almost spell-inducing listing and repetition of prices and numbers. And, still more disconcerting, there was his assumption that my request for info about availability and rates was actually a commitment: “i am so glad to hear from you that you would love to take my apartment.” I was certainly interested in his place or I wouldn’t have written him, but what’s love got to do with it? And why had he already moved on to the details of our check in?

All of this seemed to add up to a not-so-subliminal message: act right away or you will lose out. Even the supposedly reassuring phrase—“the apartment is much available”—seemed intended (from the rest of the sentence and paragraph) to convey the very opposite—the idea that the apartment was not much available but was, in fact, in much demand and, therefore, required an immediate commitment and deposit.

And, finally, there was that ominous-sounding phrase—“i do not like disappointment.” Wasn’t that a wise guy’s understated way of saying “Disappoint me at your own risk; I’m not messing around here”?

•••

Here are two facts about me: one, I have almost never been conned or even pushed into a bad deal. Two, I walk around the world with my own little personal homeland security advisory system and—like the government’s post 9/11 Homeland Security Advisement System which keeps its terror warning constantly high, even in the absence of any known or immediate threat—I normally run somewhere between yellow and orange. In other words, skepticism is my default mode; introduce the slightest bit of suspicious behavior and I start trending towards red alert. For all of my life I’ve connected those facts. I’ve believed that I never get conned because I’m always on guard, always reading between the lines, always fearing that every subtext has a sub-subtext. Determined to avoid the double pain of a material loss followed by a how-could-I-have-been-so-stupid? blow to my ego, I’ve always reacted to every offer that sounds good by telling myself that it sounds too good to be true.

•••

Clicking on the link to Gibbson’s apartment for maybe the fiftieth time that night, I saw that he had just added a new link: “More pictures of apartment.” Looking at one of the additional shots, I had a sudden sense of déjà vu: I was certain I had seen that photo before. And, in fact, it only took me a few minutes of scanning through my bookmarks to find that very photo in an ad for an apartment on a website that advertised short-term home rentals. But weirdest of all, except for the photos and the opening line—“An elegant apartment in a top New York neighborhood”—nothing from this ad matched up with the craigslist ad. The owner was listed not as Jeff Gibbson, but as Jack Marsh; the apartment, according to the availability calendar, was already rented for the entire fall; and there was nothing about any $600 discount.

So whose apartment was this, anyway? I decided to email Gibbson to see if he could clear things up:

Hello Jeff. Thanks for sending me that information about your apartment. I am interested but I have a few questions: First, I saw an ad for the same apartment on another website and on that website it says that the apartment is already rented for September. It gives the owner’s name as Jack Marsh. Are you renting the apartment from him? And do you have his permission to sublet it to someone else? If so, could I speak with him, too? Finally, if I came to New York in the next few days, could you show me the apartment? I look forward to hearing from you soon.

This time, Gibbson didn’t answer right away; in fact, this time he didn’t answer at all. Not wanting to lose the apartment, I decided to email Marsh directly. Within the hour, my phone rang. “Hello, Jack Marsh here. You emailed me?”

He was calling to say that the apartment I had seen online was already rented but that he had another apartment which was available for September. He gave me the address of the link so I could look at it while we talked. This available apartment —“we call it ‘The Miller,’” Marsh said, “because the playwright Arthur Miller, you know, from Death of a Salesman, he once lived in it”—looked nice enough. The problem was that the Gibbson apartment looked much nicer and had, off the living room, a beautiful, little terrace with two appealingly-angled Adirondacks chair and a little wooden table where we could place our hot coffee or glasses of red wine while we read novels and the Sunday Times. I realized that I wasn’t ready to give that up.

“But is the bigger one available as a sublet?”

“No. I never allow subletters.”

“Well, I think your other apartment might be available as a sublet; I saw it advertised on another website for September rental.”

“It must have been an old ad.”

“No, I saw it yesterday. And actually I’ve been emailing with the guy who placed the ad.”

“Oh,” he said, clearly confused. Then, just a beat later, he said “Oh” again. But this time he didn’t sound confused it all; he sounded like he just figured something out. “The ad you saw? It’s is a scam; it was put on craigslist by a con artist pretending that my apartment is his.”

“But he had all those pictures of the apartment.”

“Yeah; they just copy ’em. It’s simple enough for them to do. Hey, could you send me the link so I can email craigslist and get his ad taken down?” Clearly this whole experience was easier for Mr. Marsh to shrug off than it was for me.

“Wait, so the reason his email sounds so different than his craigslist’s ad is that he used your words in his ad but he used his own words in his email?”

I was still a little shocked at how easily I’d almost been fooled and still a little heartbroken that we apparently weren’t going to get the terrace or the discount.

Still, the smaller apartment looked nice enough online and nice enough in person, too, when, after I took the train the next day down from my home in Maine to New York, Mr. Marsh showed me around. In fact, after the Gibbson debacle, it was enormously reassuring to deal with the ultra-professional Mr. Marsh. No strong pressure to take the apartment from him; in fact, he was in all ways the anti-Gibbson. As he walked me to the door, I said that I was almost certain we’d take it but that I wanted to go home to talk and think about it with my wife. Could he hold it for a few days while we decided?

He smiled and shrugged. “Well, I can’t officially hold it: my policy is always to rent it to whoever puts down a deposit first. But I haven’t even advertised it much yet for September so it should still be available once you decide.” Feeling reassured, I was halfway out the door when Mr. Marsh said in an offhanded way, “Except I guess I should mention one other thing: the tenant in there now, he has a friend he’s been trying to talk into taking the place after he leaves. So I guess the sooner you tell me, the better, since I’d hate to have you call and be disappointed.”

•••

I’ve got next-to-no interest in run-of-the-mill hucksters—the car salesman trying to talk me into undercoating the undercoating, the Jehovah’s Witness wanting only a small donation to save my soul—but for some reason, I am captivated by the Nigerian princesses who email me from their hospital beds or prison cells or hospital beds in a prison cell to tell me that their dying wish is to make me the recipient of three million Euros if I will only agree to be the executor of their entire fortunes that otherwise would go unclaimed since all of their families have been banished or murdered, or murdered and then banished.

In fact, the more complicated and creative the scam, the more preposterous and chutzpah-laden the pitch, the more likely I am to give the scammer my grudging respect. How else to explain why, twenty years after the fact, I still find myself thinking about the time that my wife and I once agreed to tour a time-share complex in exchange for a nineteen-inch color TV, two free airline tickets to Hawaii, or a “secret prize worth over $500”? The tour turned out to be less awful than we feared—the complex actually looked surprisingly nice—but, by the end, our two young daughters were getting antsy and we were more than ready to collect our gift and hit the road. That’s when we were ushered into a little cubicle in a big room surrounded by many other little cubicles, and the hard sell began.

As the salesman kept dropping the price thousand by thousand, I just kept repeating: “We have absolutely no interest; we just want our free prize.”

But like Sartre’s “No Exit,” we were apparently stuck in a Hell that was other people, or more specifically that was one other person: our ready to fight-to-the-death salesman, Bill. He was clearly determined to keep us there until we opened our checkbook, and we were just as determined to get the TV or tickets without committing a penny.

“Okay,” our Hell-mate finally said, “This is my very last offer.” And he wrote down a figure, folded the paper in half, and slid it across the desk.

Though I made no move to open it, Bill suddenly shouted, “Wait!” and made a theatrical lunge to retrieve the paper. “What did I just do? Let me see!” As he read his own offer, he slapped his forehead with his palm. ”Oh, God, I just screwed up big time! I wrote down the wrong amount by mistake and I just gave you a price $5,000 less than my boss told us we were ever allowed to give anyone, even family. But legally I can’t take the offer back. It’s in writing. Don’t worry. It’s not your problem—it’s mine. You just got a time share that you could turn around tomorrow and sell for a huge profit—and it’s all because I screwed up. I better go tell the boss what I did.”

And before I could repeat my mantra—“We are not buying a time-share today no matter what price you offer”—he was gone. We waited five minutes, ten minutes, but no one came back to our tiny cubicle to give us our tickets or TV. On one side of our cubicle’s walls, I heard a man yelling that he wanted his free gift while, on the other, I could hear a little kid crying. Just as we packed up our own kids and headed toward the door, a different man suddenly scurried in. “Hold on a sec. Johnson just told me about the mistake he made with you—offering you the wrong price. I want you to know that I am going to lose my shirt on this but a deal is a deal. I can fire Johnson for costing me an arm and a leg—and I want you to know that I already have—but, much as I’d like to, I can’t take back his offer. So here’s the deal you got—and I’ve got to live with.” And he handed me a pen and a purchase agreement with the “mistaken” price at the top.

•••

It seemed like a ridiculous theory when it first came up. I was having dinner with my nephew, Sam, and his girlfriend, Isabel, just a couple of hours after looking at Marsh’s apartment, and I was telling them what had happened with the craigslist ad. “That is a pretty good scam,” Sam said, “but you know what would make it a great one? What if Marsh were the guy running the scam and he invented Gibbson in order to make you trust him?”

I laughed it off at the time, but that night, lying in the bed, I found myself wondering, was Sam’s absurdist fantasy completely impossible? After all, I found Marsh through the link on Gibbson’s email. And he was quick to dismiss the scammer and introduce himself as the real thing. Wasn’t that the oldest trick in the confidence man’s book? As in: be careful; there are con artists out there but you can trust ME. And hadn’t he sucked me in with the oldest move in the history of advertising: the old bait-and-switch? I wrote him because I was interested in the first apartment, the nicer apartment, and then was told (predictably?) that it was long gone but that he had another he could rent me. Hadn’t he buttered me up with the soft sell—“I’m not even advertising the place right now”—and then thrown in that little bomb right at the door about how the tenant’s friend might change his mind and call?

The Arthur Miller angle suddenly seemed fishy, too. Wasn’t it just a little bit unlikely that after not being able to find any apartment at all, the one place that pops up was once occupied by one of America’s greatest playwrights? I couldn’t help but wonder whether Marsh saw my name and return email address, then Googled me to discover that I taught in a university English department, and then invented the Arthur Miller detail just to suck me in further.

I reminded myself that this was nuts, that Marsh had in fact answered the door when I rang the bell and had, in fact, showed me the apartment. But that, I realized, could have been a hoax, too. It was at least possible that the real owner of the building was out of town or at least away for the evening and that Marsh had a key—maybe he was a handy man or a dog walker who was once given access to the building—and had showed me an apartment he didn’t own.

It wasn’t surprising, given my apparently unlimited capacities for skepticism and anxiety, that I found myself deeply unsettled by that possibility. What was surprising, though, was I almost wished it were true. After all, if Marsh were the real con man who, in order to fool me, invented a less trustworthy fake con man, added a made-to-order story about the apartment’s role in American literary history, and then gave me the tour posing as the apartment’s owner, we weren’t just talking Arthur Miller; we were talking Mamet. Glengarry Glen Ross Mamet.

•••

The scariest con men aren’t the arm twisters; they’re the ear whisperers, the Iagos, the ones who use our own best and worst traits—generosity, trust, and love, on the one hand; foolishness, grandiosity, and greed on the other—against us. Or worse, they’re the ones who simply seduce us into using ourselves against ourselves. Since the clichés are true—there really is a sucker born every minute and if you build it, they will come – the best con men don’t need to be aggressive; they only need to set an attractive-enough trap … and then wait. One of the keys to the success of Bernie Madoff’s investment scam was that he played so hard to get: his strategy for reeling in wealthy investors was to pretend not to need or even want them. By creating the illusion of exclusivity—members at his country club asked other members to introduce them to Madoff as perspective clients—his services appeared all the more desirable and legitimate.

In a world filled with aggressive, clearly sketchy con men and women, the confident and confidence-inspiring Madoffian con man can have a field day. When we think we’ve finally found that one honest insurance salesman or loan officer, we are all too eager to let down our guard, and we throw ourselves and our money at him or her with gratitude and relief. “I am so happy I found you,” we confide to the last person we should be confiding in, as we reel ourselves in. “You won’t believe the sketchy offers I got from the other guys.”

•••

Back home in Maine, at the island in our kitchen, I read and re-read the invoice for the deposit that Marsh had sent me. My wife and I had already agreed that we’d take the apartment, but with my checkbook open and my pen poised I did what I always do—I began to think through all the possible pros and cons (in both meanings of that word) of renting the apartment. I began to wonder whether I might not be falling into a trap, whether we might not find a better apartment in tomorrow’s ads, whether we should consider spending the month in San Francisco instead.

And that’s when I suddenly remembered something I hadn’t thought about in years. I remembered the time I ran into our neighbor, Joanne, at the supermarket. “Guess what happened to us?” she said. “We got an invitation to tour some condos in a time share complex.” Since the complex she named was the very same one where we’d been given the hard sell in that tiny cubicle, I figured she was about to tell me a similar horror story. “Even though we just went up there because we got this letter telling us we had won some special prize,” Joanne continued, “we ended up buying a time share. They explained that it’s a great investment — we can always sell our week for a big profit anytime we want—and the best part is that once you buy in, you can go there any time you want to use the facilities. They’ve got a pool, a golf course, a great dining room. We’ve been going almost every single weekend. We LOVE it!”

I looked again at the invoice. I took one more deep breath. And I wrote the check.

•••

LAD TOBIN has recently completed a collection of personal essays for which he’s seeking a publisher or agent. Essays from the collection have appeared in The Sun, The Rumpus, Utne Reader, and Fourth Genre. He teaches at Boston College and lives in Kittery Point, Maine. Connect with him on Facebook (lad.tobin) or twitter (@ladtobin).

Read more FGP essays by Lad Tobin.

Pin It

4 thoughts on “The Lack of Confidence Man

  1. Fantastic.
    I admire how you burrow into this seemingly dull topic to reveal its social significance and our human skepticism. Plus you made me laugh out loud.

      1. Thanks, Marietta and Antonia!
        The apartment we rented turned out to be fantastic. The landlord was great; the neighborhood, perfect. I have to confess, though, that whenever I’d look out our window and see the people on that idyllic terrace in the apartment below us, relaxing on those Adirondack chair, sipping their coffee or wine, lingering over the Sunday NYT, I’d get upset all over again.

Comments are closed.