Is there anything illegal about this scam?

Here’s the scam, I read it in a book by Neil Gaimen, so I won’t take credit:

A young man, dressed as a student, goes into a restaurant and eats dinner. When it comes time to pay the bill, he discovers that he doesn’t have his wallet. He explains the situation to the restaurant owner and says

“Here, this is my violin. I am a student of music at the local college. Hold on to my violin as collaterol while I run back to my house and get my wallet.”

At this point, the student leaves. A women, well dressed and older, approaches the restaurant owner. She says:

“I don’t mean to intrude, but may I see that violin?” She then examines the violin, and continues like so:

“I knew it right when I saw it… this is a very special violin! I am an antiques dealer, and I specialize in musical instruments. This is worth well over $20,000!”

Then she looks at her watch and continues “Oh shoot, I have to catch this train. Please please please give my business card to that student when he returns, I need to talk to him about this instrument!”

The dealer then departs, and the student soon returns.

At this point, the restaurant owner may give the student the card and the instrument, and the scam falls apart, but the scammers are out the cost of two meals. Where it gets interesting is if the owner of the restaurant says something like this:

“You know, my daughter was thinking about playing the violin… is there any change you would want to sell this instrument?”

and the student replies “No, not really”

and the owner continues “What if I was to give you $3000 for it?”

and the student replies “Well, I have been playing it for six years now, I really don’t want to get another”

and the owner ups his offer, and finally buys the violin for $10,000.

Of course, it is a $100 violin from a yard sale, and the student and the dealer are in cahoots and split the money.

Is there anything illegal about this, or is it just a story about a fool and his money?

I saw a scam like this worked out on tv once. A ring was used, and the story plays the same. Since it is too good to be true, I assume its illegal somewhere, on some account, I just don’t know where.

Sounds like fraud to me.

I guess another question though is can fraud be proven in this case.

Let’s say the woman really is an antiquities dealer. She’s tracked down later and claims that she just wanted to talk to the kid and examine the violin more closely.

Hard to believe someone would fall for it though. And most people don’t have 10k in liquid assets that handy.

“Fraud” is too general of a term to be useful here. There is a civil cause of action called fraud (elements are: knowing misrepresentation of a material fact to plaintiff by defendant, intended by defendant to induce plaintiff to rely on the misrepresentation, actual and reasonable reliance by plaintiff, and damages), but I’m not familiar with any crime just called “Fraud”, although I (a) don’t practice criminal law, and (b) any familiarity I have with US state criminal codes is limited to Illinois.

There are specific criminal statutes that deal with certain narrow types of fraud (wire fraud, mail fraud, securities fraud), but Violin Fraud isn’t one of them. What the OP is describing is a confidence (“con”) game. In Illinois, I suspect it would be prosecuted under one of two statutes: Theft (720 ILCS 16-1), which includes theft by deception, or Deceptive Practices (720 ILCS 17-1), which is a lesser offence.

A couple things:

  1. If I tell someone I have a “half ct. genuine diamond ring” for sale at $1000, and it’s really cubic zirconia, and the persons buys it for $1000, have I broken a law? Surely it would be an unethical transaction on my part. But if the claim is not in writing, have I broken a law?

  2. It looks like both parties have ethical problems in the OP story. So do they cancel out?

But isn’t the restaurant owner, in this situation, also trying to defraud the student? He believes the instrument is worth 20 000 , but try to buy it for 3 000 . The scam wouldn’t work if the restaurant ower was honest at the first place, instead of trying to take advantage of a clueless student. Isn’t he trying to “deliberately deceive another in order to damage him” as you put it?
I must admit I would have very little sympathy for the restaurant owner in this case, and that morally speaking, he deserved what happened to him (exactly what he tried to do to the student). It’s a clear case of black kettles and pots.
I wonder how often, statistically, such a scam is working, since it relies on both :

1)The victim being dishonest
2)The idea that he could buy the violin for cheap occuring to him

That con’s got to be a good deal older than Neil Gaiman … saw an example on a twenty-year old episode of Lovejoy only a couple of weeks ago, and it must have had whiskers on it by then.

At a guess, under English law, it’d be something like “obtaining money by deception” - the two con artists conspire together to do the deceiving. And, yes, it depends on the cupidity and greed of the victim … doesn’t make the con artists any less crooks, though, does it?

(And misrepresentation is misrepresentation, whether it’s written down or not, Crafter_Man. At the very least, if you tell someone a cubic zirconia is a diamond, in England and Wales they’d do you under the Sale of Goods and Services Act 1979 … )

  1. Yes. See above re: deceptive practices. If you are in the business of selling diamonds, you’d also run afoul of the Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Trade Practices Act (which might have a slightly different name in your state, but most states have one). You’d also be liable civilly for fraud and breach of contract.

  2. No. Aside from certain equity maxims not relevant here, it’s not a defense (either civilly or criminally) if the victim is a bad guy too.

How in the world would the restaurant owner ever find these people again?
Once he had bought the violin and called the (assuming) non-working number the two would surely have skipped town. And even if you found one of them it couldn’t prove a thing, guy:“he wanted to buy my violin for $5000. I didn’t ask him to buy it from me, he offered $5000 and I accepted.” lady: “I said I thought the violin may be worth $30,000 and wanted to talk to the guy. I never said I would buy it.”
Plus you’d have to prove they were in on it together if you could even find both of them.

On a related note: Baseball Card pricing guide says my 1948 Stan Musial card is worth $900. No dealer wants to buy it for $900. Similar cards sell for about $300 on e-bay. Is the pricing guide fraudulent for saying my card is worth $900?

More often than you might think. Many, if not most con games rely upon the dishonesty/greed of the mark. For example, a completely honest target of the Pigeon Drop con would suggest turning the “found” money to the authorities and not agree to share in it. Other marks think that they are buying stolen property, or otherwise getting some kind of illicit deal. It’s well worth watching for other reasons, but The Sting illustrates several cons.

And even if the first 5 restauranteurs are honest, eventually it’d work. (The odds of success would be greater if the “student” was presented unsympathetically, as somehow deserving to lose the value of the violin. That’s why the pigeon drop bag often has something in it to suggest that the money was obtained illegally or immorally - it makes the mark more willing to cheat the "owner.)

Interesting. Have you asked the guide author about this? Maybe it’s an error on their part.

I don’t have an explanation for the discrepancy between 900 and 300 here, but I would assume the guide would list a “retail” price. Dealers sell at retail prices, they don’t buy at them. A dealer may well expect to sell at double or more his cost.

Indeed. It was featured in a nearly forty-year-old episode of Steptoe & Son (the British series on which Sanford and Son is based) in which Harold (the son) is taken in when a fellow brings in an ugly old po (chamber pot and cabinet) that his wife has been pestering him to get rid of. I forget why, but the exchange isn’t finalized – the fellow goes away and leaves it in their yard, saying he’ll come back later. Meanwhile an antique dealer comes in and finds a mark on it that identifies it as the Prince of Wales own chamber-pot, and declares that he must have it at any price. He goes away and the original fellow comes back and says that he’s decided he’s too attached to it for sentimental reasons and won’t sell it after all. Harold of course offers him more and more cash for it until the fellow “reluctantly” accepts and walks away with the cash.

Then old Albert starts cackling away – all through the episode, Harold has been condesendingly going on about he was going to take over and raise the “tone” of the place, so they can start making some “real money.” Albert has known it was a setup from the start, and laughs as he explains that the “antique dealer” will never return, and that Harold had been taken by a con that was so old that only suckers bit on it even when old Albert was still in short pants. He just held his tongue to teach him a lesson, and said it served him right for being a greedy SOB willing to practically rob a customer.

What is the “pigeon drop” scam?

The Pigeon Drop. The site is House of Con Games, and it’s pretty interesting.

Yup. It doesn’t sound like it would work (why the hell is “good faith money” necessary?) but it does. Greed blinds people.

And don’t forget Conspiracy and Fraud Schemes.

As far as the proof they’re working together, they’ll probably be found together if they’re found at all.

And, people of this sort often get caught up over time as various records of their police contacts get put together. For example, the “student” is seen and accosted later by the victim. Police get involved and hear the victim out. Records checks on the “student” show an earlier police contact (for, say, an argument at a motel) during which the “student” was associated with an older female. The female’s picture (from a driver’s license or earlier arrest) is located and later shown to the victim in a photo line-up. The victim picks her out as the “antique dealer.”

This is one reason that scammers tend to move around a lot and try not to use drivers licences or identification.


OK…I read it, and still, I don’t get it. Why would you have to bring some of your own money to “show responsability” in order to share the found money?? It doesn’t begin to make sense… :confused: . I mean, many victims of scammers can be pretty naive, but at least there’s some explanation provided for why they should do what they’re asked to do (like in the case of the “nigerian” scammers or even the violin…There’s a logical reason to fork out money in these case). Maybe it’s because the explanation given on the site is too short, but in this case, I can’t understand the reasonning.

Not to derail, but it’s quite normal for the prices listed in collectables guides to be 3x (or even more!) what you’ll actually be able to get for the item on the open market, especially on eBay. It’s not an error, it’s just that, when dealing with collectables particularly, the difference between an appraisal value, potential dealer/retail value, and what you’ll actually get for a private sale is huge.

Things are ultimately worth what people are willing to pay for them (or insure them for) and that’s influenced a lot by who’s doing the selling. Which actually makes me wonder…

In our violin scam, what if the antiques dealer simply identified herself as a collecter (therefore making no implication of any professional appraisal skills) and said “Oh my, this particular violin is easily worth $20,000 to the right buyer. I would so love to have one like it for myself, I wonder if I could talk him down to $15,000. I have to go, but when he comes back, please give him my card.” And then she hands over a plain social card with just a name and phone number. No claiming that the violin has a set value, just that she might be willing to purchase it for $15,000, and that someone out there would consider it worth even more.