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Victim of a small-time con man – and of one’s own good intentions

He said his name was Brandon. He said he was embarrassed.

He said he needed gas money to drive to Coeur d’Alene and back. It was an emergency. He said he lived just down the street. I’m your neighbor, he said.

I thought he looked like one of the young people I’d seen around. He said he needed to pick someone up – his mother? his wife? – and they had his wallet and he’d bring the money right back … and somehow, even as I recognized the unmistakable template of the con, I found myself believing him. Hadn’t I, in fact, seen him in the neighborhood? Didn’t he live in the house three doors down? Plus this: What is wrong with me, if my only response to a person in need is to size up their criminal potential?

I didn’t have any change. So I gave him 20 bucks.

And, as you no doubt have ascertained, that was the last time I saw Brandon.

That would have been the end of it, but then a friend brought something to my attention this week. Her husband, she said, had given a young man at the door 20 bucks. For gas money. Her husband wanted to be a good neighbor, he said. He thought he recognized the kid.

My friend pointed me toward the last couple of issues of the Inlander, in the Cheers and Jeers section. It included a couple of notes about neighbor Brandon, such as this one:

“On Monday the 10th a stranger knocked on our door around the area of Market & Francis, claiming to be a neighbor from down the street that worked at Holy Family ER. … The guy said his name was Brandon and asked for $$ to get his wife back from Coeur d’Alene and he would pay us right back. If you’re reading this, I can’t believe my husband fell for your scam.”

This, it probably goes without saying, was a Jeer. Cheers and Jeers occupy that fun-to-read portion of the weekly newspaper’s classified ads that includes the “I Saw You” ads (i.e., “Lonely Guys’ Love Notes to Waitresses”).

In the past couple of weeks, Brandon has accumulated several Jeers. He’s been showing up all over town, it seems, and I’m not Spokane’s only sucker.

Officer Jennifer DeRuwe, spokeswoman for the Spokane Police Department, said minor cons like Brandon’s are pretty common – and fairly successful – here in the Lilac City.

“We are a very generous community,” she said, “and we like to think the best of people, and this happens quite often where people are taken advantage of.”

The guys in the parking lot at the grocery store. The sign-holding panhandlers. The skater kids downtown, hitting you up for change. It seems that there’s more of all this lately, and it would make sense given our economy. I don’t usually give, but I will sometimes, depending on my mood or the pitch or my need to feel more generous than I really am.

Sometimes I think I do it out of futile frustration with the mean-spiritedness in our politics – the petty meanness, the ginned-up justifications for selfishness, the overrationalized hard-heartedness. Not long ago, in an acrimonious email exchange over my support for Occupy Spokane, I was confronted with a demand: Had I ever failed to meet a financial obligation?

Why, yes. If you list all the mistakes a person can make, I’d have to check off a lot of boxes. I asked my correspondent if that made him feel morally superior. No, he said – just intellectually superior. But hey – superior all the same.

So sometimes, if I give that guy at the offramp a buck or give some change to the guy who says he wants it for beer, I’m not doing it because I think I’m generous or because I think the person asking is pure enough at heart. I’m doing it, on some level, because I want all those people – the unemployment specialist who writes anonymously to me to rail against the lazy, the guys who proclaim we’re in an epidemic of people refusing to work – to fail in their rhetorical bid to demonize need.

Which is, I know, stupid.

Most of the people Brandon fleeced are just trying to be kind. Cathy Dietrich is another person who recently fell for the out-of-gas story. An English teacher at Ferris, Dietrich said she just found herself quickly, intuitively persuaded that the young man at her door needed help. She also gave him $20.

As soon as she closed the door, she said, she knew she’d been had. “There were so many clues I should have picked up on,” she said.

Dietrich incorporated her experience into her recent teaching of “Julius Caesar,” to illustrate one of her main themes: People view others through the prism of their own experience. Cassius is manipulative and dishonest, and he expects dishonesty from others; Brutus is honorable and noble, and he expects honesty from others. He comes to a bad end, listening to the cunning Cassius.

I think she makes a good point, though I didn’t give Brandon money because I’m fundamentally honest. I gave it to him because I’ve been desperate and broke and stupid and flailing about for help I did not deserve, and I know – or I hope, at least – that being stupid is not a life sentence.

In any case, Brandon’s got our money, and we’re the ones red in the face now.

“I was embarrassed about it, and I didn’t want to tell my husband,” Dietrich said. “I finally told him about it two weeks later.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.