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For what it's worth
February 07, 2014, 05:00 AM By Michelle Durand Daily Journal

Scams are a killer. Case in point: Late last month, a woman contacted South San Francisco police after receiving several text messages from an unknown Chicago-area phone number. The missive said someone had employed a group of assassins to murder her and “they” had her under surveillance but, if she would be kind enough to send $50,000, “they” would cancel the contract.

Not one assassin, mind you, but a team. This lady must be quite a lot to handle or else these individual hired guns aren’t too impressive as a solo operation. Next time, a lone stealthy ninja should suffice.

But let’s be realistic. Sure life and limb are precious and priceless but $50,000? If I were to receive similar text heads-ups about my impending doom — and by the way what kind of emoticon does that message call for? — the dollar figure would be a dead giveaway something’s not on the up and up. Nobody is going to hire one person to kill me, let alone an entire Assassin’s Creed following, and I seriously doubt my life price tag would hit those kind of digits even on the most compassionate of actuarial scales. Five bucks and a couple Starbucks cards? Maybe. Fifty large? Not so much.

This particular scammer or fraudsters get a few brownie points for creativity. The Nigerian lottery, foreign money laundering and email entreaties from professional acquaintances that say “help I’m trapped in the Philippines and need $3,000 ASAP” are so outdated. Same goes with the PG&E email bills and credit card hackers who brought irony to the store name “Target.” Banks can stem the tide on those financial losses; recovery is a tad harder when the victims voluntarily hand over the goods.

Another local scam also preys on the soft spots of the heart. Or is that head?

Just this week, another South San Francisco woman told police a stranger called to say he was holding one of her family members for ransom and instructed her to send $5,000 through Western Union to an undisclosed location in Mexico.

What? The kidnappers don’t take Bitcoin?

In any case, the caller knew the family member by name and relation and said the person would come to harm if the funds weren’t wired. No word on if the team of assassins are also behind this plan.

This swindling attempt, a play on the tired “jailed relative” ploy, is less creative than the contract killing or even last year’s “snake scam” but still a tad more interesting than those pigeon drops in which a person is asked to cough up money as a good-faith show against lottery winnings or finder fees.

A San Francisco panhandler once hoisted a sign announcing that his wife had been kidnapped and he only needed 27 cents to meet the ransom total. I handed over a dollar, a little extra just in case those pesky kidnappers came back.

But the street fundraiser couldn’t have seriously expected the public to find his cardboard plea sincere. Likewise, if anybody ever receives word I’m being held in lieu of $5,000, feel free to disregard. My taking would be more akin to the “The Ransom of Red Chief” by O. Henry and the captors would have to cough up a lot more than the original bounty to get me off their hands.

You can bet your bottom dollar, though, that the perfect storm of shady dealers and trusting individuals mean the hoaxes, rackets, con games and fast ones will always find an audience and a victim. The only answers are a heavy dose of skepticism and healthy sense of one’s self-worth.

Michelle Durand’s column “Off the Beat” runs twice a week. She can be reached by email: or by phone (650) 344-5200 ext. 102. What do you think of this column? Send a letter to the editor:



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