By Frederic Friedel
I have said it before: I am basically a scammer. An amateur who has never made a penny off his scams, but quite talented, you must admit.
The art of scamming includes seizing the moment — the Romans called this carpe diem. Opportunities arise on a daily basis, and if you make use of them you can impress people no end and earn a big reputation. I’ll give you my most recent example.
Yesterday was my birthday and we spent it in a lovely salt water thermal spa just south of Hamburg, Germany. There, splashing around in the open air pool, I passed three ladies and heard one of them say to the other: “You probably have sunshine back home in Wales.” Here it was a cloudy day. She said it in English, with a slight German accent.
Now the trick is to wait. About ten minutes later the three were passing me in a different pool, and I smiled at them, saying: “This is lovely, isn’t it?” They smiled back and one of them said: “Yes, it really is.” I looked at her intensely and said: “Wales?” “Yes,” she and her friend replied with a surprised expression, “we are from Wales. How did you know?” “Oh, your accent, a slight inflection in your speech.” Now they were really mystified: “But I only said three or four words! How could you tell?” “I’m a phonetician,” I replied, “I’m an expert on dialects.” Then turning to the third lady I said: “And you are the German host of these two guests from Wales, yes?” Now they were positively flabbergasted. She was, but how could I possibly know that of complete strangers?
Another ten minutes and they were back to ask me for further explanations. Amateur that I am I revealed it all to them, told them the exact mechanism of the scam. Two ladies asked by a German about the weather back home in Wales, and a little guesswork, that was all it took. They were suitably impressed, not by meeting an incredibly astute phonetician and Sherlock Holmes detective, but by an encounter with a clever scammer.
I call this the Higgins Ploy, after Professor Henry Higgins in Pygmalion and My Fair Lady. When asked how he is able to tell where people are from in the first scene, says:
“Anyone can spot an Irishman or a Yorkshireman by his brogue, but I can place a man within six miles. I can place him within two miles in London. Sometimes within two streets.”
I did study a bit of phonetics as part of Linguistics, which was my subsidiary subject at University. But of course I don’t come close to anything Higgins could do. In Germany I can tell the region, the state from which a person comes, with fair reliability. And of course I put that to use all the time. In chance encounters or phone conversations I will say, after the first sentences: “Erfurt, right? Definitely Sachsen.” It impresses people profoundly.
This brings us to a second principle of scamming: always guess! In this case hearing an accent from a particular region, Sachsen, name a prominent town from that area. In one case out of ten they will say: “Yes, that’s exactly where I am from, how did you know?” and are deeply impressed. In five out of ten they will say, “No, but close by,” and will also be impressed. And in the few cases you got completely wrong they will not go around telling people about the world-class phonetician they met who could not identify their accent correctly. That’s the scam rule: hits will be reported enthusiastically, with details added to make them even more impressive. Misses will immediately fade into oblivion.
The other thing you can use is cold reading: listen to the reaction of your victim and present your observations as your own super-human abilities. For instance if he or she says “No, Leipzig,” (which is a city not far from Dresden) say something like “That was my first impression, based on the way you spoke the word [something], which sounded like Leipzig vowels…” etc., etc. I the end you can say “So clearly you are from Leipzig, you grew up and went to school there. I can hear that in a second.” Their story will transform to “…and after I had just spoken a dozen world he said ‘Ah, you are are from Leipzig, you went to school there’. Absolutely amazing.” Cold reading is a technique used extensively by mentalists, psychics, fortune-tellers, mediums and illusionists — i.e. by scam artists — to imply that they know much more about the person than they actually do.
I will give you one more example of a Higgins scam, probably one of my finest. I was once invited to a lunch by the Mayor of Tromsø in Norway. The guest of honour was a fifteen-year-old chess super-talent named Magnus, and walking over to the table with him I said: “Your father [Henrik] speaks excellent English!” “Everyone in Norway does,” replied Magnus. “But he is Norwegian, right, that is his first language? He speaks that perfectly as well?” “Sure,” said Magnus, “with a slight Norden accent.” (Norden is an area to the north west of Oslo). And we arrived at the table and started with the formal luncheon.
Naturally the conversation was in Norwegian, but after a few minutes the Mayor said: “Hey, wait a minute, we have Frederic here, we should switch to English.” “No, that’s fine,” I said, “I love to hear Norwegian. You are from Norden, Henrik?” “Yes!” he said, “How do you know?” “From your accent. It is very subtle, but I could tell.” Now everyone was listening. “You speak Norwegian, Frederic?” “No, I am a phonetician, and the dark vowels and some of your plosives betrayed you.” There was a lively conversation and an outpouring of admiration for the fact that someone who did not speak the language was able to tell, after the few words that Henrik had spoken, exactly where he was from. And all the while young Magnus was bowed over his plate, shaking his head in disbelief. Fred’s a scammer!
I told the luncheon guests how I had done it. They were not offended, and in fact had a number of scam stories of their own. I was deeply impressed by one described by Magnus’ security guard. He told me he had taught his two-year-old son to look at the clock and say “It’s four thirty-two.” You can guess what this was for: with guests in his home he would, at just the right moment, say “Christian, what time is it?” And bring the house down. That is world class scamming.