The bag with the real item is tucked away for another sucker sale
Buy-a-Brick (continued from Part 3)
(The making of ABC 20/20: Bait-and-Switch)
The lawlessness of Naples stunned us all. Even Bob and I, who have been there many, many times, were newly amazed at the reckless race of vehicles.
“They say the traffic lights are merely a suggestion,” our Roman driver laughed as he pulled to an abrupt halt. “Here we are.”
We had only a morning to shoot the scene and, as we hadn’t made an appointment with the con men, we’d need luck as well as efficiency. Would they be working? Would we find them on the corners we know of? Would there be any ships in port, full of potential suckers? Bob and I felt the pressure. We’d brought a network news crew all the way to Naples with no certainty whatsoever.
By 9:00 a.m. we were rigged and ready. Bob directed our driver to park at the ferry terminal, where hydrofoils depart for Capri. A small cruise ship was just tying up. That was a good sign.
I banished Bob to the wrong side of the street. Since we had brazenly filmed here several months before, it was possible they’d recognize him. No visible video cameras, we specified, or they’d never offer the sale. We must all be extremely cautious because we don’t know how an angry Napolitano crook might react. Neither do we know if any of the others loitering on the corner are their thugs. What we do know about is the proliferation of mafia gangs in Naples, their turf wars, and their violence.
From the maritime terminal parking lot, we observed the opposite side of the street with binoculars. A large news kiosk hulked on the corner, open for business as usual.
ABC 20/20’s investigative reporter Arnold Diaz and I crossed to the corner where we hoped to find our prey, who’d hope to prey on us. The rest of the crew trailed us at a distance. First we paused at the news kiosk. With hundreds of magazines on display, it would be good for at least ten minutes, time in which we could scrutinize the characters who hung around. Most were selling knock-off watches and showed their wares eagerly.
I noticed two scooters parked on the sidewalk. Both had roomy, lockable storage bins perched on the back. Aha! These, I knew, were where the con men kept their props. Another good sign. Of course, scooters are everywhere in Naples; these could belong to anyone.
Arnold and I moved halfway down the block and examined a shop window full of watches. Our corner seemed quiet. Other than fake Rolexes and cheap leather jackets, there were no deals to be had. Perhaps it was too early. We ambled back toward the magazine stand, wishing for a proposition.
“Cellphone?” A middle-aged man held out a shiny new-model Nokia. “Try! Call your home. I sell cheap.”
“Really? I can try it?” Arnold looked around to be sure the camera crew was in position. “How do I call America?”
“I don’t know, better call Italy,” the man said.
“I don’t know anyone in Italy,” Arnold said. “But it works? I believe you.”
After a little negotiation we settled on a price. $200 for two cellphones. “We can call each other, honey!” I said to Arnold, as he counted out cash. He counted slowly, giving Glenn Ruppel, our segment producer, and Jill Goldstein, our hidden camera expert, time to move into position to catch the switch. The two looked so completely innocent, standing there against a shop window, not ten feet from us. Glenn’s eyes roved everywhere as he pretended to be in an intense conversation on his cellphone. Jill seemed to be bored waiting for him. She looked down at her sneaker, turning her foot a bit as if examining the shoe. In fact, Jill was not looking at her shoe. She was looking into a hole cut in the top of her fanny pack, in which she had a video monitor. Jill had hidden button-sized cameras in the side of her clothing, in order to face away from the action. With the monitor, she could check that she was positioned correctly. Bob was across the street, watching the same scene he’d seen so many times before.
The salesman put the two phones in a box and looked around for his colleague, who came trotting over with transformers. They added these to the box, closed it, and put the box in a translucent plastic shopping bag. The salesman tied a tight knot in the bag.
Arnold handed over the money.
“Have you visited the castle?” the salesman asked, and pointed across the street to the thirteenth century Castel Nuovo. His English wasn’t too good, but he got his point across. He pointed, and our eyes couldn’t help but follow his broad gesture. In that instant, we knew, he and his accomplice swapped bags.
“Did they get it?” Arnold asked me. I glanced over at Glenn, still rapt in his phony phone conversation. He waggled one hand. What does that mean?! Sort of? A little? Don’t know? What to do now? We couldn’t very well back up and replay the scene. Arnold took the knotted bag and the deal was done. There was no hand-shaking.
Grinning, Arnold immediately began to untie the bag. The salesman and his colleague, watching warily, hurried away. Arnold tore open the box and looked inside. A water bottle. No cellphones.
“Hey!” he shouted. “Come back! Stop!”
The two men jumped onto their scooters and roared off into the crazy Naples traffic.
The five of us reconvened.
“Did you get it?” Arnold asked eagerly.
“I don’t know, we’re not sure.” Jill and Glenn said.
“Why don’t we try to interview a police officer,” Bob suggested. “They’re all around us. Let’s see how they react when we show them the water bottle.”
“Good idea,” Arnold said.
We walked across the street to the passenger ship terminal, where we thought there might be a chance of finding an officer who spoke a little English. No luck, but with Bob’s mixture of languages and the water bottle in the box as evidence, they understood perfectly.
“Allora,” the officer said, and threw up his hands. It was the all-purpose Italian expression that here, now, meant: idiots! you get what you pay for!
[This series on bait-and-switch started here.]
Excerpt from Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams
Chapter Eight: Con Artists and Their Games of No Chance