I want to tell this tale because it is the perfect example of a well executed con, and proof that no matter where you are, you're responsible for your own safety and well being.
I was sitting with business associates at a restaurant table in a very nice, downtown Bucharest hotel that's owned, or at least managed by a well known, well respected, American hotel chain. I excused myself to go to the washroom. As I entered I was followed in by a well dressed young man who had been standing near the facility entrance. Seeing he was loitering near the washrooms was a red flag, so I was on my guard immediately.
There was no one else in the washroom, so I opted for a stall rather than use the urinals which would require me to have my back to the room. I have to admit that although I knew something wasn't kosher, I was convinced the man was a pickpocket waiting for hotel guests to be preoccupied at the urinals so he could lift their wallets. My second, less worrisome suspicion was that he was a male prostitute and I may have to deal with his unwanted advances. I'm straight, and in no way a homophobe, but I don't appreciate having to fend off unwanted advances... which I will do physically if need be.
I could hear the fellow fumbling about on the other side of the toilet stall door, washing his hands, drying them, all the while mumbling to himself or talking on the phone... all indications he wasn't going to be leaving before I do.
I was told of a very simple, yet deadly self defence technique by a woman who was an author of French travel books and articles. She was a tiny woman who always traveled alone. She had told me that anytime she was concerned about someone lurking nearby she would place her keys in her right hand with all of the pointed ends sticking out. One punch, even from a tiny woman like her, was going to tear flesh and likely blinds someone if she hit them in the eye. I prepared myself to do as she advised. Keys in hand with the serrated ends sticking out between my fingers like the business end of a mediaeval mace, I exited the stall.
As I expected, I was not going to be ignored. The man asked me what the time was by pointing to his wrist, so I looked at my watch and told him it was almost 2:00 PM. This drew a blank stare, so I reiterated by saying it was 14:00. Most Europeans use the hour to denote morning or evening, the same way military personnel do. He motioned that he did not understand, and needed to see my watch. He took a look at what was a fairly expensive watch, seemed satisfied, and made for the door. I had a split second to scold myself for being overly cautious before the con began to rapidly unfold.
The fellow was barely able to open the door before an older, more shabby dressed man entered the washroom, pushing the younger man back in and up against the sinks. The new arrival turned to me and informed me the man was an illegal money changer, and that we were both under arrest. He flashed some sort of documents, but not long enough for me to have a chance to see them clearly, even if they had been written in a language I understood. That was the first mistake the duo made that tipped me off this newcomer was not what he was pretending to be. The other mistake was that he made no effort to handcuff the man he knew to be a criminal and who was supposed to now be under arrest.
I said that I had not exchanged any money and started for the door. Of course the fellow stepped in front of me, informing me we needed to clear the matter up at his station house. As we walked out of the washroom, he and the "arrested" man, who as still on in handcuffs, turned toward the rear exit. I knew the hotel had police stationed at the front entrance, so I turned in that direction. The "policeman" told me his car was parked out back. I told him that a uniformed police officer was stationed at the front entrance and that he was only police officer I'd be riding with. The "policeman" argued a bit, but I was already walking towards the front door and short of him tackling me in front of the hotel staff and guests, I wasn't going to stop. He and his "prisoner" continued walking towards the rear exit.
I got back to my table and was asked where I'd been for so long, so I explained all of what happened. Lunch was over, but not our conversation so we headed to the lounge. There, seated in a booth together, was the "policeman" and the "illegal money changer". I pointed them out to my associates, and to my surprise they both approached them. A conversation in Romanian ensued and the two con artists handed over their wallets. One of my associates look through the wallets, removed the "police ID card" from the one, and all of the cash from both, putting the contents in his pocket. Both the con artists got up sheepishly and left the lounge. The fellow that emptied the wallets turned and sat down at a nearby table, announcing our drinks were to be covered by the con artists.
It turns out the fellow I was having lunch with, a local businessman, was a far better actor than the con men. He convinced them that he was a police officer, and that I had reported that they'd attempted to abduct me. Both men denied ever seen me before we'd approached the table, a case of mistaken identity they insisted. However, neither felt confident enough to call foul at having their wallets looted, nor being relieved of the critical prop in their scam. Ironically, what I thought was fake police identification was actually authentic, but the fellow presenting it to me had a drivers license in a different name. On the way out of the hotel, the policeman at the door was handed the official police ID and told it had been found under a chair in the lounge.
I was in Romania representing a German firm when this occurred. I report to my employer that the fellow I met was quick thinking, highly intelligent, creative, not easily intimidated. I concluded that he was not someone to be taken for granted during any follow up negotiations. Back in Germany, my telling of how I arrived at my assessment of the fellow's character was well received. It was precisely the type of insight they were after. My report was also instrumental in the man's firm earning the opportunity to become a major supplier of prefabricated window assemblies to one of Germany's largest building supply chains. Ironically, this fellow had noted something about me too, which he told my employers when they asked about the affair in the hotel. What he said was that I was quick thinking, intelligent, creative, not easily intimidated, and obviously capable of smelling yesterday's catch at the fish market. I learned this is a Romanian saying, used to refer to someone who isn't easily taken advantage of.. It was a good enough recommendation to secure me additional investigative research assignments from the same company.
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