Bunco Investigator Warns of Con Games Aimed at Small Businesses

Small businesses are frequently the target of a con game referred to as the “sugar sale.” Through a skillful use of words and manipulation, these con artists gain the trust of unsuspecting small businesses. Find out how these scams work so you can protect yourself.

The word Bunco comes from the Spanish word “banco,” which means bank, and the term is used by law enforcement to describe several criminal swindles. According to the National Association of Bunco Investigators (NABI), these schemes are also called confidence, or con, games.

The NABI states that in a con game the bunco operator gains the participant’s help or promises the participant money or goods. The conman gains the participant’s confidence by telling them a believable story. He or she will then ask the participant to show “good faith” by producing cash in advance for the promised money or goods.

“A bunco crime is a nickname for a street con game,” Jon Grow, the NABI’s executive director told me. “They are the same old con games, but they keep reinventing them and adding new twists.”

Grow, a retired detective sergeant said the NABI is an organization of more than 800 law enforcement officers and specialists in related fields, whose goal is to assist law enforcement in the identification, apprehension, and prosecution of bunco operators.

The veteran criminal investigator retired from the Baltimore City Police in 1992 after 28 years of service. Grow said he supervised a burglary squad and then coordinated all of the investigations concerning con games.

“Bunco was something nobody knew about or cared about, and I happened to learn about them and became very interested in these crimes,” Grow said.

I asked him about bunco operators targeting small businesses and he mentioned the “sugar sale,” which in street parlance is when small businesses are approached with a deal to purchase a number of electronic products at well below their actual price.

“And of course the person who gives them money ends up getting nothing,” Grow said. “We see an awful lot of businessmen getting hit.”

Grow explained that today’s prevailing attitude towards victims of bunco crimes – you can’t cheat an honest man, or if they hadn’t gotten greedy, they wouldn’t get scammed — is unfair.

“On the surface that’s what a lot of con games look like, but in reality, the thieves very carefully manipulate the potential victim, and they push what buttons they need to push to get the victims to do what they want,” Grow explained.

“So one may think the victim was just greedy or stupid, but there is far more to it than that,” Grow continued. “Out of necessity, bunco operators read people very well. They think they are in the best in the world, and considering their success rate, they just maybe.”

Grow went on to tell me how a conman starts off his career in crime. They begin, the way most criminals do, by committing petty larcenies at an early age, and they graduate to larceny, auto theft, burglary, hold-ups, and burglary. In their juvenile years, they will go in and out of prison a few times, turn 18, get a clean record, and keep on going until they are caught committing a more serious crime.

“They’ll go to jail for a couple of years, but jail to them is the equivalent of a university. This is where they learn,” Grow said. “An old-timer of the game takes them aside and shows them how to do things. And if they have the psychological smarts or whatever, they get out and do con games.”

I’ve been watching the TV program “The Riches,” which is about a family of Irish Travelers. I asked Grow about the Travelers and the Gypsies, two groups reputed to have mastered the con game.

“The Travelers and the Gypsies are two parallel societies. They are not all thieves, but we don’t deal with the honest ones, only the criminal element” Grow said in response.

Grow explained that the Rom Society, or Gypsies, emigrated from India in the 7th or 8th century, and moved towards the Mediterranean. In the 12th or 13th Century they moved to Eastern Europe and from there they moved throughout the world. They have their own separate society and culture, and they obey their own rules.

Grow said he has heard two theories concerning the origins of the Travelers. One theory is that when the Gypsies entered the British Isles they either married with the local population (which is unusual for Gypsies, Grow explained), and they developed into a new group with the same lifestyle as the Rom, but with different physical characteristics.

Grow said the other theory is that when tramps and thieves were traveling the world some of them fell in with Gypsies and they picked up their lifestyles and attitudes.

“The Scottish and Irish Travelers maintain their own culture, their own rules, and do their own thing,” Grow said. “We look at them primarily for repair fraud. A lot of them also do shoplifting and merchandise return schemes.”

Gypsies and Travelers have been known to pull pavement scams on homeowners and small businesses. This is when conmen offer to pave and reseal driveways and parking lots. They do the driveways and parking lots at a great price, but its substandard work at best.

Grow recommends that small business people deal only with licensed businesses.

“When you’re approached with leftover asphalt and they offer to do the work at a price far cheaper than it should be, that’s got to raise some questions,” Grow said.

Grow also talked about organized shoplifting rings that go into a business and take whatever is hot at the moment, such as computers and cameras. They know their orders and they know where they can dispose of the stolen merchandise.

Grow said that in some cases they pull a merchandise return scam. If a store has a no-questions-asked refund policy, the thieves will return and sell the shoplifted merchandise back to the businesses.

Grow told me of a security man he knows who works hard to prevent some of these scams and thefts, but he was told by management that they were in the business to sell merchandise, not guard it.

“Most businesses accept security as a necessary evil, but they don’t really pay much attention to it,” Grow said. “Some just write it off as a loss and figure that insurance will pay for it. But this makes the insurance rates go sky high for small businesses.”

I asked Grow for some parting advice on how small business and home business can avoid bunco operators.

“Just remember you don’t get something for nothing, and if it’s too good to be true, it probably is,” Grow said.

As I’ve written here before, you should join local business associations and meet regularly with the local police to learn of the con games and other crimes being pulled in your area. 

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