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, 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. This person 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 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 may be.”

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 businesses and home businesses 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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