The award-winning play, Six Degrees of Separation is based on the existential premise that everyone in the world is connected by no more than six people. The play by John Guare and later 1993 film are favourites of mine, so imagine my surprise when last month I was unwittingly the subject of an elaborate con using the same methods as Guare’s play
The play’s origins came from the true-life story of a con man called David Hampton, who convinced a number of people in 1980s New York that he was the son of actor Sidney Poitier. Hampton conned his way into the lives
of an upscale Manhattan couple (friends of Guare) and the subsequent events inspired his play years later.
I’ve had a working career that’s taken many twists and turns; I act a bit, I write a bit, sometimes I’m a news pundit on various radio stations and I have a property business. But it’s my role as bar owner and pub landlord that made me a sitting duck for this particular scam.
Think about it, being behind a bar and front of house for several years; the amount of people that you chat to, that you pretend to remember, but have no idea of their names is endless. Thank the stars for greetings such as ‘mate’ and ‘love’. So when I answered the business phone one Monday morning to a chirpy, friendly-sounding Geordie, I had no idea I would be played using one of the oldest cons in the book.
The phone call caught me slightly off guard. I was late opening and running around setting the last few things up. “It’s Lee the Builder”, he said and told me that he had just called my other business and spoken to Sarah who worked there, who had told him I was at my other location. He made small talk asking how I was and chatted about how Sarah and some other staff were doing while I desperately racked my brains trying to pinpoint who he was.
Had he done work for me in the past? Was he one of the many regulars I converse with from time to time in the bar whose names escape me? Politely, I started digging, not letting on that I didn’t know him. He mentioned his girlfriend Rachel who was pregnant, and detailed his story, connecting the names it needed for me to think that we’d met before. The entire time I just couldn’t place him.
Anyway, the reason for his call was that he was told I might be in the market for a top of the range, curved surround sound TV. His friend was selling two for a remarkably cheap price. He wanted one but couldn’t afford both and his contact had to get rid of them both that day. Did I fancy one? Not really, I said.
He then changed tack, and said he wondered if I needed any work doing to any of my properties. He had a proposal for me, he was training apprentices in all trades and he was looking for a project for the assessment. Labour and materials would all be free and work would be externally assessed by professionals. If I took the TV, he could sort the refurbishment work. Squaring off £10k worth of building work for £400 meant the deal was now becoming interesting.
Feeling a little overwhelmed when asked if he could send one of his lads over for the money, I asked him to give me ten minutes to think about it. I called Sarah at the other bar as I needed reminding of where I knew him from. Of course, Sarah didn’t know him. She was confused as to why he had called her, digging around for information on me.
The penny dropped. Unless we had both misread the situation and Lee the builder was a nice guy trying to do me favour, the obvious reality was that Lee was a hustler. When he called me back, I was straight with him. I didn’t know who he was and neither did Sarah. He said he’d pop down later and see me face to face and explain everything. Needless to say, he didn’t turn up and I never heard from him again. Thankfully,
I never parted with the money.
Writing this now, it seems so obvious. But at the time and like the play, film and the real life con by David Hampton in New York, I was blindsided by the obvious connections of friends and acquaintances that we were supposedly linked by. As much as the shrinking world and its interconnections make us feel closer, like this con, it can often leave you exposed and ripe for the picking.
Iain Hoskins is playing Jack Stapleton in Hounds of the Baskervilles at the Stoke Rep Theatre 31stJuly-4thAugust @united_theatre
Words by Iain Hoskins