by Anthony Georgieff

Con artists thrive in difficult economic times

If you read the newspapers either in Bulgaria or abroad you will get the largely correct impression that Bulgaria in 2011 is a state where organised crime and politics have – somewhat uniquely even by Balkan standards – amalgamated themselves into a far-reaching network of corruption and nepotism. The sole purpose of this is quite simple: to steal money either from the state coffers or from ordinary taxpayers, from EU funds allocated to various projects or even from Western NGOs which donate to what they think are worthy causes.

What the newspapers often omit to say, however, is that scammers in Bulgaria most often target ordinary folk, especially gullible elderly people, supermarket cashiers and kids clutching their hard-earned pocket money, given to them by their parents.

In Bulgaria there is a saying which roughly translates as "A poor man is a living devil." Especially at a time of economic collapse, such as now, it should resonate with anyone setting foot south of the Danube: watch out for all kinds of scammers and con artists, who will go to any lengths to make you part with your cash.

One scheme employed until a few years ago, during the property boom, was the Unfinished Property Cheat. Encouraged by unscrupulous agents, a foreigner arrives here and immediately is overwhelmed with so many choices of what is presented to him as his very own "place in the sun." He looks around, settles on a half-built villa in a Bulgarian village with an unpronounceable name, and coughs up the cash. In six months' time, when he returns to settle into his new dream house, he finds the construction work at exactly the same stage as when he last saw it. The builders have gone bust or moved on to another location. Now begins the wild goose chase for the luckless would-be purchaser.

Another one is the Rightful Owner Scam. There is a real property, it looks finished, you pay the money and then, after a certain period of time, someone else shows up and claims ownership. A legal wrangle ensues. You pay solicitors, but the judge finally decides that, because of a missing signature on a piece of notarised paper in a language you don't understand, you are not the bona fide owner. Your money's gone down the drain.

The property boom is over now and hardly any housing or office space changes hands these days.

But the swindlers are thriving. The following are examples of recent scams that are not very likely to affect foreigners or expats, but it is still worth being aware of them because... in these countries one never knows.

The Sick Relative Scam. Usually deployed against elderly people living by themselves. The phone rings and you pick it up. A grave voice tells you he is a doctor. You are informed your son/daughter/nephew/niece/other relative has had an accident and needs an urgent operation. You are instructed to go out with the 5,000 leva in cash needed to bribe the medical staff so that "everything is in order." A significant number of elderly people have fallen victim to this scam, and the Bulgarian newspapers, especially in the provinces, continue to report cases like this every day.

One modified version of the Sick Relative Scam is the Arrested Relative Scam. You are told that your relative (perhaps a very distant one – the person calling you will actually be egging you on to reveal a real name) has been involved in a road accident leaving others severely injured or dead. The matter can be "solved" with the assistance of 3,000 leva needed to bribe the cops. Get the money and go out with it...

The Pay-on-Delivery Parcel Scam. Someone appears at your door and presents you with a parcel. You were not expecting any parcel? No problem, the scammer will persuade you that the sender is someone you used to know a long time ago. Someone who's lived in America for many years and has suddenly decided to re-establish links with you by sending you a valuable present in a parcel. Yes, of course it is completely free. Yes, you only have to pay the postage. You end up with a huge cardboard box with a brick in it.

The Get-Rich-Quick-by-Buying-Spare-Parts Scam. Someone, maybe even someone you know, tells you that a manufacturer of spare parts such as needles, cogwheels and so on, is going bust and selling off their wares dirt cheap. Buy them and then resell – and you get rich quick. Once you pay the money you do get some spare parts in the post, but these are of the rusty type used in railway construction work in the 1950s. It is amazing how popular this scam is in some parts of the country, for example northern Bulgaria. The authorities at a major railway station actually put up a notice warning passengers to beware of artful dodgers trying to sell them "spare parts."

The Lost Cash Scam. Usually carried out on the street. Someone bumps into you and says hello. You don't recognise them. "You don't remember me? We met at the wedding/funeral/party/some other event of Mr X." You still don't remember. "No, it wasn't Mr X, it was Mrs Y." "But Mrs Y is 62 years old, a bit late for a wedding," you reply. "No, no it wasn't Mrs Y but her daughter, and it wasn't you, but your brother." The trick here is to get you involved in a conversation. Once you start talking you are bound to produce some names that will immediately be picked up by the scammer. The purpose of this: "You know what, someone just stole my wallet. I need 10 leva to buy a ticket back to... I'll return the money to Mrs Y."

The Supermarket Cigarettes Scam. A respectable-looking gentleman enters a supermarket and fills a trolley with a pile of expensive wares. At the checkout he asks for two packs of cigarettes. He is given two packs, but then exclaims: "Oh, I forgot to buy chocolates. I didn't see where they were." The helpful cashier goes to get the chockies for the gentleman. "And two packs of cigarettes, please." He is given another two packs. When it comes to paying, the gentleman starts fishing in his pockets and after a minute cries: "Oh God, I've left my wallet at home! May I please leave all of my stuff here, I live nearby, I'll go get my money and be back in five minutes." A respectable-looking elderly gentleman like that...

Question: Where are the four packs of cigarettes?


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