Ryan Hanks rings our bell at 6:05pm. He’s a UCLA student and the son of Dr. Hanks, our neighbor around the corner. He’s collecting money for his baseball team (or maybe books for underprivileged kids – Sig Other heard one thing and I thought I heard another). He speaks quickly but with great ease. He’s a little embarrassed about the solicitation. And appropriately polite and gracious in his manner. The product of divorce, Ryan splits his time between his mother who lives in Orange County and his father, a specialist in orthopaedics at Children’s Hospital, who lives around the corner. After twenty minutes of conversation, Ryan learns that Sig Other has his own marketing company. He expresses interest in a summer job. And he walks away with $100 in cash for his cause. A few moments before, while standing at the front of our next-door neighbor’s house, Ryan discussed his 5 under par average and set up a golf game with the neighbor’s son. But only after getting a check for $200.
Ryan Hanks stands about 6 feet tall. He has blonde hair, parted down the middle. It hangs, rock-star-cool, just below his chin. He’s lean and lanky like an athlete, well-spoken and charming. The specifics of his life roll off his tongue so easily they couldn’t possibly be a simple recitation of a well-memorized and much-rehearsed fake dossier. But they are. There is no Dr. Hanks at the address he gave as his father’s. No Dr. Hanks at Children’s Hospital. And likely there is no Ryan Hanks enrolled at UCLA. Ryan Hanks, it turns out, is a fabrication.
And we fell for it. The smile, the embarrassed shuffle, the golly gee whiz of it all. This polite, blonde, well-educated white boy came to our door and we fell prey to our own gullibility. We WANTED to believe his story – we liked the idea that this well-groomed young man was doing something good in the world. Would we have fallen for the same story had the boy been black? Or Hispanic? Would Sig Other have engaged in thirty minutes of conversation if “Ryan Hanks” had not presented as a white, well-off, well-educated, well-meaning young man? Who knows? But that isn’t what fascinates me.
What fascinates me is that this degree of trickery – this mastery of social engineering – still exists in its analog form. The trouble this young man went to – the time he took – to make up such an elaborate story in order to swindle a few hundred bucks is incredibly old fashioned and almost quaint. He’s clearly quite bright. He’s clearly a gifted scam artist. He could make thousands, maybe even millions on the internet or by creating some social network scam. A kid like this would normally be sitting in front of a computer somewhere, hacking into my bank account or duplicating my credit card numbers. And I’d be making frustrated calls about the thousands mysteriously gone missing from my net worth overnight.
The modern world is so suspicious, so cynical, isn’t going door-to-door the HARDEST way to scam a buck? Wouldn’t almost anything be easier? Sit on a street corner with a sign and a hat, hang out by the ATM hoping some old lady forgets to grab her cash, play guitar badly on the 3rd Street Promenade. But don’t go door to door. People don’t open their doors anymore. No one wants to hear a sob story. Much easier to make up a story on line – easier to become someone else via Facebook or Twitter or MySpace. Ryan Hanks could make up any story on the internet and scam his way to riches in anonymity. He would never have to lie to anyone’s face. He would never have to shuffle his feet with false humility.
As crazy as this sounds, I am oddly impressed that in the era of social networking – in the era of texting and sexting and clicking our way to relationships – this young man bothered to spend the time to think up a story, learn it, rehearse it and perform it with ease. “Ryan Hanks”, budding scammer, is walking around, somewhere in LA, with an envelope full of cash earned from his rather stellar performance. I suppose our hundred bucks could be considered the price of admission to his one man show - for surely he got off just as much on his acting gig as he is on the money he’s scamming. And somehow, so did we.