Beware of Maggie's Table Switch and Other Ways Ripoff Artists Victimize You
Scams are the growth industry of the Me Generation. That is the disturbing message in a new book, Ripoff: How to Spot It, How to Avoid It (Andrews and McMeel, $5.95), by Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine senior editor Peter Maiken, 45. After interviewing 200 victims and perpetrators, Maiken is convinced that "everybody's doing it"-from the cab driver who fails to erase the previous fare to the bartender who waters drinks. Maiken grew up in the Midwest and earned his bachelor's degree in history from Beloit College. After a four-year hitch in the Navy, he reported for two Illinois newspapers and became the editor of the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine before moving to the Washington Star. Now back in Chicago, Maiken, the divorced father of three sons aged 12 to 17, is a tennis buff, a self-described "barroom pianist" and a cook who makes his own tomato juice and bakes his own bread. He also raises herbs in the kitchen window of his 19th-floor apartment a block from the Tribune offices. He talked about the ripping off of America with Caryl Conner for PEOPLE.
Why were people willing to talk to you about their cheating?
A lot of them wanted recognition of how clever they were. It wasn't enough to engineer the ripoff and benefit from it financially. They wanted a little pat on the back, too. A few also wanted to help people, to reveal how widespread ripoffs are and show what inattentive customers most of us are. They'd say, "Hey, I'm warning you. Now look out." Like the caterer who makes rum punch with rum flavoring and no rum, or "marries" liquor-pours rotgut into a brand-name bottle, then charges you for the expensive brand.
Did any ripoff artists feel guilty?
Sure. Some used me like a priest, to confess. One cashier told how she shoplifted at the store where she worked. She'd come in early, do her shopping and get a phony register tape to clip to her bag before she went home. A grocery clerk admitted he gypped customers by charging the regular price for sale items. Plenty of people were ashamed of what they did. Some of them blamed "the system," but still felt bad.
Did people inform on their co-workers?
Some did. An auto press operator was really disgusted with what she saw-the abuses of workmen's compensation, for example. People were purposely cutting themselves by walking between stacks of jagged metal. Every stitch they got had a specific price tag, and they knew just what it was. One lady wanted to buy a new car, so she cut herself just enough to get the down payment.
What is the extent of all these ripoffs?
The General Accounting Office estimates fraud and white-collar crime cost the federal government up to $25 billion in 1978. The Department of Commerce believes that employee theft cost American businessmen $18 billion in 1977—compared to $3 billion only 10 years ago. Even with inflation, that's quite an increase. In fact, employee theft adds 15 percent to the cost of everything we buy.
How do you figure that?
These are the best government and industry estimates. No one can say with ultimate accuracy what the total bill adds up to. Asking how often you were ripped off last year is like asking how often you were rained on—the truth of the matter is no one really remembers.
What would add 15 percent to the cost of, say, reupholstering a couch?
Let's assume the job is done locally in a little shop. Suppose the upholsterer has a chair of his own at home that he wants to recover. He just buys seven or eight extra yards of fabric for himself and passes the cost on to you, the unsuspecting consumer.
Doesn't the scam often happen right under the customer's nose?
All the time. And larceny is contagious. A cocktail waitress I interviewed started out in her job fairly honest, but she learned to be crooked. She watched the exploits of a woman we'll call Maggie, who was legendary. Maggie never marks a table number on a check. You go in there with a friend, have a couple of drinks and a pack of corn snacks, and run up a tab of $12 or $14. But when it comes time to pay, Maggie doesn't give you your bill, she gives you someone else's bill for, say, $26. You look at it and say, "I couldn't have had that many drinks!" And then Maggie says, "Oh, yes you did, it's all itemized," and she leans over and goes down the check with you. Most people pay.
And if they don't?
Maggie suddenly apologizes, "Gee, I'm sorry. You're right, I gave you the wrong check. Well, I'm only human, I make mistakes." The waitress I talked to watched Maggie and some of the others pulling these shenanigans, and finally she figured, "Why shouldn't I get mine too?"
Is Maggie typical?
I don't want to make a blanket indictment of any group. Not every cocktail waitress is a crook. On the other hand, there is nothing atypical about any of this. Ripoffs aren't the special province of a lawless minority. The next waitress who serves you might be totally honest, she might use the same trick as Maggie or she might have some new trick of her own.
So your advice is to look at your check in a bar very carefully?
Oh, yes. And the same goes in a restaurant, hotel, parking lot—everywhere. But that won't stop people. If they cheat, all anybody can do is call them on it. Then they just tell you they're sorry, they made a mistake. It's a very easy out when they get caught.
Your picture is on your book jacket. Will people be looking out for you?
I doubt it. One guy at my parking lot always tries to bump the charge by 25¢ or 50¢, whatever he can get away with. I call him on it all the time, but he keeps right on doing it. The rates are complicated—so much for the first half hour, so much for the second. If you park for four hours, it's not something you can easily add up in your head.
How about gas stations?
A favorite ripoff among gas station attendants is "hanging the pump"—that is, not erasing the amount of the previous sale. The pump can be put into neutral, and started again with the previous amount still registering. The driver pays for $5 worth of gas and gets only $2. Or the attendants do sleight of hand under the hood. After making a big show of bringing two quarts of oil, they punch one and just pretend to pour the other one.
What is the most outrageous ripoff you encountered?
The one that surprised me most was a meat wrapper for a large supermarket chain who says that where she works there is no difference at all between the three grades of hamburger—ground meat, ground chuck and ground round. They are supposed to vary in meat and fat content, but all come out of the same pile. Then they go into three different packages with different labels and different prices.
Who is most often victimized?
People who are poorer and dumber than average. Ironically, the guy who rips you off at the parking lot in turn gets ripped off in other ways.
If he goes to buy furniture at a schlock store, for example, he often gets cheated. These places may have as many as three different interest rate charts for time payments, depending on the apparent intelligence of the customer. The total cost of a purchase can vary 20 to 30 percent. Some charts are a total cheat, full of arithmetical errors—in favor of the store. The guy who can't compute the interest in his head or on paper is going to be victimized.
Is inflation a factor in ripoffs?
I think inflation has something to do with it. Paychecks don't go as far; people are a little more desperate than they used to be, more scared. And, of course, inflation itself is one of the greatest ripoffs going. It's another 15 percent on top of the 15 percent going for theft and security and insurance—that's almost a third of our cash taken out of our pockets.
What's new about all this?
The staggering increase—and our attitude. We now accept ripping off as a way of life, or at least a fact of life. People say, "I'm getting ripped off so I'll even the score." Cheating other people is considered an appropriate response to being cheated.
What's the answer?
Awareness. Comparison shopping. Counting your change. Adding up your bills. Getting everything in writing. Reading the fine print. Paying attention. In short, there are no new answers.
Are you afraid your book will be used as a how-to manual for ripoff artists?
I doubt if it tells a crook anything he doesn't already know.
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