Taken for a Ride

How an impressionable young fellow got himself scammed by a British con man. And how he got revenge.

As the hours passed, Sir Peter captivated me, not only with stories of his unusual life but also with descriptions of wonderful opportunities he would provide for me: I could work for an airline magazine his brother was taking over. Or I could become an American correspondent for a London newspaper he and his brother owned.

Then he invited me on a day trip to Bimini. He planned to ferry some friends on his 57-foot Hatteras to see a new restaurant, Le Bistro, he had decorated. We would have lunch, pick up his $25,000 design fee, and return to Miami all in the same day. He set the journey for Thursday, January 7.

Then he said it was refreshing to meet me because, like his family and business associates, I had exemplary moral standards. It was rewarding for him to find a new friend when the pressures of a potentially messy divorce were wearing him thin.

One more thing: His wife had frozen their joint credit card and bank accounts, so maybe I could loan him a few hundred dollars. He said he could approach other friends (yes, I was considered a friend now), but he was too embarrassed. He gave me a $200 check and said I could deposit it in a few days.

So we walked out of the restaurant and drove together to a nearby ATM. I withdrew $200 in crisp twenties, handed it over, and we returned to Gusto's for another drink. After about twenty minutes, I left to pick up a friend at the airport. Sir Peter stayed at the bar with my money and the tab for our drinks.

During these first encounters, Sir Peter was all pleasantries. He appeared to be a well-off, eccentric old gentleman. I did think it strange that a person I'd only known for a few days would take such a keen interest in me. Yes, I gave him $200 -- because I believed him. Sir Peter claimed he knew two prominent acquaintances of mine: former Jamaican ambassador to England John Pringle and British interior designer Barbara Hulinicki. Although further investigation would reveal he was lying, at the time I had no reason to doubt him. I didn't think such a well-dressed and proper old fellow would take the trouble to fabricate stories and pass a bad check. Consider this: He had promised me a car and a couple of free trips. If his check bounced, I could cause problems for him. I also had his home and cell-phone numbers, so I could track him down. It seemed worth a $200 gamble.

Sir Peter had a smarmy charisma that drew me in. He didn't curse. He casually pointed out that his glasses cost $1500 and were made by a designer whose name I didn't recognize. The frames were gold, gaudy, and seemed like something an affluent person would wear. In a leather pouch he carried a portable phone, an expensive-looking pen, and scraps of paper.

In our meetings over the next few days, Sir Peter spoke passionately about business deals and current events all over South Florida. And he paid great attention to detail, which made his fabricated stories seem believable.

January 5 We briefly spoke on the phone, discussing idle matters, details of transferring the Lincoln from his sons' ownership to mine, the trip to Bimini, and our meeting. He said he would call again the next morning.

January 6 When the phone rang in the morning, my curiosity had begun to mount. What the hell was this old man about? Sir Peter's brother had sent a cashier's check from London. He wanted to sign it over to me. The purported rationale: His wife wouldn't be able to trace it that way. Why not open another account? I asked. He claimed she would track down the money.

A couple of hours later Sir Peter called again. The cashier's check was nontransferable, so he had deposited it in his own account. That meant I could cash the $200 check he had given me on Monday. But there was a catch: He said because the cashier's check was British, it would take a day to clear. And he was short a few dollars for living expenses. So maybe I could lend him a bit more cash and he would give me another check? I didn't rule anything out and we agreed to meet for lunch at Bennigan's, across the street from Gusto's in Hallandale.

Sir Peter was again waiting when I arrived at 1:00 p.m. His brother Jeffrey was supposed to call his cellular phone at 2:00 p.m., he said. Sir Peter requested that I speak with his brother. They definitely wanted to work with me. Then he added another piece of bait: Jeffrey wanted to fly me to London so we could meet in person, all expenses paid. He said working for the Zages wouldn't be easy; morality would be important and the bosses would be demanding. But the pay would be better than expected.

Then we discussed our friendship, his divorce, the Lincoln I would receive, and the next day's trip to Bimini.

Jeffrey never called. Sir Peter said he must have gotten tied up with negotiations over the airline publication.

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