A con man took my cash, but left me a little smarter

An expensive swindle results in a temporary loss of self-confidence but a life-long lesson learned.

During my first year living in New York City, I got swindled by two con men. I was a transfer student at NYU, and had landed a summer internship at a large PR agency.

The con happened one evening as I was walking home from work, and a forlorn and confused-looking young man came toward me. In broken English, he asked if I could direct him to the Duplex Hotel. He said his name was William, he’d just arrived at the Port Authority Bus Station, and he’d given a man $150 for a room at the Duplex Hotel.

He then pulled out a large wad of cash and offered to give me some "green dollar" if I could take him to the hotel.

I was 20 years old, naïve, and a good-hearted Midwesterner. I wanted to help. I went to a pay phone — this was decades before smartphones — and dialed information to ask for the address of the Duplex Hotel. There was no such listing. While I waited on the phone, William stopped another passerby to seek help. The three of us huddled to create a game plan.

We decided to go to the bus terminal to retrieve William’s passport and the rest of his money, which he had placed in a locker. As we walked to Port Authority, the new stranger complimented me on my kind heart and my willingness to help. He also convinced William to stop pulling out the large wad of cash, and to wrap his money in a handkerchief for protection.

At the bus terminal, the two men asked me to hold William’s money and wait outside while they went in to retrieve his goods. To convince William that I wouldn’t steal his cash, they asked that I entrust them with my own money, which I instantly handed over. As they disappeared into the bus station, it never occurred to me that this was a strange request. I was too preoccupied with figuring out how to help William.

After 30 minutes, I looked at the wrapped wad of cash in my hand and was filled with dread. I opened the bundle and found it stuffed with tissue paper. I had been taken for a fool.

I was devastated. While the incident cost me only $28 in cash, something much deeper had been stolen: my openness. I was so trusting that I had been willing to put William up in my dorm room, connect him to my cousin for legal advice, and lend him my cash. For days I lived with a pit in my stomach and a nagging sense of self-doubt. I felt violated, and I couldn’t shake the sense of dread. I lost my confidence.

With some apprehension, I started telling friends what happened, and was surprised to learn that others had experienced their own version of being scammed. I guess maybe I wasn’t the dumbest hick on the planet.

My challenge wasn’t just to rebuild my self-confidence, I had to learn to trust my instincts again. Personally, I knew I had to be willing to be vulnerable in order to maintain relationships. And professionally, I knew I had to be willing to trust colleagues in order to collaborate or be part of a successful team.

Over time, I regained a balance between openness and skepticism. I learned again to be trusting, but with the keen awareness that I may indeed get burned every now and then.

So while William and his buddy walked away with my $28, they left me a little smarter and a little more grown up.

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com.

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