This is the tale of how I was conned at a conference. (As far as alliterative woes are concerned, I could have done worse: I could have been shafted at a shindig. Hoodwinked at a hootenanny. Mauled at a meal. You get the picture.)
Amsterdam, June 2000. The conference was about WAP. Do you remember WAP? It was an attempt to rewrite the entire web infrastructure from scratch for mobile phones. Instead of HTML we were supposed to use WML: a markup language which is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike HTML. WAP flopped, but not before dumping a sediment of useless software on every mobile phone, and an 800-page tome in my suitcase (it was given away at the conference).
But I didn’t care about any of that in 2000. This was the dot-com era before the bubble burst, the weather was sunny and Amsterdam beautiful. After the conference ended I had some time to walk around Amsterdam and take in the canals, the bikes, and the coffee shops. The next day I took a train to the airport, and that’s when I was conned and relieved of my briefcase, passport, plane ticket, camera, and various other items (but sadly, not the huge book).
It was mid-morning, and the train was almost empty. I had an entire car to myself at first. After a few stops one other guy came in and sat across the aisle from me. He seemed quite ordinary: in his 30′s, some stubble, no distinguishing characteristics. He asked me something trivial about the stops that the train will make, but mostly just looked out the window and fiddled with his prepaid phone cards. (A note to my younger readers: in Ye Olden Days, before everyone had cellphones, people made calls using public phone booths. Phone cards were used to pay for these calls.)
A couple of stops before the airport Phone Card Guy jumped up as if he’d just noticed that this is his stop, and hurried out, dropping a few of his phone cards in his haste. I looked at the cards on the floor, and then around the train. There was no one else there. So I picked up the cards, went to the door of the train and shouted after him, “you dropped your phone cards!” Phone Card Guy was already some distance away from the train, but he came back and took the cards, thanked me, and walked away. While this was happening, a passenger that I hadn’t seen before came behind me and left the train through the doorway I was standing in. He looked like a businessman: he wore a suit, and was in his 50′s.
I returned to my seat, and the train started moving again. It was then that I noticed that my briefcase and camera were gone from the seat where I’d left them, and in a flash I realized what had happened.
In con movies, at this point we would see a quick succession of scenes from earlier in the movie, explaining how the con was put together and making us see everything in a different light. This is how it worked: Phone Card Guy established rapport with me, so that I’ll be motivated to go to the door of the train and tell him that he dropped his phone cards. Suit Guy was his accomplice: his job was to lurk one car over and watch to see when I had left my seat and had my back turned. At that point Suit Guy came into the car, grabbed what he could, and left through the same door I was standing at! Phone Card Guy had gone one way and Suit Guy the opposite way, so I was looking in the wrong direction and didn’t notice that Suit Guy was holding my briefcase. This was all timed so that the train started moving just as I realized what happened, so I couldn’t run after them or call for help.
I was so full of admiration for their smooth technique that I almost didn’t mind losing my stuff. Fortunately there was enough time for me to get replacement travel documents at the airport. They didn’t issue me a new passport on the spot, of course: instead they had me travel with the sort of papers that are normally used to transport pets. Wuf!
What I regret most is the loss of my camera, with its photos of Amsterdam. I hope the con men liked them.