Con artists have taken note: New York’s ultra-Orthodox Jews make fairly easy targets. Just slap on a kippah, a dark suit and have a sob story at the ready.
Approach the target, preferably on Friday afternoon, close to Shabbat. Tell your story about the car that was towed to the pound. The wallet with the credit cards and IDs that is in said car. The wife who is due with twins any minute now, and is tending to little children back home.
The heartstrings-tugging scam has claimed at least two victims who told the Forward they were scammed by the flim-flam artist who used a remarkably similar story in recent months. Cell phone photos indicate the scam artist is the same person. Other victims have come forward on social media sites, but are apparently too embarrassed to tell their stories publicly.
One victim eventually reported the scam to New York City police, but he said officers at the 66th precinct in Brooklyn refused to file a report, citing the insignificant amount. A police spokesman said the NYPD does not know of any pattern of Orthodox men preying on other Orthodox men in the city.
“We cannot comment on this particular incident,” said Sgt. Brendan Ryan, adding that the NYPD does not categorize crimes by religious affiliation of the suspect. “We also don’t break down crimes to that degree.”
Even the victims emphasize that they do not know for sure whether the suspected scam artist is really Orthodox, or just familiar with the habits of frum Jews.
Whether the NYPD tracks the scam or not, it feels like a real crime to Shulem, who asked that his last name not be used.
The 28-year-old Hasidic man from Brooklyn says he was conned one Friday afternoon in the fall as he rode the No. 2 train. Shulem visited a sick friend at Mt. Sinai Hospital, and was rushing to get home to his wife and three children in time for Shabbat at 6 pm, when a short, stout man approached him. The man looked like your average Modern Orthodox New Yorker, wearing a dark suit, white shirt, and a small yarmulke over his slicked back hair.
He introduced himself as “Ethan Schwartz” and proceeded to tell his desperate story: his car was towed and he needs $264 to get it back from the pound, but he has only $200 in his possession. He lives in Westchester, he said, and he needs to get back home in time for Shabbat. His credit cards and ID are in his wallet, which is in the car, and the ATM is virtually useless, he continued, since his bank does not have a Manhattan affiliate.
At first, Shulem insisted he would not lend the $64 with no proof. But he also entertained the idea that the guy was, indeed, desperate to get his car back.
He told Ethan, brother to brother, that he will lend him the desired amount, but he would need to take a picture of him. If he doesn’t receive the money within a week, Shulem said, he would go to the police with his picture. Ethan was visibly nervous but gave his consent. When Shulem pulled out his wallet and counted the 20-dollar bills, Ethan asked if he could throw in a few extra bucks to make it an even $80.
He gave Shulem an address in White Plains, N.Y., his cell phone number and signed a note stating, “I owe you $80,” and left — presumably to pick up his car.
A week passed and Shulem did not hear anything back. He called and texted him and received apologies and promises. The pattern continued for a few weeks, and Shulem grew increasingly frustrated – not because he was desperate for the $80, but because, at this point, he suspected the guy was a swindler.
“I would like to remind you that you have until tonight to gain credibility by proving your identity,” Shulem wrote to Ethan in a text, after his request for a copy of Ethan’s license to verify his identity went unanswered. “Otherwise, I will go to the police tomorrow.”
Within 15 minutes, Ethan responded: “how sad it is that jews don’t trust jews anymore and that people like u r so jaded it’s a sad world we live in today.”
The con artist denied doing anything wrong and threatened to contact a Jewish reporter who would presumably publicize Shulem’s lack of generosity. The dialogue continued, deteriorating over the following weeks with threats of violence if Shulem publicized his information.
Unsure of how to proceed, Shulem posted the story, along with a photo of “Ethan,” his face blurred, on a Yiddish men’s online chat forum, KaveShtiebel. In a matter of hours, similar stories began pouring in, all involving small sums, and nearly the exact same tale of woe.
Two other stories with a similar modus operandi — a broken car, no money, and an impending zman — were posted. Both seemed to have similar threads, and the description of the man checked out.
One Hasidic man, who gave his name as Sruly, had also taken a picture of the suspected con man. This time, he was outside the Penn Station subway entrance on 34th and 8th Avenue.
“He approached me to ask for directions to Brooklyn Navy Yard, saying he is not familiar with this area,” Sruly said in an interview with the Forward. “He said his car was towed, it’s in Brooklyn and he is short in $90 to get it back. I asked for proof of identity, which he said was in his car at the pound.”
He asked Ethan to send him a text message with personal information, so that he can follow up on his promise to pay him back before the end of the week.
Needless to say, “Ethan” never sent him the payment. After two or three attempts at getting it back, Sruly just gave up. Then, while surfing KaveShtiebel, he came upon Shulem’s story and posted it there.
Shulem, who first came to the Forward with this story, says he wants to raise awareness about swindlers like “Ethan,” men who pull at the heartstrings of fellow Jews by using ultra-Orthodox lingo and eliciting sympathy with an impending Shabbos. The close-knit nature of frum communities allows for some people who may or may not even be frum, or Jewish for that matter, to prey on them and their sense of kindness to the group.
“Using Yiddishkeit as a means of getting people to lend you money is not okay,” he said.
Contact Frimet Goldberger at firstname.lastname@example.org