As scam artists go, this thief is not on par with Bernie Madoff. Still, this flim-flam man is a slick, polished professional, with hands that move fast and a mouth to match.
His antics, D.C. police said, left some small businesses in Northwest Washington with lighter cash registers.
Detectives are on the hunt for an unidentified black man in his 60s, who three times in the past month has confidently strolled into businesses in Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle and near Howard University armed only with a $100 bill, grandfatherly charm and the art of misdirection, police said.
He swindled cashiers out of money with a shell game, flustering staffers into handing him change for purchases and then giving him back the C-note he offered to complete the sale.
“He starts talking fast and moving fast in order to sow confusion. He’s playing on how naive the clerk can be,” said D.C. police Capt. William FitzGerald. “He’s very slick.”
The pleasant gentleman in a plaid shirt walked into the Tranquil Space yoga boutique on Tuesday and said he needed a birthday gift for his granddaughter. He quickly browsed some low-cost items, all the while asking the clerk about herself: When is your birthday? Where are you from?
The banter was so relentless that studio director Marlies Poplawski Ribeiro could hear the man from the back office. She wondered whether the chatter would ever end, she said, but the man seemed harmless.
“He just looks like an older, friendly man,” Ribeiro said.
Eventually, the man placed a metal canister of “Birds and Blooms” glitter tags on the counter for purchase, but quickly changed his mind and grabbed an Apothecary brand soy-wax candle. He handed the clerk $100, she placed it in the register and handed him $78.45.
As he counted his change, the thief slipped a dollar bill into the pile and told the clerk she had overpaid him, employees said. As they discussed the mistake, he asked to see the bill he initially gave the clerk for the purchase. As the fast talking continued, he slipped all the cash into his hands and left the boutique. Without the candle.
“He walked out and never took the item. He left it on the counter,” Ribeiro said. Within a few moments, the women realized they had been had.
“I walked straight out and looked, but he was gone,” she said.
It was dinner rush at the Duplex Diner on 18th Street NW on Oct. 6 when the man walked up to the marble and white-tile bar and ordered a chicken pot pie. As the server rang up his to-go order and the scammer handed over a $100 bill, he asked to see the menu again, and inquired about other entrees, according to workers there. When the server handed the man his change, he disputed the amount. As the money was recounted, the thief pocketed his $100 bill and the server handed over $83.50 in change. The man then walked back into the bustle of Adams Morgan.
“It was the rush of the night, and it can get distracting,” Duplex Diner chef Mark Mulvey said. “But I still don’t know how the money and the change got to be in the same place.”
On Oct. 9, workers at Mama Chuy’s Mexican Taqueria found out that there was more than authentic tortas on the thief’s mind, when he asked for a carry-out steak platter. Before the cooks could slice the meat and box the meal, the man had turned a $14 order into a profit of $78.45.
This time, he asked the cashier about her birth date as he searched for numbers to play in the D.C. Lottery and about the modern take on Mexican food, co-owner Joe Orozco said.
When it was time to pay, the customer complained, talked fast and kept the confusion high. Before the cashier knew it, workers said, the man had combined the change and his $100 and walked down Georgia Avenue. He left without the food.
“He was clearly smooth,” Orozco said. “This was a man on a mission, and he is good at what he does.”
“Needless to say, our server has learned her lesson.”
D.C. police hope others won’t learn the hard way. Police released a photo of the man taken from video to try to identify and catch him. Until then, FitzGerald warns businesses to be on guard.Slow down if a customer is talking too fast and know that a scam could be underway.
Investigators think the man has scammed others who might be embarrassed about the loss or unaware of it. The thief may have used smaller denominations for lesser returns, but police want to put him out of commission.
“I’m very confident he’s done it to other people and we want to hear from them,” FitzGerald said. “I don’t think he’s just doing it three times a month.”
“He is taking advantage of people being nice.”