Now! For the first time! Have your CB radio nickname enshrined in a special Registry of Handles! Beautiful imitation leather binding, easy-to-read print! Only four bucks, good buddies, and all you Daisy Maes and Midnight Riders out there will be legends!
Except that the registry never happened. And was never going to happen.
What did happen was that its "editor" got edgy. He began trying to collect the $4 fee from late-paying Daisies and Riders in a most interesting way.
He mailed out a letter on what, at a casual glance, looked like a Commerce Department letter-head. The return address actually said "Commerce Building, Washington, D.C." But the type looked all filigreed and official, and after a couple of martinis, or a bad night's sleep, it would have looked as though the Secretary of Commerce wrote it personally.
The text of the letter was even more interesting. It implied that unless the CBer's $4 registry fee was mailed in swiftly, the Federal Communications Commission would cancel his or her broadcasting license.
Several complaints quickly followed. An investigation followed that. Within a couple of weeks, as Starsky or Hutch might put it, Mr. Registry was behind a few of Mr. Bethlehem's best steel bars.
Starsky and Hutch would probably die of boredom if, in real life, they had the jobs of the men who finally brought Mr. Registry to justice, U.S. postal inspectors Dave Shank and Mike Mague.
After all, Shank and Mague have very, few gun battles and they seldom get to ran with jive-talking junkies or luscious lovelies. As for car chases, their most exciting one comes every weekday morning, when they try to find a place to park around Washington's postal headquarters building.
But it is Shank and Mague who, with other postal inspectors, track down the dozens of ever-so-inventive mail fraud artists who are discovering that Affluent Washington is also Gullible Washington.
"The scams are the same all over the country, from sea to shining sea," said Shank one recent morning. "And the scammers are the same. They're outward gregarious; they've got a line a mile long. And they're clever and convincing as can be. It used to be we'd get guys selling 3,000 tickets through the mail to some place with 500 seats. Now, we get stock fraud, organized crime, the sky's the limit."
Shank and Mague are two of the 110 postal inspectors assigned to work cases out of the Washington division. Their service is one of the least known in the Washington area, and that is paradoxical, for postal inspectors haveall the powers and much of the training of FBI agents, and a much wider jurisdiction. All it takes for a crime to enter their domain is for the mail to have been involved-then, most of the time, it's postal inspection's baby.
At postal inspection headquarters here, there is unanimous agreements as to the two most common scams in the Washington area these days, according to Shank and Mague: phony chain letters and illegal charitable solicitations.
Chain letters still operate the way they did when you were a kid: Send a buck-or, these days, 10 or 20- to the top name and address on a list of 10. Put your names and address on the bottom. Then be patient. Many, many people will send their bucks to you as soon as your name creeps to the top of the letter.
The trouble, of course, is that in Scamland, the top five names on chain letters are in cahoots. They forever remain the top five names. They forever splits the profits. You never get the riches you expect.
Chain letter victims brilliantly illustrate postal inspectors' favorite mottoes, according to Mague: Human greeds knows no bounds, and if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Charitable solicitation scams around Washington have become far more imaginative than they used to be, according to Shank and Mague.
Begging cash door-to-door is only part of the business-and a shrinking part, the two inspectors say. "The big thing now, like in any business, is to get the big business bucks, to get repeaters from year to year," said Shank. Selling ads in publications that don't exist, phony magazines subscriptions, phony drives to eradicate diseases, phony political causes-the list is as long as you like.
Although it is not foolproof, Shank said phony solicitors often give themselves away in Washington by pressuring a "mark" into giving right that red-hot second. "If you feel pressured, there's a good chance it's phony," Shank said. He emphasized, however, that most solicitors in the Washington area are honest and legal.
But many who bend the law are cynical and savvy, too. How else to explain the Northeast Washington woman who was suspected of ordering hundreds of dollars worth of merchandise from a Chicago company under a phony name? Postal inspectors went to arrest her one-day and there on the coffee table was a copy of the U.S. Code, open to the mail fraud page. "The lady wanted to be sure we did it by the book," said Shank.
The all-time high point for mail order scams in Washington came just before Bicentennial Summer. Shank and Mague had a personal favorite from those days: A man who established himself at a swanky-sounding Connecticut Avenue address (it was actually just a mail drop) and offered a "special bicentennial penny" for the bargain price of $1.
According to the man's ad, the back of the special penny showed "Lincoln in his chair in the foyer of the Lincoln Memorial." Thousands sent in orders-only to discover that, if you look very closely, normal, everyday pennies show Old Abe in exactly that place. And normal, everyday pennies is what the orderers were getting.
But those days are three years gone. Nowadays, "it's giant tomatoes for a mere $13.95," said Shank with a sigh.
Tomatoes, correspondence colleges, land deals-business has never been better for the agents of the postal inspection service. "One thing about Washingtonians," said Shank. "They're a little more sophisticated. They know how to complain." CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By William Coulter for The Washington Post; Picture, Postal sleuths Mike Mague, left, and Dave Shank say scams are the same "from sea to shining sea." By Craig Herndon-The Washington Post