Where the Money Isn’t                                                                               

Ron Singer

             “Because that’s where the money is,” was either Willie “The Actor” Sutton’s reply to some journalist’s softball question, “Why do you rob banks?” –or fake news, the journalist’s invention. I’ve also heard that in med school they teach what they call Sutton’s Law: “Look for the obvious first.” Well, in my case, “the obvious” is that, with the move toward electronic banking, including the replacement of actual currency with bit-coins, or “virtual” currency, there is much less cash, anymore, in banks, or anywhere else. Since I used to be a bank robber, it’s also obvious that I’m out of luck.

            My name is William Sullivan –Bill, not Willie. My problem is not lack of education. I did enough time in college to learn about J.M. Keynes’ declaration that “technological unemployment” is “only a temporary phase of maladjustment.” Tell that to the six million working stiffs who are jobless stiffs in 2019. And tell them that unemployment is at “a historic low.” I have personally suffered two previous periods of virtual unemployment: that is, two stints in actual prisons, a total of nine years, two months, six days, and eleven hours.

            Last year, having served five of a six-to-ten in the branch of the Federal Pen located in southeast New York State, I was approaching release.  “Bill,” said the warden, “what would you like to be when you grow up?” (I was thirty-nine, a big boy already.) He didn’t condescend further by making stupid suggestions. (“Would you consider license-plate manufacture?”)

            What he didn’t realize was that I had anticipated his question. “How?” you ask. Fellow jailbirds had told me, and the reason I believed them, in spite of our reputation as liars, was intuition. It’s hard to put this in words, I just knew.

            Has it ever occurred to you that a relatively successful bank robber –sooner, or later, we all get caught—has good instincts? Consider the exploding dye-pack. My method of avoiding this occupational hazard, based upon intuition, was credible fear. In my preliminary visits to a bank, I would note the names of the tellers. Then, I would use an online look-up service to find their addresses. Since these listings included photos, I could be sure I had the right “Evelyn Nieves.” When I approached Evelyn’s window, raising my eyebrows, I would recite a little spiel.

            “No dye packs, Evelyn Nieves, 46-11 68th Street.” Especially if she had children, telling her I knew where she lived was a sure-fire deterrent. To give credit where it’s due, my spiritual father, Willie Sutton, also used credible fear. Pretending to be packing, he’d say something like “It’s not your money so you don’t have to die for it.”

            When I was in college (two-plus years at a four-year public institution), I was good at Math and Science. Paradoxically, this affected my response to the warden’s question. What would they teach a bank robber who was good at Math? Computer Science, of course –not. You don’t want to teach jailbirds how to rip off electronic money transfers, or how to scam people by impersonating their banks. 

            So, when the warden asked his smart-ass question, I was ready First, I pretended to ponder possible answers. Then, I said, “I’d like to be a landscape gardener, sir.” There was method to my answer. The prison is in a region where there are several resorts, and I knew he often found menial jobs at them for ex-cons.

            Not that I wanted to spend the rest of my days plucking crabgrass. But I knew not to say that I wanted to be a waiter, busboy, or bellhop, because those jobs would have brought me into proximity with the guests –with their furs, jewelry, etc., that is. “Gardener” sounded harmless. But, as soon as I was working at a hotel, I would buddy up with bellhops, busboys and waiters, some of whom I would likely have known in the slammer.

            The warden did not disappoint. Over the next several months, I was taught rudimentary gardening skills. As he shook my hand at the main gate, he said, “Good luck, Bill! Hope I won’t be seeing you again.” And he handed me a Letter of Introduction addressed to the Personnel Manager of one of the big hotels, the Neves, which was on the outskirts of Naponach, a half-hour from the prison. With a nod and a shit-eating grin, I walked out, and caught the next bus.

            “Neves” is “seven,” backwards. The resort was named for a lucky roll of the dice that bankrolled a bungalow colony for the Salacky brothers –three, not seven—in 1951. The Salackies made their fortune during the Borscht-Belt boom of the 1950’s and ‘60’s, when the Neves grew into a premium resort. But they lost most of the money during the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, when Borscht- Belt idylls gave way to long-distance airplane vacations. The coup de grace came in ‘87, when the country fell into recession. After that came a long, slow recovery.

            By 2019, when I got my job, the Neves had been reborn as a humungous resort and spa. What made people return to the Catskills involved rebranding. The new Neves featured short-term stays; family packages; special diets (not just kosher); golf (mini- and regular); squash, racquetball and tennis; multiple pools; state-of-the-art facilities for Pilates, melt, spinning, you name it; and horseback riding (pony to bronco).

            Upon my arrival, management put me up in a bunkhouse redolent of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. My roommate was a septuagenarian barber named Gil, who slept with his teeth in a glass. When he snored, I would pinch his nose, enjoying the contrast with what would have happened if I had pinched a cellmate’s nose.

            In the grungy staff dining room, they served us three day-old leftovers from the guest dining room, shit like fried rice with chicken skin or beef or pork gristle. Within a week, I moved higher on the hog. Once I was in with the bellhops, busboys, and waiters, I shared in the bounty of purloined guest food.

            I made my first connection at poolside, where they encouraged staff to mingle with single guests of a certain age (which many were). One hot afternoon, as I was manicuring the verge of the pool, I spotted an off-duty young bellhop with the look of a summer employee. Wearing his gray wool uniform pants with red side stripes, topped by a wife-beater that gleamed in the sunshine, the butterball was trying to put a move on a delicious waitress in a red bikini. After she had rebuffed his clumsy advances for the nth time, and jumped into the pool, splashing his pants, I gave him the high sign.

            “Sorry, Son,” I said, continuing to pluck crabgrass, and looking up at him, “but you don’t have a chance. I mean this is 2019, not 1952! Instead of putting clumsy moves on her, why don’t you just let her see that you like women, which you obviously do! That way, if she likes you, she’ll make the moves. Capiche, amigo?” 

            For the next week, or so, I continued schooling this boy, whose name was Jay, and who turned out to be a fellow college dropout. Of course, his progress was hastened by my own budding relationship with the young woman, whose name was Asuncion.

            We had just slept together for the second time, in my room. (Gil was spending the evening at a nearby dog track.) Asuncion had joined me around ten-thirty, having just finished setting up her tables for breakfast. After four-plus in the slammer, it had not been hard to convince her that I liked women. Post-coitus, propped up on pillows, we sat side by side on my bed, chatting. The only furnishings in the small room were the two double beds and two scarred chests of drawers. Two hooks on the back of the door served as closets.

            “Call me ‘Achu,’ she said, “like the sneeze.”

            “Gesundheit,” I quipped. Her stink-eye told me she had heard that one before.

            Soon, we left the bunkhouse and went over to the main building, where we shared a pastry platter for six in the small room off the kitchen where the bellhops prepared the room-service trays. While we ate, I got to the point. I had already broached the idea of theft, and she had seemed receptive.

            “If Jay thinks you like him, Achu, we’ll have a team. Since we work in different departments, they’ll be less likely to suspect us.”

            “Very slick, Billy,” she said. “Jay gets into a room to, say, replace a leaking washer. The guest goes off to play golf, or something, instructing Jay to lock himself out when he’s done. Then, you and I go in, and do our business.”

            “You’re a quick study.”

            Within a few days, we were ready to unlock and unload. Actually, the three-person concept was borrowed from my role model, William Francis Sutton, Jr. (1901-1980). Of course, The Actor’s team had comprised a driver, the lead thief (him), and a henchman to help control the bank employees. With us, Jay would be spotter and lookout, the easiest job. He would identify the mark, then open the door for us, and watch from a corner of the hall between the room and the elevators. If anyone approached, three loud knocks, three soft, three loud: SOS.

            Achu’s job was to eyeball the loot. As soon as she and I were inside, she would do a quick “inventory”: yes or no, take this, leave that. She turned out to have an uncanny talent for telling costume jewelry from real, fake fur from real.

            My job was “other.” Like my namesake, I did most of the planning. I schooled Jay about which room locations were best: nothing near the elevators, good sight lines, etc. I also chose the time, mid-evening, when the maids went off duty, and the guests were away at amusements (comedy club, card room), or self-improvement (gyms, pools). I also kept lists. A sample item: Henry & Joanne Sanchez-Cohen, room 409: mink stole (if that’s how you spell it), matching antique Patek Philippe Grandes watches.

            I also dictated the split: a third, apiece. Why didn’t I take a bigger cut –50%, say? Because successful crime teams understand that someone who gets a chintzy share is more likely to rat out his partners. And Jay was the kind of gee who would not hold up for five minutes under police interrogation.

            As I said, Achu was the appraiser –take this, not that. But I was her backup. She correctly understood my “yea” or “nay” for an item as a cost-benefit analysis. Take the P.P. Grande watches (which we did). I knew these babies went for about 300K apiece, used, and that the fence in town who worked with shady jewelers in New York could get ten cents on the dollar, or 60K for the pair. That meant our team netted 12K, or 4K each. Similar facts applied to the other stuff we boosted on our first three heists.

            Of course, there were risks. By the fourth job, which took us into the seventh week of operations, Neves Management would have rightly begun to fear that insurance pay-offs could not stanch all the rumors. At that point, they would consider security measures that inexperienced hotel thieves (like us) did not know how to evade. If the police happened to arrest one of my fences, he might give us up as fast as Jay would.

            So, by week seven, it was time to change the game. I got the idea for a new one while we were inside our fourth victims’ room. The pretext had been to turn a mattress, which we began by doing. After I had re-made the bed (with hospital corners), Achu and I proceeded to search for the Murphy-Langes’ hiding places. Almost immediately, we found an emerald necklace taped under the toilet tank. (They probably saw ”The Godfather.”) Then, my attention wandered to a laptop that had been left on. Not that we stole computers, which are hard to fence because of the registered serial numbers. I had a better idea.

            I began by asking myself a rhetorical question: Why was I working in a field for which I had so few qualifications, when there was another possibility right under my nose, for which I had considerable aptitude? So, when Achu and I had completed our inventory, I told her to leave, and to have Jay follow her out of the building in five minutes  –the usual drill– while I stowed the booty in our large, hard-sided, wheeled suitcase, a type many guests owned. Then, as usual, I would drive Jay’s late-model car to town, and make the circuit of the fences. The idea was to start the booty rolling before its loss was discovered.

            What I did, instead, was to throw the stuff in the suitcase, pell-mell, then sit down at the computer. When I opened Mr. Thomas P. Murphy’s email folder, sure enough, there was a weekly message from his bank: “Your account statement is ready.” Clicking on the login button, I assumed his user name was Tom, or Thomas, Murphy. “Tom” worked. The password was trickier.

            Remember what I said about intuition? I reviewed some personal details that Jay had garnered during check-in. Mr. M. was middle-aged, and his tip had been meager –but not his wit. In the fifteen minutes during which the luggage was being brought from car to room, he had cracked five or six puns.

            First, I tried ”Scrooge,” “Nickel-Dime,” and variations thereof. Then, I realized I was on the wrong track, because Mr. M. might not belong to the subclass of cheapskates who are proud of the fact. So I switched to puns, beginning with “Murphy’s Law.” Adding a number, a CAP, and a character, I came up with “murphy’s#1Law.” Bingo! I was in! And Thomas P. Murphy had just fallen victim to said law which, as you may know, says, “Anything that can go wrong, will.”

            Feeling like I was back at the teller’s window, I scanned the accounts.  There was ample booty, over 200K, total. And, under Mr. M’s transfer feature, there were three “from” listings, including his checking account, where he presently had just under 55K. The “to” was empty, and, new to this, I wondered if there was a way to authorize money transfers to my own account, or to a dummy one I could open. (Remember why they don’t teach Computer Science in jail?)

            Then, I realized time was up. I had been in the room thirty minutes, ten more than we normally allowed ourselves. I thought fast. Returning the computer to the home page, and putting the booty back where, as far as I could remember, it had come from, I locked the door behind me, rang for the elevator, and wheeled the empty suitcase out through the rear entrance of the main building. Instead of driving Jay’s car to town, I dropped the suitcase in a dumpster and jogged to the hotel coffee shop, where I knew I would find my partners, who usually went there for a celebratory treat after a job.

            The trick now was to persuade them that going out of business would be good for all of us. When I saw them sitting in a booth, feeding each other cross-handed from a hot fudge sundae, I knew exactly what to say:

            I had heard footsteps in the hallway. When they stopped outside the room, I quickly unpacked the suitcase, and put everything back where we found it. Then (the lie continued), as I was leaving the building through the rear exit, as usual, a security guard seemed to be following me to the parking lot, where Jay had left his car. So I threw the empty suitcase into one of the big dumpsters, and detoured to the coffee shop.

            “Well,” said Achu, with a little smile. “That sounds like a narrow escape, Billy. But why did you carry the suitcase all the way down to the parking lot? Someone could have stopped you.”

            “Who knows? Momentum? What would you have done with it?”

             Although she looked skeptical, she dropped the matter. Jay just looked worried. By then, Mary, the server, had come to our table, and I ordered a cup of decaf. Saved by the server. When my coffee arrived, Achu and Jay sat nervously ignoring their unfinished sundae.

            “Uh, oh, they’re on our trail,” said Jay.

            “Could be,” Achu opined.

            I took a sip, pretending to weigh the threat. “We’d better not hang out together for a while,” I said, with a sigh. To my disappointment, Achu looked relieved. Jay nodded soberly, and that was that, sort of.

            My lingering fear was that he would prove to be the weak link. I was afraid he would be unable to stay away from Achu. So, for several days, I spied on their likely meeting places: poolside, coffee shop, and the room-service room. To my relief, I never saw them together. Jay looked a bit downhearted; Achu, setting tables and serving guests, looked as briskly efficient as ever.

            And me? I plucked weeds, picked at the slop in the staff dining room, and feeling the loss of Achu, moped, like someone recently unemployed –which, in a sense, I was.

            After about a week, I shrugged off my lethargy and got back to business, picking up where I had left off with Mr. Murphy’s computer. Only this time, I carried on in the hotel’s public computer room, off the main lobby, doing so in the middle of the night, when the room was normally empty. This was where I became an acolyte of what is called “the dark net.”

            I soon learned that many old people fail to complain about –maybe even notice—financial scams. I also learned that the key to a successful scam was the victim’s personal information. So, at two a.m. on several consecutive Tuesdays, I lounged in an armchair, behind a newspaper, alongside the check-in counter in the lobby. I wore colorless surgical gloves, invisible to anyone more than a few feet away. When the night clerk disappeared into the area behind the desk, to refresh his cup of coffee or answer nature’s call, I timed him. He usually took two to five minutes. When it was five, I assumed that he was doing his business before replenishing his cup. On the fourth Tuesday, I struck.

            Two minutes was all I allowed myself. (I had timed the operation in my room, when Gil was out.) Flashing to the desk, I scanned the lobby, then photographed on my phone the open double page of the check-in register, and, flipping back, the two previous double pages. Then, returning the pages to their original position, I left the building. When I got to the room, Gil was snoring away. In the morning, after he left for the barbershop, I studied the photographed pages.

            I was now in possession of a list of 100 names, which, in all probability, included many seniors, with their addresses (snail and e) and phone numbers. That these people had stayed at the Neves meant they must be rich, or at least what my mother used to call “comfortable.”

            At four-thirty that afternoon, a Wednesday, I borrowed the room of a busboy I knew, while he was in the dining room setting up, and used my smart phone to start making calls. The numbers I tried first were those that looked like land lines. If no one picked up, I would not leave a message. If someone did, assuming most elders are on Medicare, this is the spiel I used:

            “Hello, Mr. …, this is Robert Maxwell calling from Medicare Services of the Social Security Administration. How are you today, sir?”

            When eight of the first ten slammed the phone down, it was a strong warning that many thieves might be trying the same scam. Of the two people who stayed on the line, here is the first conversation, with an elderly man whom I knew (from his registration) was a bachelor or widower.

            “WHAT THE [EXPLETIVE] DO YOU WANT?”

            “Well, sir, I’m calling with some bad news. Oh, I am speaking to Mr. Norman L. Hirsch, correct?”

            “Correct. What is this sh– about?”

            “Well, Mr. Hirsch, I’m afraid we have a small problem. But don’t worry, please. I’m sure we’ll be able to take care of it.”

            “Eh? What is this ‘small problem’?”

            “Well, sir, someone has apparently accessed your personal information, sir, including your social security number, and used it to attempt to withdraw funds from your checking account.” At that point, Mr. Hirsch slammed his phone down (#9).

            When I started my spiel with the tenth, and last, person I called that day, a Mr. Alfred Julian, he shouted “WHAT THE HELL!” which meant I had a toe in the door –I hoped.

            “Well, sir, the good news is, I think we’re in time to prevent any loss of funds. Luckily…”

            “What? What? What?”

            “Please, sir, just hear me out, so we can take care of this matter.”

            “How?” The door was open.

            “Well, Mr. Julian, if we could just go over some information, I’ll be able to determine what the would-be thief knows, so we can make any changes we need to, before he robs the account. Let’s continue, shall we?

            “Shoot.”

            “These are the details your bank has confided to my employers, the SSA –the Social Security Administration—which, as you know, administers the Medicare program.”

            I proceeded to recite Mr. Julian’s full name and address, and the numbers of his landline (which we were speaking on) and his cell, all of which I had photographed from the hotel register. The kicker was his social security number, which I had accessed from an open record at Small Claims court, where, two years before, he had apparently sued an electronics company over a defective TV. S.S. numbers are a strong hook.

            “Is all that correct, sir?”

            “Yes, it is.”

            “Good. If I may proceed, according to the bank, your password is “albert$47juLian,” which I spelled out, indicating the symbol and  capital letter. “Is that also correct, sir?”

            “No, it’s not correct, at all.” This, I knew, was the make-or-break point.

            “Hmm, how could… have I gotten one of the characters wrong?”

            “No, the whole thing is wrong, my password is nothing like that.”

            “Hmm, perhaps I should call the bank again. Of course, that would mean waiting until they re-open tomorrow morning. By the time I reach them, and they put me on hold, and I wait, the scammer could have emptied your account.” I could hear his breathing grow heavier. “On the other hand, sir, if you could see your way toward sharing the correct password with the Social Security Administration –with me– we could immediately send the bank an official notification of the intended fraud, so they can stop any activity until you come in and sign the necessary papers to reopen…”

            That was the trick. Unfortunately, it never worked. Of the six people, over four calling sessions, who stayed on the line long enough to reach the critical password juncture, two (including Mr. Julian) said they would call the bank, themselves, and one asked for my office phone number, so he could check that I was “for real.” The other three hung up. No one wished me a nice day.

            When the bank scam failed, I tried something simpler, the grandparent scam, which I also discovered on the dark net. In order to prey on the oldest, I chose people from my list whose first names were no longer in fashion, like “Gladys,” “Elsie,” “Harry,” “Morris,” etc.

            “Hi, Grandpa/Grandma,” this is your grandson [cough],” I would say when someone answered the phone. If they said they did not have any grandchildren, I would reply, “Sorry, wrong number,” and try the next one. I had read, on the Internet, that some grandparent-scammers avoided the name problem by not giving a name, trying, instead, to bait the victim by asking, “Can you guess who this is?” But, to me, that did not seem like a question a real grandchild would ask.

            The most common response was, “Who?” to which I would reply with another cough. If they asked again, they would get, “Sorry, wrong number.” If they guessed, and sounded receptive, and possibly muddled, I would swing into my spiel.

            “I’m afraid I’m in a little trouble, Grandpa/ma. I need a new water pump for my car. You know, that old clunker I drive? I need to have the repair done right away so I can get to work. I’ve already missed two days, and the boss is threatening to fire me.”

            If Grandpa/ma was sympathetic, the rest was simple. I’d have them send the money, five or six hundred dollars, to a fictitious name, via Western Union, at a branch in town that did not require ID. The scam yielded one success for every ten or twelve attempts. By the time I reached the end of my six pages, I had stolen $1,750. (One or two cheapskates had short-changed me.) And, between my time on the phone, and riding the bus to and from town, I had spent about twenty hours, over six or seven evenings and three half-Sundays. That worked out to a little over $87.50 an hour, which meant I was risking serious jail time for five times my wage as a gardener (by now, a snow-plow operator). Not bad, but… Besides, if I decided to pursue this scam, I would need to photograph more pages from the register. So I concluded that the game was not worth the candle, and decided to look elsewhere –elsewhere on the dark net, of course.

            The results boggled even my mind. Some poor slob had replied to a “fuckbuddy” post. When he kept the rendezvous, at a motel, she chloroformed him, and her accomplice, a defrocked surgeon, removed one of his kidneys. Luckily, the mark recovered from the “operation,” but he never got his kidney back. Some rich Russian or Saudi probably has it. Returning to bank cybercrime, I learned that a single entrepreneur like me had virtually no chance. The field was jammed, the ingenuity and economies of scale, mind-boggling. I was a babe in the cyber-woods.

            Just as I was approaching near- despair, my luck underwent a sea change. Which began, once again, at poolside (the indoor pool). Several months having passed, I missed Achu more and more, both in mind and body. One frigid February day, I saw her on a chaise, once again clad (sort of) in the red bikini. It was my day off, a Monday. When I plopped down on an adjoining chaise, after a little chitchat and sniffing, we agreed that it would be safe to relax the “no-contact” rule. That said, she broke the ice.

            “So, Billy Boy, what have you been doing with yourself?”

            Eschewing masturbation jokes, I foolishly tried to amuse her with an account of my grandparent scams.

            “That’s really sick, Bill!” she exploded. “I never thought you were such an asshole.”

            “Hey, Ach,” I replied, smarting. “Didn’t we used to rob hotel rooms together?”

            That just added fuel to the fire. Jumping to her feet and wrapping herself in a green-and-white hotel bath towel, without another word she flounced off toward the locker rooms. After I had sulked on the chaise for five or ten minutes, I realized that all she had done was to articulate my own sense of guilt. As I slouched back to the bunkhouse, I wondered if I would be able to repair her ruined opinion of me, possibly through Jay.

            For a few weeks, there were no further developments, except that when I pumped Jay, he intimated that, the prohibition against fraternizing having been lifted, he and Achu were once again a number. That is, they had resumed intercourse (both kinds). This was galling. I had blown it, lost out to a marked inferior. But, at that low point, the sea change kicked in.

            I happened upon a long article in the local paper that had been pulled from one of the wire services. The gist of it was that, after careful study, the U.S. Treasury Dept. had decided to place strict regulations on virtual currencies. The goal was to curtail the use of these currencies for crimes such as money laundering. According to the article, the Fed Chair had characterized these nefarious practices as “the new Swiss bank accounts.” He ended by describing a new, mixed system that would include the return of cash to banks! Wow!

            I read this article, on a Saturday evening, in one of the papers kept in the lobby (for guests who still preferred print). Jumping to my feet, and almost impaling myself on the newspaper stick, I rushed from the building to look for Achu and Jay.

            When Napanoch Savings & Loan opens Monday morning at nine, I plan to be inside, having entered with the Manager. Ach will be there, too, to assist with crowd control. Jay will be down the block waiting in his car with the motor running.

Note: Two successful robberies, and five weeks later, the Covit-19 pandemic struck. Although they always wore gloves and masks, anyway, the trio suspended operations. The reason was that most people were doing their banking long distance, which meant that, once again, there was little cash to rob. As for “historically-low unemployment rates,” soon they were record high. And since there were no guests at the Neves…

Sources:

“Treasury to Roll Out Cryptocurrency Rules,” NY Times, 2/13/20: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/12/us/politics/treasury-cryptocurrency.html

–Willie Sutton, with Edward Linn, Where the Money Was (New York, Broadway Books. Library of Larceny, 2004, first published 1976)

–“Top 10 Financial Scams Targeting Seniors,” NCOA (National Council on Aging): https://www.ncoa.org/economic-security/money-management/scams-security/top-10-scams-targeting-seniors/

(4,957 words)

Ron Singer: This story is an analogue to Willie Sutton’s WHERE THE MONEY IS, a remarkably cant-free memoir. As for the author, here are some recent highlights: THE PROMISED END is a story collection about aging (Unsolicited Press, Dec. 2019) GRAVY is also about aging, but contains fiction, satire, memoir and poetry (Unsolicited Press, July 2020) THE REAL PRESENCE is a historical novel focusing on the Biafra War, in Nigeria (1967-70 (Adelaide Books, forthcoming in Jan. 2021). For further details, please visit www.ronsinger.net.

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