Sunday, June 03, 2007

Why machines will not take over the world

I pulled into a Canadian Tire gas station last night about one A.M. A fellow stood next to the pump that would be the most likely for me to pull up to – which I did. I figured he was more likely a panhandler than an employee and one glance at his name brand running shoes told me he was less in need of cash than I was. Regardless, I had none on me.

He was a bit sloppy, a bit scruffy, but was alert. He hadn’t the half-comatose doormat personality common to the street-resident community.

“Could you do me a huge favor?” he pleaded – just as soon as I was half-emerged from the truck. I smelled scam all over him. “Could I pay for your gas with my credit card and you can give me the cash? You’re gonna fill up, right?”

I was taken aback. What kind of scam involved the scammer buying me gas on his card? Okay – you’re probably a little swifter than I and have figured it out immediately but I was a tad slow last night.

“I’m only getting forty dollars worth and I’m using debit. I have no cash.”

“Oh, well there’s a bank right over there at the mall next door. Could you do me a big favor and take out some cash? It would really help me out. I just got my credit card in the mail you see and I haven’t got my PIN number yet so I can’t withdraw any cash. I just need a few bucks so I can go to the bar, you know? I just want to buy a few drinks and have a good time!” His expression was wildly comical here, with eyebrows and shoulders severely raised and palms turned skyward.

Not comfortable declining good-Samaritanship without a solid reason I nodded slowly and said, “Okay. Sure. It’s a Bank of Montreal, right?”

“No, it’s a TD-Canada Trust. The Bank of Montreal closed down a while back. That’s okay, isn’t it?”

It wasn’t okay. I wasn’t about to surrender three bucks in service charges so that Credit Drinkie Boy could have a good time. But at this point my vague intention was only to stall him until I figured out what was going on and how to get out of it. I’m sure you already know what’s going on and are dying to get to the comment box and enlighten me in but don’t worry. I’ll come around. You’ll see.

“Sure,” I said and climbed into the truck.

“I’ll meet you over there,” he said.

Alarm bells went off in my head. ‘Yeah, you and how many creepy friends?’ “Uh – no, that’s okay. I’ll meet you back here.”

As I navigated the various obstacles between the gas station and the mall, I saw that he was running, making a bee-line for it. (Why are parking lot arrangements so wildly convoluted these days? Invest all your money in curb-manufacturers, people. It’s the wave of the future). As our paths joined I slowed and lowered the window.

He stopped and pointed ahead. “It’s up there by the three arches.”

“Gotcha,” I said and added firmly, “I’ll meet you back at the pump.”

He went no further. The bank was a fair distance away. As I proceeded I looked at the clock. It was many hours past the last possible mail delivery and there was almost no time at all for Drinkie Boy to get to the nearest bar before last call. The time of day did not support the plausibility of his story at all. It then occurred to me that any bar in town would surely accept his credit card. His PIN was not even required.

Finally I realized the nature of the scam. I’d been so concerned about how he might try to scam me that I’d missed the obvious. The victim was a third party. He had one or more stolen credit cards.

I drove past the bank and well away from the scene. I stopped at the next gas station and went to the pay phone and dialed 4-1-1.

“For service in English, say English. Pour service en Francais-”


“Do you want a residential number?”


“For what city?”


“For what name?”

“Hamilton Wentworth Police Service.”

“Please repeat that name.”

“Hamilton. Wentworth. Police. Service.”

“Thank you.”

A human being than came on. “Is this a regular non-emergency call?”

“Yes. I wish to report a crime in progress and I have no money on me so I want to make it a collect call.”

“I can’t do that from here. Only an operator can do that.”

We then proceeded to fall all over each other trying to come to an understanding. He seemed to keep trying to tell me that there was nothing he could do without receiving payment.

“Can’t you just tell me the number and I’ll write it down and then I’ll call the operator and request a collect call?”

“Yes. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”

“Great. My pen is ready. Shoot.”

He gave me the number. I thanked him, hung up and dialed it with a zero in front. More recordings. I chose the collect call option.

“Please state your name.”


“Please hold.”

I could here the phone ringing. It was answered by an automated voice system. I knew immediately I was wasting my time. This wasn’t going to happen.

Now let me clarify the thrust of my post here. It’s not to demonstrate that there’s a crook on every corner, waiting to pull a scam. You already know that. It’s not to expose the fallacy of the idea of police being ready, willing and able to serve and protect at any given time. In my experiences only 9-1-1 calls garner any kind of useful response. Otherwise, getting the readiness and the willingness and the ability out of a police force is some kind of serious jackpot. I assume this also matches your experience. Hey, not that I’m complaining. I assume they do the best they can given the resources and legislation they’re provided. I’m just sayin’s’all.

No, the thrust of the post is this. You know movies like Terminator and The Matrix where the future is controlled by machines that have defeated humankind?

Well, there’s nothing to fear. Ain’t gonna happen for a very very long time. Here’s an indication of two machines trying to cooperate. Here’s what I heard on the phone more or less:

“You have reached the Hamilton Police Service. If you have a life-threatening emergency or wish to report a serious crime in progress-”

“You have a collect call from.”

“Please hang up and dial 9-1-1.”


“Immediately. If you know the 4-digit extension.”

“To accept the charges.”

“Of the person or unit you wish to reach.”

“Please press one.”

“Please dial it.”


“Now. Many frequently dialed numbers.”

“You have a collect call from.”

“Can be found in the white pages.”


“Under Hamilton Police Services.”

“To accept the charges.”

“If you are calling from a rotary-dial phone.”

“Please press one.”

“Or if you wish to speak to an operator.”


“Please stay on the line.”

“I’ve got my head stuck in the cupboard!” I cried.

“And someone will be with you shortly.”

“The party you are dialing is not responding. Please-”

“Oh fuck off.” I hung up and went home.

Pretty bad eh? Like a Monty Python skit? No sir, I don’t think the machines are gonna take over the world any time soon.

Now, call me crazy. Call me utterly kookoobananas if you will, but how about the automated collect call script containing a signal that could be interpreted by automated answering systems as a collect call which would then be patched directly through to the operator? Just a thought. I realize this is far more difficult than say – putting a man on the moon for instance but hey – that was 38 years ago. By now perhaps we’re ready to look into the technology of signals transmitted through phone lines…

Okay. Enough dream-building. The real tragedy is this. I mismanaged the whole affair right from the beginning. If you ever find yourself in such a scenario, do this: Offer to give the thief $40 cash if he’ll buy you $80 in gas. If only I’d been thinking!

[Editor’s note: The author does not in any way endorse the spontaneous fencing of stolen property nor any illegal profiteering of any nature nor the frying of bacon in the nude.]

[Senior editor’s note: There shall be no further references to nude bacon or use of the word kookoobananas on this web site ever again. This decision is final.]


Kathleen said...

It's easy to spot the criminal intent while sitting in a comfy chair at home (or work). I would have been leery but not really sure what he was up to either in the heat of the moment. My brain doesn't work well under pressure. Good job figuring it out even if the Hamilton police missed out on catching an honest to goodness criminal. I didn't know you had crime in Canada.

Next time try wxfzygus.

Anonymous said...

Canadian tire has gas bars? Huh.

Glad you didn't get taken in, but it is shitty you had so much rigaramole just trying to get the police there.

Dave said...

Scammers just chap my ass. Tell him you're not interested. Tell him you collect Air Miles and need to use your own card. Tell him to take a long, hard suck on your ass. Whatever it takes.

Hey, what the...where the hell is my Visa card?!?

Would he have had to go in and sign the slip or was this a pay at the pump situation? Maybe the clerk would have declined the card. Maybe it was already reported stolen and wouldn't have worked at the pump either. Or it would have worked, there would be video of you filling up and paying by stolen card and the cops (you know, the ones you couldn't contact) would be on your ass.

You should have just started screaming like a woman and then tried to bite your own face. That would have scared the punk off. I do that at family gatherings all the time.

Just another pximpal scam...with a bit of moqhquoc to boot.

Babs Gladhand said...

We had an ex-employee nab one of our gas cards before he left the company. When I got the bill in, I noticed all these charges within a few minutes of each other. He was doing the same thing as your guy. I didn't know until then that people even did this. It takes a lot of balls, I think. I keep hoping to hear about one of these jerks offering to buy the gas of an off-duty police officer.

Babs Gladhand said...

And...I rather like the word kookoobananas.