A story of a truck, some trains, a vet, and a possible scam

I think I’ve been taken for another Internet scam.

Of course the Internet is ripe for this kind of thing. The story of Kaycee Nicole Swenson is one infamous example. Unfortunately I fell for that one too, although not as hard as some people did. All I really wasted in that case was some bandwidth and a little disk space. That’s more than I can say for the people who sent her gifts and other things.Some people are skeptical of everything they see online. When I was younger, it made me mad. Not anymore.

People can come and go as they please with their blogs, but forums are an even easier target. Back in April, a disabled veteran showed up on a forum that I frequent. He had an interest in trains. My father in law, Jerry, was a disabled Vietnam vet. Jerry was hit by machine gun fire the first time he saw combat and received a Purple Heart. He never walked without a brace again. I don’t want to say the time in Vietnam ruined Jerry’s life, but it certainly sent everything off in a different direction.

By the time I met Jerry, he wasn’t bitter. He shared my love of baseball. He was a rabid Cardinals fan, so we’d talk baseball. We’d also talk about playing baseball and softball, because we both used to be outfielders. It’s always fun to hear another person’s take on playing the position you played. The difference was that at 29, I could still play center field. By 29 I had almost certainly lost a step out there, but my loss was due to age. At 29, all Jerry could do was coach. Jerry’s loss was from serving his country in an ill-advised war.

Jerry died in 2005. He had cancer, but his treatment was working, or so we thought. Then one day he started having a lot more abdominal pain than he was used to having. One Saturday afternoon they took him to the hospital for what was supposed to be a routine visit to find out what was going on with the pain, and he never went home.

I didn’t know Jerry very long, but he certainly influenced my life. Jerry was the first person who told me I could be completely debt-free in seven years or less. I didn’t believe him, but he was right. Now I probably had those tendencies before I met Jerry, and maybe I would have gone down that road regardless. But the first time I ever heard the idea was sitting on a porch overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, drinking coffee with Jerry.

I miss Jerry.

When I heard this guy’s story, something reminded me of Jerry.

He came from out of nowhere. He’d bought this old Lionel train at a garage sale. He was a disabled veteran (I can’t remember if it was Gulf War I and Gulf War II, or just Gulf War II), he shopped at garage sales, and he liked Lionel trains. What was there not to like about him?

But there was more to it. He was young, was married and had a kid or two while he was in the war, was wounded in combat, and when he came home, his wife and kids had left him. He’d served his country and nearly died and lost everything that meant anything to him in the process.

Regardless of what you think of Gulf War II, that story tugs at your heartstrings.

I wanted to help this guy. It started with me offering him some advice on getting that old train running. It was similar to a train that had belonged to my Dad. I’d worked on that kind of thing before, and I had some books with some advice in them. He never did get it running. I couldn’t tell if the problem was his locomotive or the track, so I offered to send him a cheap Marx locomotive and a loop of track. He told me he would have a hard time paying me. I told him not to worry about it because the stuff I was sending was probably worth about $10. It wasn’t; a fair price for it probably would have been closer to $20. It all shipped for about $7. Regardless, we aren’t talking huge sums of money. I can make that in an hour, and it would probably take more than an hour’s work to extract that value out of the stuff.

He thanked me profusely, but then I never heard from him again. Not directly, at least. I assume the box got to him, both because it’s unusual for a package that size to get lost in the mail, and because he made reference on the forum to having a Marx locomotive. But he came back with weekly tales about his garage sale finds. Part of me was a bit suspicious. He was finding stuff every week. I go to a lot of garage sales. I get up about 6 or 6:30 every Saturday morning, drive all over the St. Louis metro area, and the only time I’m home before noon is during December or January when there are only a couple of sales to hit. There have been days that I’ve gone out at 6 am and come home at 2 pm. I find trains about once or twice a month, and it’s probably about half as often that what I find is priced realistically.

He’s not exactly from a small town, but the metro area is 1/10 the size of St. Louis. There’s every reason to believe he should find about 1/10 the number of trains I find. Maybe less, since much of that area was probably still farmland when Lionel was in its glory days.

Looking back, I probably should have sensed some Tom Foolery going on.

I guess a lot of people started giving this guy some stuff. Train hobbyists can be pretty generous. Stuff we’ll never use tends to accumulate in boxes underneath our layouts, and the stuff we don’t give away probably won’t ever see the outside of that box for a very long time. It’s always been an unwritten rule to let useless stuff go to someone who can make better use of it. I’ve made a few trades in the past with people I’ve met online and never had any trouble. In most cases, I think we both walked away thinking we got the better end of the deal. And that’s how a deal should end–with both parties happy.

Then one day the guy disappeared. That happens. We get busy with other things sometimes. Word came that he was in the hospital. Then he reappeared. He had fantastic stories about his various medical conditions. Only there was one problem–other people on the forum had been in the hospital for the same thing, and the things he was saying weren’t consistent.

Then some people from other forums, one related to remote control cars, boats and planes and another related to the military, came looking for him and posted on the train forum. He’d told similar stories there–but the differences in the stories he told in each forum contradicted each other.

I’ve bounced back and forth between thinking whether it was a scam or just a misunderstanding. At first I wasn’t sure that I cared. Like I said, I’m out about $27. I can recover from that. But there are other people who are out a lot more than $27. At least one person sent him a brand new train set. After shipping, they were probably out closer to $300. Does that guy make 10 times what I make? Not likely.

Actually, I was wrong about not ever hearing from him again. He e-mailed a whole bunch of people, including me, yesterday while all of this was going on. It started out saying, “The evidence against me is overwhelming but this much is true.” And then he went on to rehash his story. It was pretty much all stuff I’d heard before.

The problem is, people don’t like being lied to. When part of the story is exposed as being a lie, it’s impossible to know if any of the rest is true. And then when someone turns up saying he sent him a $300 R/C truck two months ago in trade for something that never showed up, people are inclined to believe the guy. He may be a total stranger, but at least he’s never lied to them. And if the person in question has been scamming this stranger, it’s only natural to wonder if he’s been scamming other people too. Including you and your friends.

I suspect the next time someone comes along on that forum who needs something, a few people might not be feeling as generous. And that’s unfortunate.

And as for this one? I responded to his e-mail. I had several suggestions for him, including that he make things right with the guy who sent him the $300 R/C truck. He told me he would.

We’ll see. I know where to find the guy who sent the truck.

4 thoughts on “A story of a truck, some trains, a vet, and a possible scam

  • July 14, 2007 at 11:36 pm
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    In a world full of needy people is the giving of a $300 toy necessary or even Christian?

    • July 15, 2007 at 6:34 pm
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      Necessary? Not in my opinion. That’s why I gave him something that cost substantially less.

      Christian? That’s between the giver and God. I can think of things someone could do with $300 that would be more God-pleasing, but I can think of lots of things that would be less so as well. I’m certainly not going to fault anyone for trying to show appreciation to a veteran. We know the government won’t.

      • July 15, 2007 at 7:11 pm
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        Dave,
        I think it is highly commendable that you would help a veteran.
        One can find them at the VA hospital, at the VFW hall, at the colleges and universities, and even in some bars.
        When one does it in person, one can avoid these net cons.
        Since we as individuals own our government, it’s up to us to make sure that government provides for the veterans.
        Don’t forget the millions of my generation that fought an unpopular war and is still out there and needs help.

        What would the world be like without the wars? We might not have full employment.

        • July 15, 2007 at 8:14 pm
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          True enough.

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