Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Slithery Way

I first met Nick at one of those networking events - you know, the kind where the 10-year old dotcommers swirl around clinking champagne glasses and telling each other how they'll be the Next Big Thing. I danced around them, picking up cards and story ideas as I'd just started a dotcom page in my staid old economy newspaper and I needed some fodder for stories.

Nick was older, much older than the wide-eyed, 'I'll change the world tomorrow' whippersnappers and spoke in that particularly grating tone of voice that implied age and experience. Frankly, I preferred the boys, with their starry-eyed idealism. He was ugly and old in comparison but he seemed to have a good story. All about how he had come up with THE alternative to franchises.

So I called him up the next day, made an appointment and wrote the article. And that was that. Or so I thought.

Nick called me later and thought I should interview one of his clients, the first to buy into his particularly unique brand of franchising. Fine. We newspapers. We like new stuff.

Wrote that story. The client in particular, Syed, who ran a halal pizza business, decided that we were now best friends. Over the next few weeks Syed pestered me on a daily basis, about editing his press kit. Pro bono. But of course. He wanted to launch his product, and he wasn't so certain about the quality of his press release:

"Hey babe, can you look it over, tell me if there are any mistakes. Thanks, I owe you one." Babe?

Normally, I am happy to do a little editing for friends. But I was very very busy at the time. What with setting up the page and trying to find interesting news to fill it with every day (you try servicing a full broadsheet page every day), setting up the interviews, writing the stories, planning the pictures, graphics, looking in on the page layout, trying to create a new readership, I hardly slept during those months. I averaged two interviews a day, before rushing back to write a (hopefully) thought-provoking article, and then hang around and bug the sub-editors, until the page was laid out to my satisfaction. I didn't have the time.

But Syed kept calling. Maybe he had done one of those motivational courses for life insurance salesmen. I should have said no. This was harrassment. Instead, I took the path of least resistance. He sent me the press release in question and I couldn't download it. The file was infected. So that was that. I took to not answering my phone (we didn't have caller ID back then, but I used my answering service as a secretary, screening my calls). The press launch came and went. That was the end of that. Or so I thought.

A year later, both Nick and Syed started harrassing me. Again. This time they had a big launch they wanted me to cover. Which was all fine and dandy, except that it was on a Friday and we didn't publish a paper on Saturday. Which meant that by the time it came out in our paper, it would be old news. I told them so and politely declined. They called. Again. And again. And again. This time I stood firm. After all, they had coverage from all the other major papers. We were not going to carry old news.

Finally Nick said he would be setting up a signing ceremony just for me. There would be stuff there that had not been mentioned in the press conference. Please would I come? Please??????

Sighing, I capitulated. Once more. Why did I not suspect it then?

Anyway we did the story - you buy pizza, you get free broadband. They claimed to be building a "4G" network around the country. This was at a time when there wasn't even 3G in Malaysia.

We even carried it on our front page, it seemed so quirky.

A few months later, I learned that the company had folded and both Nick and Syed had run away with plenty of money from small businessmen who had forked out between RM5,000 to RM30,000 for so-called franchises. The gruesome twosome had used the articles that had appeared in all the newspapers to give them a veneer of respectability while they picked the pockets of these poor sods.

It came to light when the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) came a-calling. Now, all companies in Malaysia are required to make EPF contributions for their employees. They deduct their employees salaries, and the company contributes a percentage as well. It goes towards a form of old age pension. One employee of this progressive company had decided to buy a computer. Under one of EPF's schemes, you can pay for your computer with the money saved in your EPF fund. Shock, horror! He found that although his salary had been deducted faithfully every month, he had no EPF account.

So when EPF came a-calling, the edifice of a bona fide business collapsed. Syed and Nick escaped through the backdoor and were, in the words of numerous fairy tales, "never heard of again."

So why do I bring this up now, you ask? I should have said, never heard of again. Until now.

I just received an email forwarded to me, from the boss of my former newspaper. Nick, now in Australia, is anxious to get in touch with me. In his email, he told the editor that I had done several "funding" stories for him way back when, and he was anxious to get me to write for him again.

I blanched at the email. The gall, the gall, the Promethean gall! Since there has been a spate of stories about foreign businessmen coming over and conning the pants of our local gullibles, I called the police headquarters to see if I could pass on Nick's name to someone in authority. I thought, if he had gulled all those businessmen before, there would surely be a file on him.

Here of course, I came face to face with Malaysian bureaucracy and incompetence. After explaining in detail what I wanted to a frankly bored, and barely literate receptionist/phone operator, I was transferred to an extension. The phone in question rang interminably. Then I hung up.

I want the wheels of justice to grind him "exceeding small". I want this guy to pay for what's he's done.

But it seems that the way of the conman is smooth and slippery. When things get hot he manages to slither away. And then he slithers right back.


goldennib said...

Since these people have no shame and loads of "people skills" they are hard to stop. And they count on people's greed for the quick buck.

The only way to beat them is to keep saying no and passing their names on to those few who will listen. Eventually they'll be caught.

I think Con men or women have missing brain cells. They really don't get that they are pond scum.

Jenn said...

Hehe, no they don't. But it must feel awfully good to be them, and dupe people over and over again.

I find that our bodies actually warn us about these people. Despite their "people skills" I realise I do feel a certain repulsion, which I try to choke down. I did with Nick anyway. And later with his good buddy Syed.

goldennib said...

I know what you mean about our bodies being able to feel them. I often have feelings about people and when I was younger I would discount those ephemeral feelings. I would rationalize. Lotta help that was. Not anymore though. When I get those feelings now, I'm always on guard until I figure out where they are coming from.