Meeting The Airportman

On one of the last days of December, as I was preparing to fly to Madrid to celebrate the new year with my family, I got to Terminal 1 of Barcelona Airport with half an hour to spare. I was standing in front of the long lines of people trying to get through the security check, hesitating to join them, when a man approached me from behind. 

He acted surprised and glad that I spoke English and complimented my accent. He said he was with his wife, that they had lost a plane to Manchester; he wanted to buy a ticket for the next flight (the last of the night) but he was 16 euros short. If I was so kind as to lend it to him, he would send it back to me the moment they landed. He pointed at the long, crowded line of Check-In desks and said his wife was in there trying to deal with the airline, to no avail. He wasn’t carrying a bag. He was wearing warm, mismatched clothes and he looked scruffy as fuck. He had small red sores scattered around his face. I said “sorry man, I don’t have any money on me”. He immediately directed me to an ATM machine nearby. 

As he escorted me to it, he repeated the exact same sentence about Manchester he had said a minute before. He asked about my family and I said something vague in response. He was trying to make conversation like a nurse taking blood from a child at the hospital; trying to stop one from thinking about what exactly is going on. I was pretty sure I was being scammed at this point, but I decided to give him the money anyway. There was the small chance his sob story was true, and even if it wasn’t, he had put so much effort into it, and he looked so disheveled, I figured it was an act of charity either way. I guess the fact that it was one of those days between Christmas and the new year (and that it was a small amount of money) influenced my decision.

He seemed more giddy than thankful as he took the money. He gave me an email address (andrewgradon at yahoo dot co dot uk) and swiftly walked away. I looked at my watch. I still had about twenty minutes to spare, so I followed him. He walked right past the check-in desks he had pointed at earlier and into a crowd of people. He was walking fast but I managed to keep him in sight. He walked along the airport’s front glass wall. He turned left, disappearing behind the elevators that went to the shopping centre downstairs. I assumed he was going to walk out of the last rotating glass door at the end of the airport, so I walked out as well. Now outside, I was almost running, hoping to catch him by surprise, thinking about what I was going to yell at him. I decided on -a friendly, but stern- “Nice one mate! Come on, give us the money!”. Sadly, I didn’t get to use it.

As I approached the last door, I realised he wasn’t coming out. For a moment, I hesitated, thinking his story might have been true, and his wife was just resting in one of the rows of seats in this area of the airport. If that were the case, and they saw me, my suspicions would be obvious to them, and I would be embarrassed. I walked in again, discreetly, trying to merge into another crowd of people and looking around. I quickly realised he wasn’t there anymore. He couldn’t have gone back to where we were before in such a short time, and he didn’t take the elevators… then I saw them; the emergency stairs, hidden between the bathrooms and company-specific information booths. As I started to make my way down about three flights of stairs, I could hear the door close at the bottom. I ran down as quickly as I could and opened it again. There were hundreds of people walking back and forth, coffee shops, restaurants, souvenirs… he was nowhere to be seen, and I had a plane to catch, so I made my way back up, still looking for him in the distance as I stood in the slow moving walkway.

I wasn’t very hopeful I was going to get my money back, but after a couple days I saw his email noted down in my phone and I decided to give it a go. I immediately got a response: “Delivery Status Notification (Failure); The email account that you tried to reach does not exist”. Of course, that was probably not his real name, but out of curiosity I searched for it online. In front of me appeared a slew of news articles which claimed he had been caught. As it turns out, he is a well known con man specialised in exactly this scheme.

Apparently, he used to show up at airports across Europe dressed in a suit and tie, distressed, asking for around 40 pounds to go home and see his kids. His victims were usually businessmen or women who appeared wealthy. He said he would send the money back as soon as he got home, and subsequently vanished forever. He could do this dozens of times a day, allegedly earning over 15,000 pounds a month. Because he operated between different countries with international travellers as his victims, the individual thefts were rarely reported, and he was hard to investigate and prosecute. To get the victim’s trust, he showed them his passport, which proved to be a mistake when a Swedish businessman took a picture of it and posted it online, raising his public profile. In January 2015, after someone reported being scammed by him at Munich airport, he showed up there two days later and was picked up by the police. He was sentenced to serve 10 months in prison, after which he claimed he would go back to England to work on his brother’s farm.

I wrote that last paragraph in past tense, but there’s no reason to think he has stopped doing this. Even though the man I met looked quite different from the passport picture circulated in 2009, I barely got a glance at him. This businessman persona sounds like it requires a lot of work, and fishing for relatively large amounts of money from individual victims might have been counterproductive, since they are more likely to report the theft, while people like me are more likely to just let it go. I gave him 20 euros, but he was asking for merely 16. If he’s doing this regularly he’s still getting a healthy paycheck while the vast majority of the swindles go unreported. The guy I gave money to looked like he was having a hard time regardless of whether his story was true. This could either be an improvement on the formula or a sign that running the same manipulative little trick for almost 20 years wears one down.

As a person who likes mind games of all kinds and cons in particular, I have to admire this scam because of how clean, simple and effective it is. It also has a few redemptive qualities. The victims give away their money out of generosity. It’s based on false pretences, but there is no expectation that the victims will earn more money than they currently have or that they will get a reward in return; they happily part with it as an act of kindness to a complete stranger. In any case, it’s a loss they can afford, because if they couldn’t it would be highly unlikely that they would give anything away.

It is possible that some people feel betrayed and humiliated by the scheme and resolve to never give money to those in need again. I think it’s more likely, and it’s certainly my case, that they feel good about themselves in the moment and that afterwards, even though they are sad about giving money to a scammer, they feel proud of themselves for unquestioningly helping someone in need instead of being skeptical of them. The greatness of this deception is that people’s goodness and generosity towards fellow human beings is a necessary precondition for it’s success. The fact that it has been successful for many years in cities across Europe gives me nothing but hope.