Sad to report, another rich relative in Spain has died, leaving me a small fortune

IMG_0318Mr Thomas Schlesinger, a distant relative of mine and his poor wife died in 2010 on the Barcelona Motorway, writes his personal attorney, the barrister Alejandro Gomez (Esq) of Lanx & Associates, (located at 42 Arc del Teatra, Barcelona) in a letter that arrived by post last week, dated September 14.

Before his death, Mr Gomez writes, Thomas deposited $8.5m in the Spanish Finance Bank, but tragically did not make a will.

All efforts to trace Thomas’s relatives have been ‘abortive and a mystery”.

Rather than risk having the funds confiscated, “as according to Spanish Inheritance Law on article 101-102 amendment”, Mr Gomez has kindly offered to present me (L Schlesinger) as the next of kin of Thomas Schlesinger, who I am told was a “formal contractor/engineer” at mining giant BHP Billiton” to share the $8.5m with him, minus 10 per cent to go to “some charity organisations”.

Because of his personalities (of which I assume there are multiple) Barrister Gomez writes and says that I should keep the matter “secrete and confidentiality as our primary working conditions” but that I should email him at his private address, or phone or fax as soon as possible “to ensure the success of the project”.

As I pondered the words of Mr Gomez, I reflected on a double tragedy: almost three years ago I received another letter from Barrister Mateo Pinto from Madrid to inform me that another distant relative of mine ‘Albert Schlesinger’, an oil magnate who lived in Spain for 28 years died with his immediate family in an “auto car accident on the Damascus Highway in Syria in December 2004”.

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The 2012 letter informing me of Albert Schlesinger’s passing

Sadly, he too had not left a will (it must run in the Schlesinger family on our Spanish side: car accidents and not writing wills) leaving US$9.6 million unclaimed in a vault at the Madrid Central office.

So much death, yet so much unclaimed money…

I have now received two letters from Spain at two different home addresses (I moved house in 2013).

The only thing genuine thing about them are of course the charming Spanish stamps and postmarks on the envelopes.

The latest letter has a lovely one euro stamp depicting Felipe the Sixth, the current Spanish monarch, in a red-brown tint.

The first letter had two stamps: a 35 cent stamp depicting the back seat of a car with a teddy bear and a 50 cent stamp of a red ship of some kind.

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So the scammers have spent 1.85 euros (A$2.92) of their own money, trying to get me to give them thousands of mine.

I haven’t given them a penny and it seems hard to believe that anyone else would fall for this scam. But they do, and in droves.

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The September 2015 letter

According to the Australian government’s Scamwatch website, losses for the first seven months of the year from ‘inheritance scams’ – as these are known – total $4.43m from 2500 reported cases, making up roughly 10 per cent of the $45m lost to scams of one sort or another.

“Scammers are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their attempts to get your money or personal details. Scams succeed because they look like the real thing and catch you off guard when you’re not expecting it,” writes Delia Rickard from the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission

But surely only greed, naievety or stupidity – perhaps a combination of all three – can be driving people to divulge their personal information and lose tens of thousands of dollars to people like “Alejandro Gomez” (For an explanation of how this scam works, click here.)

While the posted letter, stamps and postmark adds an air of authenticity and the letterhead has an actual address (Arc del Teatre in Barcelona does exist) there is no firm called Lanx & Associates.

BHP Billiton, is of course a real company, but never employed a Thomas Schlesinger, who never deposited money into the Spanish Finance Bank, because no such bank exists.

As for Alejandro Gomez, no such barrister is currently practicing in Barcelona according to Google, though there is an Argentinan football player and a Columbian tennis player with the same name, so maybe the letter writer is a sports fan.

And type the name of his “law firm” Lanx & Associates into Google and you come up with consumer forums (like this one) packed with people telling identical stories about letters from lawyers in Spain.

Greetings from Germany. My new best friend Barrister Mark Torres Esq. (Spanish Lawyer and Doctor in Law) located at Calle Velázquez 53, 28001 Madrid Tel.: 00-34-692-838-947 barristermark.torres@lawyer.com, wants to share 7.5 million euros with me, left by a person with the same surname who died in a car crash in 2004.
Anyone want to take up the offer?
I am glad I wasn’t in Spain in 2004. It seems to have been a catastrophic year for accidents!

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Snake oil: Door-to-door salesmen and other scams

snakeoilIf an alien crash landed on earth, probably the first thing that would happen to him is he’d get scammed and he’d have to fly back to his faraway planet in just his space undies. That’s if someone hadn’t stolen his identity and sold his space-craft already.

My wife and I were the proverbial ‘aliens’ a couple of years, when we flew into Cairo for a week’s visit as part of a round-the-world trip in 2010.We figured since it was so short a visit and all we wanted to do was see the Pyramids of Giza, the Egyptian Museum, take a cruise on the Nile and wander around the ancient streets that we’d not bother to buy a guide-book and just wing it.

Big mistake!

We got conned on our way to the pyramids.We got conned wandering the ancient streets. I got conned on an evening stroll when looking for a place to eat. Conned. Conned Conned. By old kindly looking men. By young boys. By exuberant fathers with stories about their children. It was incredible.

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Riding a very expensive camel in Cairo, October 2010

The scams were not sophisticated in the way they are in Australia and other westernised cities and “harmless” in the sense that all you lost was a bit of dosh. Looking back they were somewhat endearing (or perhaps pitiful) and assumingly thought-up as a means of getting by in a very tough city.

Back in Australia, it’s a far more dangerous proposition with greed the primary motive. There are scam-artists waiting on the telephone, in the letter box and at the front door. It’s so bad that the government has a dedicated website called Scamwatch to warn you about each of them with real-life stories and advice.

Our home phone, which we hardly ever use except for our internet service is a constant source of dodgy phone calls. We hardly ever answer it now, figuring that if it’s an important call, people will try our mobiles or Skype.

The other day I picked up the phone and  a woman proceeded to tell me she was from Microsoft support and that I had downloaded a virus on to my computer. She implored me to go on to my computer and search for a certain file to verify this. I could hear she was talking from a faraway place, and with a strange manner of speaking English, so I just hung up the phone. Sure enough this was a scam as described on this UK website with the end result that you download a real virus that steals all your personal information.

Then’s there’s the door-to-door energy salesmen trying to get you to switch energy accounts.

Twice this has happened to us in Melbourne. The first time the salesman identified himself as from an energy company, the second time was more sinister.

Last week, just before dinner, a guy appeared at our door with a clipboard. He pulled out a spreadsheet, told me he was from Jemena and said he needed to see my last energy bill to compare what I was currently paying.

Jemena is an energy infrastructure company which provides electricity and gas to homes. This electricity and gas is then on sold to consumers from retail suppliers like Origin Energy, who are our gas and electricity supplier.

The salesman gave me the impressions this was all very official and pressing so I rifled through a cupboard full of documents and on my iPad until I found an online bill. The man stood there quietly, smiling with his clipboard. I showed him the bill and he studied it. Then he said something like “Oh my god” and went on tell me I was paying 20 per cent more each month then  I needed to. He said he would sign me up and that I would save money from next month.It was then I realised this wall all a deceptive little scam.

He wasn’t from Jemena, but from a retail energy supplier called “Simply Energy”. I told him I wasn’t going to sign up to anything on my doorstep and he left with a piece of paper on which he had scribbled his mobile phone number in pencil in case I changed my mind.

I googled Simply Energy. The reviews were scandalous. It got an average rating of 1.4 out of 5 from 235 reviews on productreview.com.au with stories of customers being overcharged, having their gas and electricity supply cut and even contacting a customer’s current supplier to say they had switched to Simply Energy even when they never agreed to.

They use to call these people snake oil salesmen, referring to travelling charlatans selling miracle cures and quack medicines. Now the scams have become far more sophisticated and devious.

Have a look at the Scamwatch website, there are dozens of scams preying on the naive, weak-minded, plain unlucky or vulnerable from online auctions, to pharmaceutical products to real estate scams.

One of my most popular blog posts was about a letter I received in the post over a year ago covered with Spanish stamps and postmarks. It was addressed to me in person, offering me the chance to share in an inheritance of an oil magnate called “Albert Schlesinger” who had apparently died in a car crash in 2004.

Seems ridiculous right? Who would fall for that? But every year thousands of Australians do.

A program on the ABC’s 7.30 Report reported that every month, Australians lose $7 million just through internet scams.

They’re impossible to avoid unless you choose to live like a hermit, never answering the phone, turning on your computer or answering the doorbell.

The ‘free dinners’ making Wenatex shareholder a motza

Have you recently received an ‘Exclusive Dinner Invitation’ from a company called Wenatex in the letter box?

The letter says:

In order to satisfy the ever-increasing demand, we would like to invite you and your partner as our personal guests to one of our entertaining information evenings, which includes a wonderful dinner. While dining…we will inform you about current trends and new scientific research into the subject of healthy sleep…attending guests will receive a fantastic gift as an additional thank you.

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The Wenatex $50 mystery gift voucher

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Wenatex free dinner voucher

While reading this letter, my thoughts drifted to a hot day in Koh Samui in April 2010 and how my wife and I had been duped into giving up our afternoon in the hope we’d make some money for our back packing holiday. This is what I wrote in my journal:

Tuesday 6th April 2010: Chaweng Beach, Koh Samui:

“While walking back to our hotel room for an afternoon siesta, stopped by tanned English couple on motorbike. Gave us scratchy cards.  Surprise! We’d won a great prize – cash, laptop, camera or dream holiday Next thing, we found ourselves in a cab on our way to 90 minute timeshare presentation…

That afternoon, after the sales presentation (so boring, the memory of it is completely erased from my consciousness, but it must have happened as it’s in my travel journal) we were shown around expensive holiday resorts, given free cocktails and then subjected to the “hard sell” for timesharing that would have cost tens of thousands of dollars.

When the salespeople finally gave up, we received our prize: a voucher for a holiday at a resort in Thailand, not valid for immediate use. My guess is everyone gets that voucher. (A year ago I found it in an envelope among some travel mementos. It had long-expired.)

It struck me that the psychology behind the Wenatex dinner invitation is almost exactly the same as that used in Thailand. You think you’re getting something for free (a fancy meal + gift or expensive prize) but what you really get is a cheap meal and a long (4 hours according to one account) lecture on the science of sleep all designed to make you part with thousands of dollars.

Wenatex Australia has been offering their free dinners all over Australia and New Zealand since coming here in 2002 from their home base in Saltzburg, Austria.

Their high pressure selling techniques were reported on NZ current affairs show, Fair Go, which snuck cameras and two reporters into a Wenatex dinner and information evening. The video showed a lady giving the sales presentation and suggesting, outrageously, that a Wenatex sleep system had cured a man previously confined to a wheel chair.

For more of the flavour of these evenings, you can read comments on consumer forums here and here (My suspicion is that some of the more favourable reviews are written by Wenatex staff.)

You can also read this blogger’s account of attending a Wenatex free dinner in Canberra in 2013.

So just how successful is Wenatex at signing up customers at these free dinners?

The answer, emphatically, is: Very!

I obtained a copy of Wenatex Australia’s most recently filed annual accounts.

They show that for the 2007/2008 financial year the company earned a whopping $30.8 million (up 25% on the $24 million earned the previous year).

wenatex3Assuming an average spend of $10,000 for a Wenatex sleep system, that’s more than 3,000 customers who have been convinced to part ways with a big chunk of money on a supposed free night out.

Profit for the year was a shade over $2 million with the biggest expense – not surprisingly – being sales and marketing (those free dinners) which totalled nearly $9 million.

wenatex4Of the $2 million worth of after tax profit, nearly ($1.8 million) was paid to shareholders, which comprises a company called “Iways Pty Ltd”

There are four equal shareholders in Iways. They are Claude Wernicke, the CEO of Wenatex Australia, and presumably his sons –  Stephen, Michael and Justin Wernicke.

Split four ways, the Wernickes each took home $450,000 in 2007/2008, that on top of any salaries earned. And that was five years ago. Given their rate of growth, they could conceivably be earning $1 million each by now.

Carpet salesmen-origins

The Wenatex sales strategy and the Thailand scratchy card/time-share ploy are essentially sophisticated, dressed-up versions of what you’ll experience if you venture into a carpet shop or trinket store in Morocco, Egypt or India – where you will be offered free tea, and a tour of the factory “just to look” before the big sales pitch and relentless bargaining begins and previously very friendly shop owner turns less so. (In Essaouira, Morocco in 2010, my wife and I found ourselves having our photos taken dressed up in full traditional Bedouin costumes before having carpet after carpet thrown at our feet despite out protests.)

Of course – just as we did from that carpet shop, you can go along to the Wenatex dinner, stuff your belly, listen to their spiel and walk away – or buy (as some do)  a very expensive mattress.

I am not suggesting the Wenatex mattresses are not comfortable (they may even be superb), but unless you genuinely want to spend thousands of dollars for a mattress and accessories I’d suggest the following:

Tear up the Wenatex invitation, splash out a $100 of your own money and enjoy a guilt-free, relaxing, bona fide dining experience at a restaurant of your choice.

(And if you  DO need a new mattress, head to the shops and try out as many as you like.)

What’s happened to alleged Ponzi scheme mastermind and resident of Runaway Bay Barry Tannenbaum?

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Aerial shot of Runaway Bay

In 1972, work begun to turn 182 hectares of tidal Gold Coast wetlands north of the Southport Broadwater into a canal-lined residential subdivision.

Real estate developer Neil McCowan and advertising agent, John Garnsey coined the new suburb ‘Runaway Bay’ with the idea of promoting the area as a tranquil escape.

Take a stroll along the Runaway Bay marina today with its views of the Surfers Paradise Manhatten-esque skyline and bobbing yachts and luxury cruisers at berth and you may pass by a portly, bald man with a strong South African accent.

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Barry Tannenbaum photographed in Sydney in 2009

It might just be Barry Deon Tannenbaum, now a resident of the palm tree-lined  suburb and the alleged operator of South Africa’s biggest Ponzi scheme, where he now claims to work as an insurance adviser.

When Tannebaum’s name last appeared in the Australian press more than three years ago he was a resident of Runaway Bay, having fled the South African Jewish enclave of St Ives, Sydney when news of the scheme broke.

Indeed, Wikipedia lists, as Runaway Bay’s only notable resident: “Alleged Ponzi scheme mastermind, Barry Tannenbaum”.

Around six months prior to this mention in the Fairfax press, the Sydney Morning Herald had run as its June 13 Weekend edition front page story: Exposed: the Sydney man accused of a $1.5 billion scam.

Front page story in the Sydney Morning Herald, June 2009

Front page story in the Sydney Morning Herald, June 2009

In the last three years, hardly a word about Tannenbaum has made it into the mainstream Australian media, despite new damning revelations in South Africa.

A failed attempt by the South African trustees of Tannenbaum’s bankrupt estate to take control of his Australian assets in the Queensland Federal Court in August last year also passed without mention, despite the judge noting that “substantial funds sourced from South Africa were transferred to Australian entities controlled by [Tannenbaum] and his wife”.

Funds allegedly stolen from hundres of investors  (some who lost all their savings) and squandered by Tannebaum before fleeing South Africa.

The tag of “mastermind” (one rejected by Tannenbaum) is given by none other than the South African Revenue Service (SARS), in recently leaked documents published on finance website moneyweb.co.za.

They reveals that he owes nearly $80 million in taxes, interest and penalties as part of undeclared income earned when he allegedly perpetrated one of the biggest corporate frauds in South African history.

According to SARS, Tannenbaum under-declared his income between 2004 and 2009 by 444 million rand ($47 million) and now owes 747 million rand ($79 million) in tax, penalties and interest.

By investigating Tannebaum’s 26 bank accounts, SARS discovered that these bank accounts had inflows of 3.91 billion rand ($415 million) of which 3.05 billion rand ($324 million) was paid out to “investors” and “agents” in the scheme.

A page from the SARS assessment

A page from the SARS assessment

Over this five year period Tannenbaum paid tax of just 142,000 rand ($15,000).

Despite these very large sums, they are only a fraction of a purpoted 15 billion rand ($1.5 billion) accrued through an alleged ‘Ponzi’ scheme that drew in 378 investors, including the wealthy and the not so wealthy in the close-knit South African Jewish community by inducing them to invest in his company Frankel International (of which he was the sole trustee), which traded under the name Eurochemicals.

Investors were enticed with offers of very high returns by allegedly forged purchase orders to supply the active ingredients for anti-retroviral drugs (used in the treatment of HIV and AIDS) to drug company Aspen Pharmacare – this in a country with one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world.

One purchase order was said to be for 700 million rand ($74 million) – denied outright by Aspen.

Adding believability to the scheme were two things; firstly that the Tannenbaum’s were a well-known, wealthy and respected Jewish family in South Africa and secondly, they have a deep connection to the local pharmaceutical industry – Barry Tannenbaum’s grandfather Hyme was the founders of South Africa’s largest over the counter pharmaceutical company, Adcock Ingram, now owned by Tiger  Brands.

The Tannenbaums sold their stake in the business in 1978.

Frankel Chemicals was subsequently founded in 1983 as an intermediary in the supply chain of drug compounds.

Between 2004 and 2009, Barry Tannenbaum, as director of Frankel, is said to have engaged the services of a number of high-profile businessmen in South Africa as “agents” – the original investors in the scheme and at the top of the pyramid – to sell the idea to other investors that they could more than double their money by making short term (8 to 12 weeks) advances for the purpose of enabling the purchase and importation into South Africa of pharmaceutical ingredients.

In a Ponzi scheme the early investors are paid dividends from investments made by later investors, rather than from any actual profit earned by the company.

I know of friends in South Africa induced to invest who lost all their savings. The sense of Tannenbaum’s betrayal of their trust remains palpable since the story was broken by South Africa’s the Financial Mail in July 2009.

The SARS investigation, which drew in all the major South African government institutions and auditors KPMG, came to the conclusion that “Tannenbaum was indeed the mastermind and operator of this illegal multiplication scheme”.

Following the article in the Sydney Morning Herald and other Fairfax papers in June 2009 as well as the ABC, Tannenbaum professed his innocence claiming in a letter to the press that “categorically” he was not “sitting with millions”.

“I have not amassed some fortune that I have spirited away, and in due course an audit will bear out this statement, if people are still interested in hearing the truth,” he said before all but disappearing from the public eye.

In January 2010, the last mention of Barry Tannenbaum in the Australian press appeared when Fairfax ran a story about him fleeing St Ives for Runaway Bay.

It was reported soon after an arrest warrant had been issued for Tannenbaum by the South African police. The short piece said he had fled “a stuffy little office above a strip of shops around the corner from his St Ives home “ only to “pop up in the Surfers Paradise suburb of Runaway Bay”.

And since then nothing.

As an Australian resident since mid-2007, Tannenbaum has received the full legal protections of the Australian judiciary system.

Efforts by South Africa to get Australia’s co-operation in the matter have proved fruitless.

In August last year, the Queensland division of the Federal Court declined an application by the South African trustees of Mr Tannenbaum’s bankrupt estate to administer and realise any assets he had accrued in Australia.

The ruling was made on the basis that South Africa was not the ‘centre of the debtor’s main interests’ as he had “severed all ties” with the country of his birth.

The Australian court documents confirm what is known in the SARS investigation – that Tannenbaum raised $390 million between 2004 and 2009.

Of this vast sum, just 0.05% was on-loaned by Tannenbaum for the purpose of purchasing pharmaceutical ingredients.

According to the court documents, 44.8 million rand ($4.78 million) was used by Tannenbaum for personal transactions “with a substantial portion being spent on gambling”.

He transferred US$31.7 million into an account held by Bartan Group Pty Ltd (Bartan – shortening of ‘Barry + Tannenbaum’), an Australian incorporated company, with an ANZ Bank account, now in liquidation.

Of this money, US$14 million was transferred into other entities controlled by Tannenbaum or to persons associated with him.

The sole shareholder of Bartan is another Australian incorporated company, Bardeb Nominees Pty Ltd, with shares held solely by Tannenbaum and his wife, Deborah.

Bartan was wound up by an order of the Supreme Court of New South Wales on 9 March 2010.

The Federal Court court documents note that a report issued about Bartan’s affairs in April 2010 was “noteworthy for its paucity of information concerning the affairs of that company” but does include assets of $586,523 (made up of $150 in cash with the balance being investments in two other entities) and contingent assets of some $21 million.

During the court case, Tannenbaum claimed he had assets of less than $8,000 and just $1,700 in the bank while his liabilities where $90,000 on his credit card, an $85,000 loan from “friends” and $185,000 vehicle finance lease.

Telling Judge Logan remarks: “It may very well be that his decision to quit South Africa was inherently bound up with a desire not in the future to be dealt with under the law of that country in respect of his involvement in the scheme described and a related desire to enjoy the benefits of proceeds repatriated to Australia.

“It is not necessary in this proceeding conclusively to determine whether or not or to what extent he has enjoyed the proceeds but there is no doubt on the evidence that substantial funds sourced from South Africa were transferred to Australian entities controlled by he and his wife.”

Tannenbaum declined to reveal his Queensland address, claiming he did not have a permanent home, directing the court to a Sydney solicitor.

According to SARS, the money Tannenbaum earned was paid into various companies of which Tannenbaum was either a director or member – nine registered in South Africa and five in Australia, including the Bartan Group and Frankel International.

Julian Assange may be left to wolves by the Australian government, but Barry Tannenbaum, the alleged mastermind of a $1.5 billion fraud has disappeared from view and may very well be living the good life on the Gold Coast, enjoying walks along the marina, eating fresh seafood and feeling the warm sun on his skin.

While Bernie Madoff will remain in jail for the rest of his life, not a single charge has been laid against Tannenbaum in Australia despite a mountain of evidence back in South Africa.

He refuses to return to South Africa and face the charges, even though he claims he is innocent.

In Australia he appears to be protected and untouchable and living in, of all places, Runaway Bay.

Dodgy operators and scam artists: Seven tips to avoid getting ripped off this Xmas

sam.gifIt’s the festive season, we’re all spending money, buying things, and perhaps – in the spirit of the moment – being a little bit reckless about how we spend it.

As a property and financial journalist I have written about a  fair number of sharks, charlatans and scheisters and come across a few in person too.

It’s amazing what people try to get away with – there’s this story about a mortgage broker who conned clients out a $1.1 million and this story about a former professional rugby league player who allegedly pocketed $60,000 meant for his elderly clients,which he received by mistake.

I’ve written about unscrupulous mortgage brokers, dodgy estate agents, greedy financial advisers, but these sorts of people operate at all levels of business from the guy selling you a TV to the charity mugger on the corner of the street.

So here’s some tips to avoid getting into trouble:

  • If it sounds too good to be true, it is – run!

If someone is offering to double your money in six months or promises a very high rate of return on your investment, chances are they’re up to no good. They’re acting out of greed and playing on your desire for a quick return. If you want  a quick return, buy a lottery ticket (and pray) or go to the casino and put an amount you are happy to lose on black or red – that could double your stake in a flash, but at least you know the odds and the risks.

  • Always get a second opinion

If you think you’re on to a good thing, then present the idea to someone you trust and ask them for their opinion. It can be a professional in the same industry, a help line, a friend, a family member, just so long as its someone who can give you an objective point of view and has nothing to gain by doing so.

  • Do a Google/internet search

You can find out a great deal of information about someone simply by searching online. Type in the name of the person trying to sell you something and/or the company name and see what results come up. Certainly if your broker or adviser has gotten into professional trouble, you should find some mention of it online. But even if they haven’t you can find out a great deal about someone from online recommendations, their Facebook page, what they say on Twitter, from their blog and their previous roles via their LinkedIn profile etc.

  • Don’t rush into any decision

Whether you are buying a car, a house or a new TV, you should never feel pressured into making your purchase. Remember, there is no shortage of most things and even if it’s a house or collectible car you really like, if the person selling it to you is pressuring you, you should be suspicious.

  • Consider at least one or two alternatives products or services

The other day I was shopping for tea (yes just tea) and there must have been about a 100 varieties to choose from. I spent five minutes just locating the type I was after (Rooibos). This is also the case with most things you purchase these days – maybe not a 100 choices but usually a dozen alternatives. Particularly if it’s an expensive item or where the financial commitment is great, you should consider at least one or two alternative products, which may be better and cheaper or have more suitable features. You can do this without even walking into a store, by using a comparison website. Just make sure its a reputable website with a big range of products and full disclosure of how they compare items. ASIC is currently clamping down on dodgy comparison websites.

  • Ask lots of questions of the salesperson

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, including ones you think may sound silly such as questions about basic information. A good salesman should be happy to answer all of them. Also, by asking a lot of questions you will become better acquainted with the product and the person selling it.

  • Consider the personality, appearance and attitude of the salesperson

Think about the person who is selling to you. Are they likeable? Do you trust them? Do they have a pleasant manner? It’s amazing how often, after someone has sold you something, they lose complete interest in you, which is OK if you’re buying a shirt, but not so good if you’re buying a new car and it breaks down after a week. Trust your instincts. Avoid dealing with slick, fast-talking sales people who sound like second-hand car dealers (apologies to all honest second-hand car dealers). Buy from someone you like and trust. Why give business to a dick-head?

Happy shopping and spending over the festive season!

A public service initiative from freshlyworded.

An unexpected letter arrives from Spain

A letter arrived in the mail this week affixed with two colourful ‘Espana’ stamps and an two ink marks baring the words “Barcelona” and “Correos La Campania de Todos” (The Spanish post office).

The stamps cost 35 euro cents and 50 euro cents each.

The letter was addressed to “L Schlesinger” with my home address printed on top and began with an apology for this “unsolicited” correspondence.

“My name is Barrister Mateo Pinto of St. Mary of the Head 15, 28045, Madrid Spain. I got your contact information through the Australian public records while searching for the last name similar to my late client.”

His client, now deceased, was ‘Albert Schlesinger’, an oil magnate who lived in Spain for 28 years and who died along with his immediate family in an “auto car accident on the Damascus Highway in Syria in December 2004”.

The letter went on to detail how there was US$9.6 million unclaimed in a vault at the Madrid Central office and that he was seeking out a relative that shared the same last name as his client.

Having found me, he was willing to share the spoils – though 60:40 in his favour.

Still, I’d come out with a cool $5.76 million.

All I had to do to get the ball rolling was send him a fax or email, but he also provided a phone number though he suggested the first two means of correspondence for “time difference and confidentiality reasons”.

But I better hurry because, according to Barrister Mateo Pinto there is only “three months final notice from the safe keeping firm to present a beneficiary to the vault” or the money would be “forfeited to the Spanish authorities” – something that he “forbid happening”.

The letter was signed with an indecipherable signature and clearly a photocopy.

Obviously, this is a scam and not a very convincing one despite the effort to create authenticity with the posted letter and stamps (and perhaps also playing the part of the greedy lawyer by demanding a 60: 40 split in his favour).

I did some Google searches anyway to placate my curiosity.

The street address on the letter does not exist.

The only Albert Schlesinger of note I could locate died in San Francisco in 1993. His New York Times obituary says he was a civic leader and “founder of one of the largest automobile dealerships on the West Coast”.

There is no Damascus Road, in Syria, though there is one mentioned in the Bible.

And as for Barrister Mateo Pinto of St. Mary of the Head, there is an architect of that name residing in New York and a legal case in the Philippines involving a ‘Mateo Pinto’ who leased a fish pond, but that’s it.

Of course even without the help of Google, there are holes in the story as wide as the Grand Canyon.

For instance: why does he say he comes from Madrid, but posts the letter in Barcelona, on the other side of the country?

And what lawyer would look to give 40% of $9.6 million to someone he’d never met just because they shared the surname of their client?

I found many similar examples with almost the identical plot structure, including one on the Australian government’s SCAM watch website from a Spanish lawyer, whose client had died in a car accident with the recipient offered the  chance to share in $22 million, (though in this letter, the lawyer is more generous willing to share the spoils 50:50).

Does anyone actually fall for these silly scams?

Still, it got me thinking about the person who gone to the trouble of buying the stamps and posting this letter half way around the world in the hope that I’d reply and presumably end up handing over my bank details so that he can steal from me.

Somewhere, in Spain, probably Barcelona, there is a guy posting letters to all the Schlesingers he can locate in overseas phone directories.

Why did he pick Schlesinger? Well there are some very wealthy Schlesingers I believe, sadly I am not one of them, so perhaps that’s why he picked the name. Perhaps he’d also considered the more famous Oppenheimer, Getty or Rothschild surnames for the name of his fictitious client.

I imagine the scam artist hunched over a computer in some darkened flat in a non-descript suburb on the outskirts of Barcelona. The printer whirrs and buzzes as it prints out letter after letter. He bends down, picks up each letter and has a cursory look over it to check it’s printed correctly, folds it neatly and slips it into an envelope. He licks the stamps and presses them onto the envelope firmly. Later, when he has a big enough pile, he heads off late at night, walking along quiet streets, a cigarette dangling from his lips (don’t all villains smoke?) and drops the letters into the nearest mail box, looking around suspiciously as he does so in case someone has finally tracked him down. Then he disappears down a narrow lane, finds a cheap bar that stays open late, orders a beer, finds a seat in the corner, where he sips his cerveza, lights up another cigarette, puffs out a cloud of smoke and dreams up his next scam.

Or perhaps he’s some 16 year old nerd with pimples and a computer.