Holiday scams can hurt good intentions

Bob Huber: CNJ columnist

The fun-filled holiday season begins this week unless you’re a Scrooge who would rather dump a jar of molasses in the Salvation Army kettle outside Wal-Mart. You probably developed that attitude because you didn’t get a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas when you were a kid or a Shirley Temple doll which you richly deserved.

So if you’re of that twisted state of mind, I’ll see the cause of your conduct and raise you a gripping Christmas tale that took place when I was playing me a waiting game as a reporter on the Denver Post. It pops into my mind every year when holiday travel gets more expensive and credit card companies raise their rates. It goes like this: A young mother facing a dreary Christmas hocked her wedding band to buy a scraggly holiday tree for her three children. Her husband had left for greener pastures, absconding with the family funds, and the pawn shop owner called me with the story. Don’t ask how he knew my number.

My mind boggled when I saw that family’s pathetic little tree decorated with can lids and bottle caps. I went back to my typewriter and pounded out my lamentation. It must have been a slow news day, because my story appeared on page one of the Post alongside a picture of the family looking like pale, starving Ethiopians in an icebox.

Well, the city of Denver came unglued over that story. Purses popped open that hadn’t seen daylight since the glory days of the great Colorado Silver Lode. Banks established accounts for the family, dentists offered free orthodontic braces, and food stuffs piled so high at the Post they had to be hauled away in a Mayflower van.

Service clubs, meanwhile, joined hands and began raising money in a rare joint endeavor, the final event being a yuletide showing of the family in a local sports pavilion on Christmas Eve at two bucks a throw. Proceeds were to go to a college fund for the mother and her kids.

When Christmas Eve finally arrived, I was exhausted. Hanging onto that comet’s tail all month, I’d been forced to write a daily flood of follow-ups and sidebars, and to tell the truth, I was sorry I’d ever hocked my watch to that blabber-mouth pawnbroker.

But there I was with two photographers in the sports pavilion on Christmas Eve awaiting the family’s grand arrival. I glanced at the time. They were an hour late.

At that moment the Denver police chief, a balding, disgruntled man, stepped onto the stage and held up a hand for silence. The audience hushed, and everyone knew suddenly that something was terribly wrong. “Go home,” he said. “The show’s off.”

I ran backstage and confronted him. “What happened?” I said.

He looked me up and down as though I’d just stolen the last pencil from a blind beggar. “The dame took off,” he said. “She cleaned out the bank accounts and bought a truck, then picked up her husband and enough food to last a year. They’re probably in Honduras by now, basking in the sun. It was a scam.”

“A scam?”

“Yeah, they were con artists, swindlers. The kids weren’t even theirs. They dumped them at a movie on their way out of town. They’ve pulled this sting for a dozen years in a dozen different cities. Nets them around 100 grand every Christmas.”

So that’s why some folks get a little hard-nosed around Christmas and even look askance at Santa Claus. And well they should. After all, how could you trust a guy with a fake beard who wears a red suit and motorcycle boots and gets everyone all excited and in debt, then leaves town? I tell you, he’s up to no good.

Bob Huber is a retired journalist living in Portales. He can be contacted at 356-3674.