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I Was Scammed in Australia. Eight Years Later, I Got to Confront My Scammer

“Why’d you do it?” I asked. The answer wasn’t what I expected.

As summer travel season heats up, I'd like to share a story about I time I lost money on a vacation — and the lesson I learned much later. Safe travels, everyone!

Richard said his credit card machine was broken, but that he’d make a deal: If I paid in cash, he’d give me 15% off.

I ran to an ATM and came back with $300.

This was 2005. I was 25 and on vacation with my parents near Cairns, Australia, and was making my big purchase of the trip: a four-foot-long aboriginal instrument called a didgeridoo. Richard said I could buy it today in cash, and then he’d mail it to me back in the States. After all, did I really want to lug this thing around for the rest of my trip? I didn’t.

I Was Scammed in Australia. Eight Years Later, I Got to Confront My Scammer

Me, about to pay for a didgeridoo I’d never own.

When I returned home a few weeks later, however, no package awaited. I called Richard’s store; there was no answer. I emailed but got no response. I started to panic. The financial loss was minimal, luckily, but I was shaken by my own gullibility. I’ve always thought of myself as a quick study, but I’d walked right into a trap. Now I was determined to show Richard that he’d picked the wrong guy — momentarily naive as I may be, I was also resourceful and savvy.

I tracked down his landlord and learned that Richard packed up and fled one night, owing months of unpaid rent. The landlord put me in touch with a private investigator, who I spent weeks checking in with. There was a tantalizing sighting of Richard at a supermarket, but otherwise the trail was cold. I imagined him on the lam, flush with the cash of trusting tourists. It was infuriating.

At a loss for any other action, I filed a report with the Cairns police, where my victimhood would surely rank low. My then-girlfriend’s parents bought me another didgeridoo. I’d been defeated. I moved on.

The Cairns police department, amazingly, did not move on.

Eight years later, Richard registered for a driver’s license and triggered my dusty criminal complaint. A constable in the Cairns police emailed me: “I’ve been tasked with investigating this offense; do you still wish to proceed with your complaint?”

I was dumbstruck. It seemed almost petty, chasing such a small case after this long. I had long since married, built a career, and spent far more than $300 in far stupider ways. Did I really require justice for this?

I couldn’t help myself. I decided yes.

The constable asked me for paperwork to prove the crime: an old receipt, say, or a bank statement, so he could confront Richard with it. I scoured my home and booted up years-old laptops. But there was nothing. Maybe I lost it all. Maybe I never collected the evidence to begin with — making me an even easier mark than I’d thought.

I emailed the bad news to the constable, but begged for a consolation prize: Could he tell me anything about Richard’s life now, just to sate my curiosity?

Before I went to bed, I got an email from the constable: “I’ll call him and get him to come in and see what he tells me,” he wrote. “I’ll let you know how it goes.”

I awoke the next morning to find an email from Richard, the scammer himself! He asked if my long-ago purchase had a kangaroo painted on it. (It didn’t; that must have been another victim’s.) “I am glad to be able to contact you, at long last,” he wrote. “I would like to know if I can send you a didgeridoo and pay you back your money.”

This was what I’d spent years chasing, but now I sensed a bigger prize: More than money, I just wanted an explanation. What had I missed all those years ago? What might make me feel like less of a sucker? So I wrote back, quizzing Richard like a constable-in-training. Why did he leave? Where did he go? Did he always plan to rip me off, or was it an honest transaction that only turned deceptive afterward, as he considered how easy it was to pocket the cash?

Richard wrote back the next day.

“My plan was to stay there and operate a successful business,” he replied. But he lacked management skills, had gotten evicted, was going through a breakup, and had an untreated attention deficit disorder. It was a simple, sad story, in which he lost far more than I did.

This would be the real lesson of this tiny fiasco. We cannot know other people’s lives or how struggle drives their actions. That does not excuse someone’s bad behavior, but it should at least remind us that the world isn’t split into villains and fools. Life is complicated. We should leave room for that.

“Let me know how I may fix this,” he concluded, and I now felt the same. Our joint redemption would be paid in cash.

I turned down Richard’s offer for another didgeridoo; I barely touch the one I still own. But I told Richard that if he wired me $300, I’d consider the matter done. A few days later, Richard paid up and I wished him well. Then I told the constable that I’d drop the case.

“Great news,” the constable replied. “Best of luck in your travels.”

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Cover credit: Getty Images / CUHRIG