Hello My Name is Chris — A Confession
Webster's Dictionary defines the word "scam" as "a fraudulent or deceptive act or operation, such as an insurance scam." Conversely, the word "legal" is defined as "conforming to or permitted by law or established rules."
Unfortunately, there is no definition listed for "legal scam," but I know such a thing exists because, for two years, I was the proprietor of one, though like a Mafioso who tells people he's in import/export, I didn't openly claim to be involved in a scam. There is something unseemly about fraud, even the legal type that I did. Whenever I was asked, I'd say I was in the travel business, which was technically true. I sold plane tickets. I just didn't sell them for the same reasons other people did.
Had I started my business anywhere but Manhattan, I suppose I would have had my humble beginnings in a garage, à la Steve Jobs. But not only didn't I have a garage, I barely had an apartment. I was sharing a loft downtown with three roommates: a straight painter, a gay publicist, and a bisexual waitress. Thus, I decided to set up shop in the much tinier apartment of my best friend, who had a day job that kept him out during business hours. He lived in a two hundred square foot studio, which is similar to a garage, only smaller. You could find yourself in his living room, kitchen, and bedroom, all at the same time. Stretch out a leg and you entered the bathroom.
I began by having my own phone line installed, which was traditionally how one started a business in America. Even if no one called you, you could always amuse yourself with the thought that the great change you'd been waiting for your whole life was just a phone call away. I always tempered this hopefulness by remembering the old joke that, when my ship finally came in, I'd probably be at the airport. And in a sense, I was.
My plan was to capitalize on the new frequent flyer programs begun by all the airlines. While frequent business travelers—the true frequent fliers—were accumulating hundreds of thousands of mileage credits, the rest of the population either wasn't flying enough to ever get any awards, or they used several different airlines and never accumulated much mileage on any particular one. My idea—or rather, my mother's idea—was to accumulate as much mileage as I could, without actually having to fly on an airplane. I would simply exploit a flaw in airline security that, in retrospect, smacks of a truly worry-free era.
My mother owned her own travel agency in California. I was a struggling screenwriter in New York. Mom was always looking for ways to keep me from starving myself to death through chronic unemployment. When I set up shop in 1984, airport security in the United States was far less stringent than elsewhere. You could fly domestically without having to show any identification. All you needed was a ticket. I took out an advertisement in The Village Voice, in the travel section, that read: "Fly to Los Angeles or San Francisco, only $49 round trip."
Underneath the ad was my company's name and telephone number, both of which I'll reveal once the statute of limitations expires for businesses that aren't-quite-illegal-but-I'm-taking-no-chances-especially-since-my-mother-is-involved.
At the time, the airlines were engaged in such fierce competition that they offered coast-to-coast flights for only $99 roundtrip, a fare almost anyone could afford. I was selling the same tickets for only half as much, and I got hundreds of phone calls right from the start, which usually went something like this:
"How come your prices are so cheap? Are you for real?"
One way you can tell a New Yorker is suspicious is when they don't bother with "hello." They just jump right into their skepticism.
"I'm not really cheaper than anyone else," I'd say. "The deal is you buy your ticket from me for the lowest available fare, currently $99, but when you come back from your trip, if you bring me your boarding pass, I'll pay you $50 for it."
"What's in it for you?"
"I get your mileage. All you have to do is let me put whatever name I want on your ticket. Since no one asks for ID at the airport, it doesn't matter under what name you fly. The boarding pass is proof for me that you took the flight."
"I know. But it's not. There's no law that says you have to have your real name on your ticket for a domestic flight. The name I'm using is made-up, and you can't get in trouble for impersonating someone who doesn't actually exist."
I often wondered if a business like mine would have worked in, say, Wheeling, West Virginia. Wouldn't more suspicious people in Wheeling hang up on me or call 911? I suppose I'll never know. But in a tough place like New York, where people are always looking for a leg up, you could quickly win a client's admiration if they thought you had a clever idea, no matter how legal that idea might be.
I would often try to visualize what the picture of my "office" looked like in the caller's mind. Did they envision secretaries and carpeting and white enamel desks? Was there someone making coffee or gossiping around a water cooler? One of the keys to my success would be to establish credibility with my clients, enough that they'd consent to giving me their credit card number over the phone to buy their ticket. If I could give the impression of being in a busy office, my task would be far more easily accomplished.
"Could you hold a moment?" I'd ask, for no good reason.
There's nothing like making somebody hold, to give the impression of being busy; though, in my case, there was always an obligatory bit of holding I had to impose on my clients each day, when I went to the bathroom, because the flushing sound in the tiny apartment was deafening and, consequently, bad for business. Not having any employees, I had to answer every call myself, even if I was indisposed when the phone rang. Putting the person on hold until I wasn't indisposed served the dual purpose of building their confidence and relieving my bladder.
"How do I know you'll give me the money for the boarding pass?" they'd ask.
"You don't. Except that I'm telling you I will, you already know my phone number, and I'm not about to sacrifice my whole business for your fifty bucks. Besides, even if I did rip you off, you'd still only be paying the lowest available fare for your ticket."
It was a winning argument. Sometimes callers would say they wanted to think about it, but they'd inevitably call me back the same day, often within the next five minutes, which led me to believe that, rather than thinking about it, they wanted to seize the initiative in the matter, lest I think that I'd told them something they didn't already know. It's like that in New York.
In order to accumulate the mileage in a useful way, I opened a series of imaginary frequent flier accounts with each airline. Each ticket I bought and resold through my mother's agency had to have either Mr. or Ms. on it, per airline regulations, which I got around by putting all my accounts in non-gender specific names. Chris Lawson, Dana McIntyre, Shelly Richards. Anybody, male or female, could be any one of these people, and, indeed, many were—so many, in fact, that sometimes the airlines denied me credit for certain flights because Chris Lawson had flown from Los Angeles to Newark, New York to Miami, and Atlanta to Dallas, all at the same time. Not having a staff in my office, I lacked the manpower to double-check that no one's flight paths and times were impossibly crossing. Whenever I'd get turned down, I'd just play dumb, as in brain-damaged dumb. They would call Ms. Lawson (a.k.a. me) and ask how this was possible and I would say, in the most Chris-Lawson-as-innocent-and-brain-damaged-female voice I could muster: "Maybe the computer glitched."
Or I'd say: "I'd just like to get credit for the Los Angeles to Newark flight (the longest of the three) I took."
Occasionally I'd use a gruff male voice and dare them to challenge me on it. What could they say? You don't sound like a woman?
"Of course I don't, I'm not even an actual human being."
While I accumulated all these miles through my Village Voice ads, I was simultaneously hawking half-price first-class fares to Europe in The Wall Street Journal. Since a passport was required for international travel, those tickets had to be issued in the name of the real person traveling. Luckily, the airlines allowed you to transfer your awards to a "relative." Thus, if you wanted to buy one of these tickets from me, you were no longer just a client. You became my cousin. I had more cousins than the Sultan of Brunei. In the end, for my investment of about $500 (ten roundtrip tickets coast-to-coast at $50 each) I'd have enough miles to get a first-class award I could sell for $3000. And a new relative to boot.
Things got dodgy at times. Once, a frantic phone call came from one of my clients at the airport. He was supposed to fly to Los Angeles, but he'd run into a problem.
"They took my ticket!"
"Who took your ticket?"
"The guy at check-in. He asked me for ID, and when I said I didn't have any, he wrote 'Must Show ID' across my ticket!"
"So he gave you your ticket back."
"Yes. But he wrote 'must show ID' on it."
This was a real dilemma. No one had ever asked for ID before. I told my client to call me back in five minutes, then picked up the phone and called the one criminal mastermind I knew well.
"Mom? I have a client at the airport who got asked for ID. The ticket agent wrote, 'must show ID' on his ticket."
"What color ink did he write in?" she asked, without a moment's hesitation.
"I don't know, Mom. Blue, I guess."
"Tell him to get a blue pen and cross it out. Then have him check in again with the same ticket at the curbside check-in."
"You're kidding me."
"Don't worry, Michael. It'll work."
"Are you crazy? What if it doesn't work?" my terrified client asked, five minutes later.
"Trust me, it'll work," I said. Because my mommy said it would, I thought, but chose not to say.
That was the last I heard of the guy until he got back from his trip. He actually wound up recommending me to a whole host of his friends.
Christmas was a special time of year for exploiters of loopholes in the airline system like me. Flights were packed, and I'd always have trouble finding seats for my passengers seeking to fly home for the holidays. But it was this overcrowded scenario that soon gave birth to a new idea - a kind of travel jujitsu in which I'd try to get paid not to fly.
Airlines lose money when they have empty seats on their planes. So, in order to mitigate those losses and to capitalize on the fickleness of travelers, they routinely overbook their flights. They know some people will inevitably cancel, others will change their itineraries, and others will oversleep and miss their flights. They never truly know how many passengers they have for each flight until everyone has checked in. If they are still overbooked when the flight is close to boarding, they make an announcement such as this:
"We are offering a coupon good for $200 in air travel, as well as a guaranteed seat on our next flight out, to anyone who will voluntarily give up their seat."
Usually, cash-strapped students, hardcore bargain hunters, and people in no particular hurry offer to put their names on the volunteer list. When the final seat count is determined, some or all of the volunteers are given coupons and put on the next flight, while everyone else leaves on the current outgoing flight as planned. If not enough volunteers materialize, the offer is raised, sometimes as high as $1000, until a sufficient number of seats open up. Given that kind of payoff, some people consider themselves lucky to be bumped.
But there's an old saying that luck comes to those who best prepare for it. I decided to prepare myself for this particular brand of serendipity by buying tickets on all the flights I expected to be overbooked around Christmas. Tickets back then were refundable if you changed your mind and decided not to fly. The difference in my case was that I, and a few enterprising friends who also bought tickets with me, had already made up our minds. We went to Kennedy Airport the day before Christmas, and the day before that, too, with our tickets in hand. We then waited for the overbooking announcements to begin, in the hopes of volunteering our pre-reserved seats on the flight. But like any scam, this one too had its own special nuances. If you agreed to be a volunteer for $200, you lost the chance to be a volunteer at $400 or higher if the bid went up. At the same time, if too many volunteers signed up before you, you risked being left out altogether. Thus, we all pretended to loiter close to the service desk at the gate, so as to be within hearing range of the flight agents as they monitored the number volunteers signing up and spaces available.
The times when it worked, we humbly accepted our coupons and nodded gratefully as the agents reserved our seats on the ensuing flights, which we would not be taking either. We were too busy trying to volunteer ourselves off other overbooked flights elsewhere in the terminal.
Yet, despite the Christmas rush, overbooking sometimes worked out in the airline's favor even then. Enough seats would be available for everyone who had come for the flight, which presented us with the delicate task of having to instantly invent an excuse for not wanting to take the flight, so we could refund our tickets. Back then, there were no cell phones, so we couldn't just pretend to receive an urgent phone call about a sudden family emergency. Thus, we resorted to shaking our heads slowly, as though channeling unseen imprecations, and saying things like, "You know, I suddenly have a really bad feeling about this flight. May I please refund my ticket?"
"Yeah, me too."
None of us were superstitious, of course. We knew that air travel was far safer than traveling by car, but I never felt like I was truly acting because I'd become so used to never being the person whose name was on my plane ticket. Thus, it never felt like I was actually the person who was claiming to be afraid to fly. My doppelganger was. I would be happy to fly, I would think to myself. It is Chris Lawson who doesn't want to go.
Before long, I began to face competition in the mileage accumulation business, from companies whose expensive advertisements I'd see in The New York Times. I'd call them to see what they were offering, and usually it was the same deal as mine, only they had real offices, with hired personnel and water coolers. They also had a quality that I have sorely lacked in my life: a voracious appetite for profit. There were times that I'd think: why don't I do like them, and hire some people, advertise more, and try to create a business in which I'll make a lot of money without really having to work much? In retrospect, I think I had a post-liberal-arts hangover from college. I still considered myself a communist. I was more likely to begin a campaign to nationalize the airlines before I'd go headlong into business as a capitalist. And, before I knew it, circumstances beyond my control made the decision for me.
The airlines started cracking down on mileage accumulation businesses, which were now referring to themselves as "mileage brokers." A few carriers took some of my competitors to court. While the airlines were never able to win any sort of prosecutions, since nothing anyone had done was technically illegal, they began carefully scrutinizing flight patterns and regularly denying mileage credit to the "we-went-to-three-places-at-the-same-time" crowd, like my imaginary relatives and me. In short order, I sold off my remaining first-class tickets and called it a career. The following day, my phone rang one last time.
"This is Tom Jason from the California Student Loan Commission."
I still owed several thousand dollars on loans I'd taken as a college student, and I'd managed for several years—until that very moment actually—to avoid paying them back. My inner-commie-pinko felt that education should be free, and not paying back my loans had been my feeble attempt to render it so. But the jig was now up.
Jason found me by calling my mother in California and pretending to be an old college friend who'd lost touch with me and wanted to reconnect. The great criminal mastermind fell for his ruse and gave him my number in New York.
"Tell me who to make the check out to," I said. "I've finally got the money."
About the Author
Michael Solomon is a documentary filmmaker, and the author of the 2012 memoir Now It's Funny: How I Survived Cancer, Divorce and Other Looming Disasters (www.nowitsfunny.com). His blog appears on The Huffington Post.