Troy W. is young, attractive, and friendly, somewhat slight in stature but with an athletic build. He asks a lot of questions, and he talks a little bit too much, but he cautiously avoids pertinent details that relate to his identity. He seems overly eager and rushed. It is obvious what he’s doing, but I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. I don’t want to believe that he’s trying to rip me off, even though I’m more than aware that is exactly what he’s doing. My job would be much easier if I could just be honest with these petty con artists, but I can do little more than make passive attempts at intercepting Troy’s goal of walking out the door with an armful of merchandise, essentially for free, with little-to-no real consequence.
To summarize, I manage a chain video store, and Troy is creating a new customer account, with the intention of renting out multiple brand new video games, while spending as little money as possible, only to never bring them back. I’d like to say this is an isolated incident, but frustratingly, it is not. The video store I presently manage (or assistant manage) is located in a rather quiet, suburban neighborhood, west of Detroit, so we don’t get these scammers on a daily basis, but my inbox is full of emails sent from the managers and employees of nearby locations who get hit multiple times each week.
The subject line of the emails read WATCH OUT!!! or KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN!! or some other melodramatic, all-caps warning, and the body of the messages contain more or less the same narrative. So-and-so is jumping from store to store, setting up multiple new accounts, and taking as many video games as they possibly can. If they’re quick enough, and if they aren’t already flagged in the POS (point of sale) system, these ambitious schemers can sometimes hit multiple stores in one day, and get away with hundreds of dollars of merchandise, before the company takes notice. But even that sometimes won’t stop them. They’ll use assumed identities, or the ID cards of friends and family. They’ll often bring a spouse or girlfriend or cousin or even a parent or adult child along with, so if their name or number is already associated with a banned account, they’ll have their associate open an account in their name instead. But sometimes they’ll exhaust all their options, and they’ll spend the day calling every store in the district, asking if they can check the balance on their account. And if their account has been suspended, they’ll ask to check another account, and then another, and then they’ll hang up and call back an hour later, from another phone number, or a blocked line, and ask to check on another account, all while pretending that you haven’t already spoken to them three times earlier that day, and while you pretend that you haven’t already received multiple emails and phone calls from other store managers and employees, warning you that these phone calls are about to come. The customer pretends that he isn’t a con man, and you, the employee, the customer service representative, have to pretend that you don’t know this customer is a petty criminal.
Then again, perhaps I should refrain from labeling them as criminals. The legality (or illegality) of what the customer has done, or is attempting to do, falls into a somewhat gray area. They aren’t exactly stealing. It’s not like they’re shoplifting. They’re not sneaking through the exit with a video game hidden under their jacket. They are paying the amount of money the cashier is requiring them to pay. However, they are breaching a contract, an agreement that they will return the merchandise they are renting, when that was never the customer’s intention, in the first place. And what is the consequence of this breach of contract? Well, basically nothing. So, can we call this action a crime, if there is no legal penalty? Sure, the offending customer might get a few annoying phone calls, if the phone number they gave us isn’t disconnected or a wrong number, and we didn’t call to verify it first, but there is no larger ramification, other than the inconvenience of having to procure their video games and/or movies from another location, or by the means of another customer’s identity. We have the customer’s name, address, phone number, and driver’s license/ID number, but we make no effort to collect what is owed to us. Many years ago, I had a significant other who, along with her roommate, furnished their apartment with the assistance of a local rent-to-own business. It wasn’t long before they decided to stop paying the monthly rental costs, and so the rent-to-own store came and repossessed their furniture. When a library loans a patron a book, it is agreed upon that the book will be returned to the library, or there will be a penalty. In the case of an academic library, if a book is not returned, and the patron does not pay for the item to be replaced, the patron’s transcripts may be suspended, or they may not be allowed to register for the next term’s courses, or they might not be allowed to graduate. In the case of a public library, the patron may receive a bill, and even be sent to collections. But we, at the video store for which I work, do none of this. No legal action, no bills, no collection agencies, no debt collectors. All we can presently do is attempt to stop these customers from walking away with any more of our merchandise, once we’ve been burned. It’s a “fool me once” system, with the burden of accountability laid firmly upon the shoulders of the employee, and I’ve been fooled my fair share of times.
It doesn’t make me angry, but it’s frustrating, and it’s exhausting, dealing with these small-time hustlers, and trying to keep our merchandise out of their hands, but they’re so determined, and they’re so ambitious in their attempts to deceive us, that it’s almost impressive. These aren’t juvenile delinquents, these are grown men (almost always men), with the time and resources to spend a considerable part of their day calling around and driving from city to city, store to store, in order to walk away with a couple previously played, out of box, video games, and it’s almost always video games they want. After all, movies are easy to pirate, and there’s no resale value to DVDs. Video games, however, are relatively high-dollar, high-demand items. Even used games can hold much of their retail value, and in some instances, even surpass their original price tag. But what do these customers want with these video games they acquire? I’m sure that many of them actually play them, or give them to their kids and friends to play, but if they simply wanted to play the game, why wouldn’t they just rent one, return it, then rent another, like most customers do? Why are they willing to create multiple accounts, and dummy accounts, at multiple stores? Why are they willing to tarnish their identity, and possibly the identities of their friends and family members?
The day after I created Troy W.’s new account, and allowed him to walk out the door with three video games (two Xbox One and one PlayStation 4), to the tune of $4.50 (thanks to the new member ½ off discount), I received a phone call from an employee at a store located in Taylor, Michigan. The employee on the other end of the line was calling to verify an account from our store, and sure enough the account in question belonged to Troy W. He was attempting to open another new account, at a store roughly 30 minutes south of us. When I told the woman on the phone that his account at my store was less than 24 hours old, and that he still retained the video games he had rented from me, two of which he was trying to rent duplicates of in Taylor, the cashier from the other store politely informed Troy W. that he would not be allowed to open a new account, to which I overheard the voice of another male customer reply, “Fuck it, lemme open one then.” Shortly after, our brief phone exchange came to an end, and I immediately turned to the nearest computer, and began to type an email addressed to all of the stores in my district, with a subject line that read, Watch Out!
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