The man who's seen more bunco, bamboozling and balderdash in the past two decades than any other person in Arizona is finally retiring.
This connoisseur of cons, C. Van Haaften, has charted thousands of swindles in the Valley during his eighteen years as president of the Better Business Bureau.
He's watched the con community blossom, and he's observed how the same old swindles take on different twists and turns. He's even seen the Better Business Bureau get conned. And he's learned an important lesson: All successful cons, says Van Haaften, are based on the premise that "people like to think they've found a good bargain." That's not to say that all businesses are "bad," he points out. Under his leadership, membership in the local watchdog group has tripled to about 3,000 "good" businesses. Depending on their size, these enterprises pay from about $500 to $3,000 a year to join and try to resolve consumers' complaints that are reported to the bureau.
Then there are the "bad" businesses--the scams--which usually are brought to the bureau's attention by victims. Van Haaften figures rip-off schemes make up about 4,000 to 8,000 of the 80,000 businesses that the bureau has collected information on.
Van Haaften--his first name is Clarence, but everybody calls him "Van"--says he's disheartened that more and more con artists are migrating to the Valley. He says they are being driven out of California, where laws are getting more "stringent." What's more, the weather here is good, and a confidence man likes a good game of golf just like the next fella.
Through the years, dozens of con men and connettes have sauntered into his office hoping to persuade him to change a bum report. "I enjoyed talking to them," he says. "They told good jokes. You can always tell a con man from a regular businessman because the con man never gets mad, no matter what you write about him. That's why he's a con man. He's got an easy-going personality. People like him."
He recalls one charming person who even conned the BBB a few years ago. A Scottsdale "jeweler," "Paul Roger Anderson," marched into the bureau one day and wanted to join up. "We checked him out," says Van Haaften. "We took him as a member." Things were peachy until the guy announced he was going to hold an estate sale at his store, Van Haaften painfully recalls, and all these trusting customers brought in a total of about $450,000 worth of silver and jewelry.
That night, the guy split with the goods. His store was starkers--except for the Better Business Bureau plaque hanging on the wall. Anderson, it turned out, was eventually arrested elsewhere in the country and convicted of fraud, says Van Haaften.
Most swindles, however, are low-dollar affairs because a victim who's been ripped off for $50 is less likely to squeal to police than a victim who's been swindled out of $50,000, notes Van Haaften.
The low-dollar con au courant, he says with a sigh, is "telemarketing, which is a very nice word for what we used to call boiler-room" swindles. Not all telemarketing businesses are slimy, he hastily adds, but many bunco artists do call people on the phone and promise marvelous prizes if they would just send in a few dollars to buy, say, vitamins. But the prizes aren't always delivered. And neither are the vitamins.
Some scams are classics. The famed Williamson Gang, a gang of bogus house painters and roofers, sweeps into Phoenix every year, conning little old ladies out of hundreds of dollars for painting a few shingles or pounding a few nails. This resourceful army of scam artists has bugged Van Haaften for years. And some characteristics of the Williamson Gang never change. "You can tell a Williamson Gang member because they have spotless white trucks," he says. "They always have white trucks, and they are always meticulously clean." Van Haaften says he's heard that one gang member often stands guard near the truck to make sure it won't get dirty.
Van Haaften, who is in his early seventies, says he wants to perfect his tennis game when he retires. He doesn't plan to do anything special with his storehouse of knowledge-- except steer clear of cons.