A lesson from children's TV


November 09, 1990|By Sylvia Porter

A wonderful children's television program brings to mind a scam that is as successful today as it was when first tried out decades ago.

The program is called "Square One Television." Produced by the Children's Television Workshop and seen on public television, it makes mathematics fun. Though aimed at grade school children, it is so cleverly written that it's enjoyable even for those much older.

The big part of each daily episode is a segment called "Math Net," which is a loose parody of the old "Dragnet" series. In "Math Net," a pair of intrepid mathematicians solve crimes with arithmetic.

One recent week's episodes explained the workings of a brilliantly conceived confidence game -- a con play that continues to appear in real life.

Here is the basic plot: Several retired lawyers reported that they had been bilked of $5,000 each, which is what they had paid for a tip on the winning horse in a race.

Why, you might ask, had intelligent people given someone $5,000 for a tip on a horse race? The answer is simple: The tipster had previously, and at no cost, provided the name of the winner in athletic events, in a hotly contested election and so on. He always had been correct. The chance to win big at a horse race, based on such seemingly infallible information, was too good to pass up.

It's a scary reflection of real life, where the victims of con artists are eager to jump aboard mostly due to a spark of larceny in their hearts -- which, too, is the confidence player's secret ally.

In the real-life con game, the grifter will name the winner of several sporting events, one each week, for four or five weeks. Then he or she will sell the tip for a price -- and the price is steep. You can buy a list of the winners in, for instance, all of next week's professional and top-20 college football games. Payment cash, in advance, of course.

You don't mind paying. Whatever the system is, it works -- witness the earlier correct predictions. In some cases, the con artist has claimed to be associated with organized crime, which has "fixed" the games.

The purchase is made, and afterward, so are the bets. (This has been done by organized crime, over the years, to collect twice on bets: once when the list of "winners" is sold, again when the victim pays off his or her losses.)

But how does the con game work? There have been correct predictions.

For the answer, let us return to the daring mathematicians of "Math Net." Their solution is the correct one.

There were only a half-dozen people who were bilked on the horse race -- and each of those who reported being cheated had bet on a different horse. The one who won wouldn't report being cheated, because he wasn't. Or so he might think.

So let's jump back a week at a time. Let's say it was a football game. Fourteen people are called and given a "free" tip. Seven are given the name of one team, seven the name of the other. Seven emerge winners, seven losers. The losers never hear from the tipster again. The winners are now asked to pay for the information.

The week before, 28 victims were recipients of free tips, half right, half wrong. That's what narrowed the list down to 14.

The week before that, 56 calls were made; the week before 112, the week before that, 224.

A lot of phone calls, admittedly. On the other hand, it's a pretty nifty way to make $35,000 in five weeks. In real life, the sting involves more than $5,000 per customer.

The game has been played in many variations, sometimes even involving the movement of securities. Anytime people are willing to bend the rules to gain the inside track, there is someone clever enough to fleece them.

The moral is clear: Nobody is going to make you rich, even for a fee. If you don't know that, watch children's television.

2` 1990 Los Angeles Times Syndicate Times Mirror Square Los Angeles, Calif. 90053

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