Quick-Change Con Artists Find Their Prey In The Unwary Cashier

It starts with a small purchase from a large bill and ends with no sale and a short till.

It's the quick-change scam.

And police say it usually happens so fast, most people don't realize they've been ripped off until it's too late.

That's what happened last month to a Bellevue hotel employee who was taken by a con artist when asked to change a $100 bill.

The con man confused the employee by requesting multiple transactions, then walked away with almost double the amount he presented for change.

The same type of scam almost happened last week at a Bellevue ice-cream store when a man came in asking an employee to change a $50 bill.

Luckily, the employee figured out what was happening and stopped the transaction before handing out any money.

But Detective Al Ward of Bellevue police says many salespeople, especially younger employees, trying to provide good customer service, are not as assertive in handling such situations. Their inexperience makes them excellent targets for the fast-cash scam.

"The typical quick-change artist will go to a service station or fast-food restaurant where there are young employees who get rattled easily and don't want to slow down a long line if it's busy," said Ward.

But there are ways to protect yourself and your employer against the scam.

Ward says sales employers should train their staffers on how to spot a con job.

Look for people wanting to purchase an inexpensive item with a large bill. Those same people often carry a large wad of money, said Ward. Employees should ask if the customer has a smaller bill for the purchase.

If the customer insists on breaking a large bill and you suspect he has smaller denominations, tell him there are plenty of banks open to make the transaction.

Some smaller businesses can take it a step further by keeping no bills larger than $20 in the register, and posting signs stating that policy.

Another red flag would be someone asking for multiple transactions while keeping the money in hand.

For example, a customer buys a carton of eggs with a $50 bill, asks for the change in 10s, then changes his mind to 5s and a 20. Before you know it, he pulls out a bill, asks for change in quarters, then demands the original change which he has asked for in several different denominations.

All the while your cash drawer is open and money has been exchanged, but you're not sure who has what.

Ward says the best way to avoid this problem is to take the money presented, keep it in the open - for example, on top of the cash register - but in your hands.

-- Do not put the money from the customer into the register until the change has been made. This way, Ward says, employees can see exactly what was given to them and know how much change to make.

-- Handle each requested transaction separately. That means make change as requested and close the drawer. If the customer asks for another transaction, take his money first, then change it.

-- If a customer's requests for change start to sound confusing, Ward advises, ask the customer to slow down or stop the transaction completely to start over.

"Tell the customer your business is not a bank. The quick-change artist will attempt to get two or three transactions ahead of you so you forget how much change is actually needed," he said. "They'll take as much as they can get. It's like a game."

For the most part, Ward says, quick-change cons usually aren't after a lot of money when they pull the scam - maybe $10 or $20, he said, because the small amount doesn't arouse suspicion as would requesting change for $100.

But after hitting a string of businesses with the same scam, the total can add up.

"They aren't after the big score," said Ward. "They're looking for the edge. The trouble is, it doesn't take much of an edge to make $10 or $15." ----------------------------

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