On golden cons

I’m off my guard in my yard—basking in a glowing aura of almost innocence. Tomatoes ripen on the vines. Flowers bloom along my fence. Lizards share an ornamental pile of rocks with a large, warty toad. Coyotes lurk not far off—in the last remaining patch of undeveloped desert.

Enter two young solicitors selling magazines. They are witty, friendly—college students at UNR, they say. Brother and sister with hard-to-remember names that sound Greek. No, we’re Italian, they say.

“Have you been to Italy?” I ask.

“No,” they say. “And that’s why we’re here. We’re trying to earn a trip to Venice.”

They are my neighbors, they say. Their dad works with the police. They use the words “sheriff or whatever.”

“Your dad’s the sheriff?” I ask. I’m pretty sure Dennis Balaam is not my neighbor.

“No, no, he’s not the sheriff,” the girl replies. “He works for them. Our dad’s an ex-marine. He’s like a drill sergeant.”

The needle on my bullshit detector wiggles. I ignore it.

We talk about their majors. They say they study architecture.

“Do you think that’s strange?” says the guy who calls himself Nyko. “My kid sister and I learning the same thing?”

They describe in detail their family, their professor ("Smith—Lloyd Smith. He’s short, has a beard. Do you know him?") and their nearby home.

I set aside niggling bad feelings and decide to err on the side of trust. I like to think of myself as a good neighbor. I find myself helping their story. “Italy’s a great place to study architecture,” I offer.

Perhaps it’s in the nature of humans to appreciate a good con. We’re fed countless tall tales—even (especially) in this info-soaked Internet era. Nazi propaganda genius Joseph Goebbels once said, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

In today’s religious and political climate, a person doesn’t have to look far for piles of examples, from fabricated “anonymous” political blogs to video news releases to pundits in the pay of the federal government.

Maybe I sound cynical. I tend to distrust institutions far more than individuals. I believe most people are, under the right circumstances, honest and kind with altruistic leanings. To nurture a positive attitude, I enjoy striking up conversations with strangers. I stop at kid-run lemonade stands to drink warm 25-cent liquid from small paper cups. I garden.

Every so often, I feel balanced.

Then clouds roll in. The sky darkens. I write my two new friends a $48 check made out to—no kidding—"Integrity Programs.” This buys one PlayStation magazine subscription for Iraqi soldiers and allots $24 to the school. Nyko says I’ll receive a thank-you note from Iraq in a few weeks.

“Can I give you a hug for helping out?” he asks. Hug, hug. Then they’re off.

I go inside and pull up the UNR Web site. As I’d feared, there’s no architecture program at my alma mater. Other details similarly don’t check out.

While Integrity Programs (www.integritypgm.com), based in Las Vegas, appears sort of legit, a note in fine print at its Web site explains that the company has no “affilliation” (sic) with any school or institution. “Participant is not permitted to state or imply such.”

I walk outside to see if the two young people are hitting up other neighbors—but they’re long gone. I stop payment on the check. I notify the police, who aren’t terribly interested. I’m angry with myself but also in awe at the power of a story that’s not constrained by facts.