Someone once told me the secret to my success was my unflinching willingness to embarrass myself. They were only half kidding.

So here I go again because this story is indeed very embarrassing. I was scammed out of money in a Trenton parking lot on Wednesday and I’m still reeling from how weird it all was.

I had gone to the ShopRite on Olden Avenue and as I’m walking out a guy who was just finishing up buying groceries looks at me and smiles this bittersweet smile and says, “Hey! How you been!?”

It’s one of those moments where your mind turns instantly into a facial recognition system and you’re scanning the thousands of people you’ve met in your life to figure out who this is.

It’s only a split second but I think this is a listener named Ernie I’ve met only twice and hadn’t seen in years. Only he looked a bit heavier which is totally plausible. Ernie is a veterinarian who I first met when we did a live show from a bar in Kenilworth. Super nice guy.

I tentatively say, “Ernie?”

He smiles, again kind of a sad smile, and says, “Yeah man, good to see you.”

I ask how he’s been while shaking his hand and he says, “Not so good man, my mom just died this morning. Hold on a second.”

He finished with the cashier while I stood waiting for Ernie and feeling awful for him. I knew there was something beneath the smile I was seeing and this was it. Losing a parent. I’ve been there. It’s rough.

We walked out together with me asking about it and he told me it was cancer. She’d had it for a while. Said he’d been taking care of her and hadn’t taken much care of himself. I told him how sorry I was.

We were out in the parking lot by this point as he told me he had a ride waiting and had to go meet his daughter.

Made sense. When you lose a loved one families need each other.

Then he said he hated to ask me this but he wondered if there was any chance, if he took my number to pay me back, if I could lend him $17. His ride didn’t have EZPass and where he was going involved toll roads and he’d forgotten to bring cash with him.

Pile of Twenty Dollar Bills
Ingram Publishing

At that moment my better sense was whispering to me. Whispering things to me like "he looks heavier," "he hasn’t said your name," "he could have done cash back at the store." But I felt too far in this by now, and if this was indeed Ernie and he just lost his mother what kind of inhuman bastard would I be to make him prove it?

I gave him $30. He asked for my number again and I told him not to worry about it and to just take care of himself. He thanked me profusely and we parted ways. The whispers grew louder as I got in my car.

But he really looked like Ernie! And anyone can gain 20 pounds in the years since I’d seen him. And hell he even sounded like Ernie. This couldn’t all be bizarre coincidence.

Or could it?

Later I pulled up my Facebook and looked up Ernie. I was horrified to see his skin tone was slightly lighter than I had remembered. Yes, slightly lighter than this doppelgänger I just ran into.

I private messaged Ernie. Basically that I know this is going to come off very odd but was he just in Trenton at a ShopRite half an hour ago? I still wasn’t sure.

The answer came. No, he wasn’t. This guy at the store was not Ernie.

He must have been prepared to be whatever name came out of my mouth. This must be how he scams people. Pretends he knows you and makes you scramble trying to recall where you know him from.

Then if you offer anything just runs with it and pretends to be that person with the story about just losing his parent so you don’t question him too much.

I feel so stupid for walking right into it. Had he looked like anyone else I don’t think he would have gotten me. It was only because the guy who tried this on me bore a striking resemblance to this person I really do know that it worked so well.

It's the first time in my life a scam got me. Plenty others have tried and I saw right through them. The guy pretending to run out of gas and he just needed $5 to buy the gas can. The disheveled woman in a van claiming she needed money for diapers. Funny when I offered to drive the guy to the gas station then to his disabled car how he scurried off. As did that woman when I asked what size diapers she needed because I would run in and buy them for her. I was never taken by a scam before Wednesday.

As for the guy I gave the $30 to, it was my own dumb fault and I hope he actually needed it for something. Well played, sir.

Opinions expressed in the post above are those of New Jersey 101.5 talk show host Jeff Deminski only.

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