Travelers: The Ultimate Clan of Con
The sun is just peeking over the garage when the 89-year-old widow hears a knock on her door. She opens it to a pair of clean-cut, polite young white men who look vaguely familiar."Good morning, Mrs. Johnson," says one. "We're in the roofing business and we see from our files that our dad fixed your roof back in 1993. He said you were a nice lady, so we thought we'd give you a free roof inspection."She can see their brand-new work truck in the street. It sparkles down to the tools and equipment neatly stowed in the back -- the picture of reputability.Mrs. Johnson remembers their father and his two nephews who came to her door a few summers ago as friendly, hardworking folks. They'd been on a neighbor's roof, noticed that her own was in bad shape, and offered to fix it for her. They must've done a good job; she hasn't had any problems.After a nice chat about their father and cousins, the old lady tells the brothers to go ahead.Ten minutes later, they report that her wood-shingled roof is due for another coat of protective oil. They show her a brochure on a brand-name product guaranteed for five years, and offer to spray her roof for $200. She agrees.Meanwhile, 60 miles away in a comfortable suburb, a large luxury apartment complex has recently experienced an invasion of new occupants. Thirty-seven units have been rented to families who are nearly all genetically related.They look it, sharing ruddy, pale skin, fair to brunette hair, blue or green eyes, and plump cheeks in round faces. The men are slightly stocky and favor country-western styles and music. The women wear their hair short in teased manes brushed behind small ears, use eye makeup like liquid embroidery, and dress in loose tops over leggings. Their children are affectionate and rowdy, angelic to their elders and hellions to everyone else.Longtime tenants groan: it's the same weird bunch that moved in last year for five long months. They gossip about the "Family" and its strange ways, how each housewife disinfects and scrubs her apartment until the vicinity reeks of bleach, outfits every room with plush rental furniture, and paves the carpet with clear plastic runners. Bizarre.The tenants know this because they see it as they pass apartment doors left casually ajar for fellow Family visitors. Certain sights become familiar: a Family wife scrubbing an immaculate kitchen baseboard with a toothbrush or dusting the top of a door frame with a spotless cloth; the Family men and half-grown boys setting out each morning in work trucks new enough to be on a showroom floor and clean enough to lick.An hour away in her middle-class retiree neighborhood, Mrs. Johnson hears the thumps of the workmen overhead and feels reassured about the state of her roof for the next five years. Above, one of the men begins spraying the shingles. After a few minutes, he catches his younger brother's eye. The younger man nods and goes to the double-tank in the back of the work truck. Unbeknownst to Mrs. Johnson, only one tank is filled with real shingle oil. The other is filled with wastes like used motor oil and old kerosine.Flicking a toggle-switch on the tanks, the younger man waves to his brother on the roof. Now it's being sprayed with the junk from the other tank. The first tank won't be used again except as a finishing touch, if needed, at the end of the job.The men are done quickly and ask for $350. Mrs. Johnson objects -- hadn't they said it would cost $200? They politely but firmly insist that the $200 was an estimate, and the roof needed more oil than they thought.A few months shy of 90 and feeling unsure of her memory, Mrs. Johnson admits she may have gotten confused. She writes them a check and thanks them.Even if the two had used the real stuff start to finish, it wouldn't have done Mrs. Johnson's roof any good. Oiling wood-shingled roofs -- along with painting houses and laying asphalt, two other "services" offered by the brothers -- requires at least a day's worth of preparation. Without it, the improperly applied protectorant evaporates after the first few weeks of sun, the asphalt breaks up in weeks, and the paint job looks like it was done by a couple of sixth-graders.But, like most people, Mrs. Johnson doesn't know this. She's paid $350 for about $12 worth of junk and 20 minutes' worth of nothing.Later, back at the apartment complex, one longtime tenant grumbles to another: "If they want to be clean-freaks, fine, it's a free country. But how are we supposed to wash our clothes when every machine in the laundry is constantly being used by them?"From an apartment breezeway, they study the new neighbors in the courtyard below. The men have returned from work which, by the looks of their clothes and trucks, is in the line of painting and patching.Siblings, uncles, aunts, parents, in-laws and cousins all, Family members -- including the two who sprayed Mrs. Johnson's roof that morning -- congregate noisily in the courtyards, around the pool, and even in the parking garage. They do this almost every evening, from dusk until 10 or 11 o'clock.They're not clean-freaks when they're outside. The men spit like camels and flick cigarette butts with expertise. The children shriek and chase around, sometimes captured for a quick hug in the arms of a fond auntie or doting grandpa. Here, every night's a family reunion.It doesn't occur to the watching tenants to connect the new neighbors with scattered reports of home-repair scams 60 miles away. If it did, they might wonder -- could the Family's obsession with a clean house be a way of atoning for the dirty money that pays the rent?John Wood might say the theory had potential -- if the Family considered it "dirty" money.But in his experience, the two brothers, their parents, their aunts and uncles and grandparents, too, would insist they'd only upheld an ancient family tradition of "sharp business practice." Since each brother probably makes around $300,000 a year, it's obvious why they like to see it that way.Wood, a consumer affairs investigator in Pinellas County, Florida, has spent the past 13 years chasing down these masters of con. In the process, he's come to be considered one of the country's foremost expert on the mysterious family known to fraud investigators nation-wide as the "Travelers."As far as anyone can tell, says Wood, it all started back in the 1840s. Then, as now, England, Scotland, and Ireland were home to a small, ancient band of people known as "tinkers." Nobody liked them much. Nomadic, but not to be confused with the colorful Gypsies who also wandered Britain, they had a bad reputation as swindlers and con artists. Either to escape the extreme persecution that follows them in Britain to this day, or to find greener pastures, some tinkers emigrated to the United States.It was like putting rabbits on a carrot ranch. In a continent so vast that they never had to con the same town twice, the nomadic tinkers thrived. More came to join them from the Old Country. The surnames they brought with them -- Boswell, Kelbie, McMillian, Stewart, Williamson, Ford, Johnston, Reid, Halliday, Forrest, Bradford, Keith, Bishop, Selkeld, Clark, Corrigan, York, Watson, Horn, Woods, Meyers, White, and Holden -- hardly provoked suspicion. Half the founders of any given town shared the same or similar names.Although the English, Scottish, and Irish tinkers knew each other and even intermarried at times, they remained three separate groups. The English got along. The Irish did well. The Scots did even better. Today, a kindly-eyed, rosy-cheeked, pot-bellied Scottish Traveler grandpa like the one doting on his grandkids in the apartment complex courtyard might very well be swindling $800,000 a year.Richard Levos, a retired former Bunco Forgery Detective with the Los Angeles Police Department, says a big reason they're so successful is that 95 percent of the time, their victims never know they're victims."Travelers can read you in a heartbeat," Levos says. "Everybody's got a button, right? Well, they'll find yours and they can tell exactly how much they can get away with."Ostensibly in the business of fixing houses, the Travelers' true profession is breaking homeowners -- with scams for everything from roof-sealing to re-grouting (or "pointing") brick, depending on what part of the country they happen to be in at the time. In California, where cedar shingles are the rage, they oil roofs -- with junk oil. In the South, where roofs are painted with Latex sealant, they paint roofs -- with gasoline-thinned sealant. In the Northeast, where brick masonry is everywhere, they point brick with nothing, and in the Midwest, it's bogus lightening rods and seal-coated driveways. Anything they can convince a homeowner needs fixing, they'll fix it.At least, they'll say they will."They'll tell an old person that his brick chimney needs to be pointed," says Wood. They may bang around on the roof for a few minutes, "but they don't do anything because they know that an old person isn't going to get up on the roof and check."What they do, they do badly. "I saw where two Travelers painted an entire three-bedroom cement-block house and the roof in half an hour. Now how good a job do you think that was?" says Wood. "They charged the guy $4,000."Who would be sucker enough to pay even $4? Turns out he was disabled, in his mid-50s, and had his 85-year-old mother living with him. "The Travelers originally told him it would cost $200. He invited them into the house to write them a check at the kitchen table," and it was there they told him they'd underestimated the price. He paid the $4,000 "because he was frightened to death," says Wood.Travelers follow the weather. So it is that every spring and summer, stealthy as UV rays and just as harmful, some 20,000 Travelers filter through the Midwest and Northeast burning people for millions of dollars. Come fall, they head for the Sunbelt to put the heat on gullible homeowners from Miami to L.A. -- in a tradition they've kept since before the Civil War.The most ruthless will devastate a whole life's savings in an afternoon. Rhonda McQuain, a former investigator with the Registrar of Contractors in Phoenix, Arizona, gets steamed talking about it."They'll deliberately target elderly people who are hard of hearing or don't see well, because they know that those are the people easiest to confuse," she fumes. "They convince the victim that the roof is about to fall down, fix' it, and escalate the estimate as much as five or six times the amount quoted. I've interviewed elderly people who just cry and cry, and say, You've got to promise not to let my family know about this because they'll put me in a nursing home.'"Some Travelers are worse, if that's possible. They'll survey the inside of the house with a spray bottle discreetly in hand in case "proof" is needed that the roof is leaking. Others do "walk-through" robberies where one distracts the homeowner while the other pockets cash and valuables.Then there's the problem of catching them, which is like grabbing at shadows. Before leaving each morning for neighborhoods a safe 40 to 100 miles away, the daily decision of who will work with whom, and where, has already been made."One of the things you have to understand about how they work is that one bunch may be working together today, but not tomorrow," says George Nielsen, recently retired from the L.A.P.D. Bunco-Forgery division and former partner of Levos.Say a group is going to finish off a neighborhood they started a few days ago. If a homeowner who suspects he's been victimized approaches the same truck the next day, he'll find a completely different crew working it. The likelihood of a positive identification washes out like the Travelers' paint.Evasion being a mainstay of their lifestyle for centuries, the entire Traveler culture revolves around it -- from the way they choose their homes to the names they give their kids.Since they are all, or nearly all, blood-relations, the Travelers look disconcertingly alike. Adds McQuain: "They'll name their children after themselves to the point where you'll have a dozen of them with the same name. They'll even change birth dates to the same month and day to confuse law enforcement."The set-up is a recipe for elusiveness. A check written to one "John Stewart" will be cashed by another John Stewart, cluttering the paper trail. The number on a contractor's license obtained by "Jim White" is used by five or six relatives with the same name. "They will do everything to confuse," says Levos.Non-Travelers who try to eavesdrop on conversations will hear something that sounds half English, half gibberish. English, Scottish, and Irish Travelers, says Wood, each have their own language -- of a sort -- called "Cant." It has no syntax, no grammar, and is incomprehensible to anyone not part of the group.For living quarters, some prefer travel-trailer parks and top-of-the-line trailers. Some live in Family-owned mobile home parks or houses, where the women and girls stay fixed permanently while the men and boys go on road-trips.Other Travelers, particularly the Scots, like big luxury apartment complexes -- preferably with underground parking so their trucks can avoid surveillance -- where everybody can stay in immediate contact. Since all of their furniture is rented, they don't have much to pack. If the law turns up the heat, they can evaporate in minutes.If a Traveler does get caught and prosecuted, he probably won't go to jail. Home repair scams fall under the category of "property crimes." According to Det. Brad Bryant of the Wichita, Kansas P.D., when push comes to shove in the American justice system, violent "persons crimes" are what provoke prison sentences. Property crimes provoke fines.So when a Traveler gets caught and prosecuted, he's as cooperative as a angel. "They definitely don't like to go to jail," says Levos. "Their attorneys will make a deal right away. I remember some Stewarts, a father and two sons, it cost them I think $30,000 to get out of here. Impound fees, restitution, attorney costs -- it's a lot of money. But to them, it's just the cost of doing business."Maybe the biggest thing they have going for them is the fact that except for the relative handful of fraud investigators in the U.S., few in law enforcement and fewer in the general public even know the Travelers exist, let alone the depth of their crimes.When victims do suspect something, says Wood, "they call in a complaint to the police and the first response is usually from an uninformed individual with no idea what he's dealing with" who probably shrugs it off as a civil matter.Apartment managers rarely know what they're dealing with, either -- at least, not at first. Veronica Simms (not her real name), who managed a large complex in Southern California, knew enough about them to have mixed feelings when they returned to her complex for the third year in a row in 1994, renting 37 units.She'd had worse tenants. The "Family," as she'd come to call them, paid their rent on time. If one was late, she only had to mention it to another Family member and the rent would be paid pronto.They turned the complex's coin-operated laundries into goldmines. Instead of three or four loads of wash per week typical of most households, a Family household averaged five loads per day. It doubled the money collected from the machines, even though the Family made up less than 15 percent of the users.And they were fanatic about keeping their apartments clean. Simms could spot a Family household by the broom and dustpan ever-ready at the front door. Inside, she knew, not a speck of dust would be found anywhere -- not on top of the medicine cabinet, not on the door frames, not even atop the shower stall railing.On the other hand, the Family provoked complaints from good longtime tenants: they were always hogging the laundry rooms; their kids were noisy and disrespectful; disgusting gobs of spit showed up in the elevators, on the walkways, and by the mailboxes; and a couple of time the cops had to be called to settle some violent Family quarrels.Their whole domestic philosophy bothered Simms. Kids older than 12 didn't seem to go to school. Older boys left with their fathers, and older girls stayed at home to study or polish the Family fleet of new sedans, vans, and rovers. When socializing, the teen girls -- unlike their mothers -- dressed so extremely, they looked like prostitutes.An attractive, comfortable person to be around, Simms became a kind of confidant of several Family wives and even a few of the men. They'd tell her things: how women were meant to stay home to care for children and husbands, how their children certainly did not go to college -- who needed book learning? No, their children only went to school for as long as it took them to learn the basics. Girls were encouraged to marry as young as 14 -- and within the Family.All of this was always said with a liberal sprinkling of religious phrases, like "Praise Jesus" and "Blessed be the Lord." Religion was big with the Family, and several nights a week the complex's recreation room was used for bible study.Even so, Simms smelled something less than righteous about them. Their expensive lifestyles -- the customized new vehicles they drove, the ostentatiously pricey clothes they wore at church events, the luxurious rental furniture -- didn't jive with their work. Simms wasn't surprised when Levos and Nielsen showed up one day with mug-shots and questions."I call their religion convenient Christianity," Simms says. "They take what they want, and don't give back. These young girls, they have no life. These children are never given the option to go to college. They are deprived of choice. Their parents are stealing the lives that their children should have."Probably the most shocking thing about the Travelers is their practice of not only marrying third- and second-cousins, but first-cousins as well. According to Wood, double first-cousin weddings -- where brothers marry first-cousin sisters -- are common among Travelers. Unconfirmed rumors have it that the Travelers have created a "funny farm" for genetic rejects in Texas, Georgia, or Arizona, depending on who you talk to. Wood is skeptical; he says he's seen no sign of mental retardation in the Travelers he's known.After all, it's easy to forget that first-cousin marriages were solidly respectable in Britain, the United States, and most of the Western world until only about 100 years ago."We're trying to superimpose 1990s America on people who are really very old fashioned," says Wood. "They can trace their relatives out to third and fourth cousins -- I've had them do it. They tend to name their children after family members, and as a result you see three generations of Winifreds.' Where else in 20th century America do you find people naming their children Winifred'?"They argue the old-fashioned way. "There seems to be a penchant among the men for settling their differences with their fists. Picking up a weapon or a gun, that's frowned upon," says Wood. "But to get into a fight? That's okay. They're real brawlers. At one time, the major heavyweight champion in Canada was a Traveler."For awhile, says Wood, investigators thought they were just as old-fashioned when it came to handling money. The prevailing theory used to be that Travelers weren't sophisticated enough to have bank accounts, credit cards, stocks, bonds, and the like.But they are sophisticated, and "a lot of them are purchasing land hand over fist," says Wood. Most of it's investment property in the form of legitimate mobile home parks. When the time is right, the property is sold for a tidy profit, which is reinvested. Wood says that Travelers hold millions of dollars worth of property all across the Sunbelt states.Among Travelers, a "country person" is a non-Traveler. A "Granny Man" is a complimentary term for the best, the Traveler who swindles top dollar -- from old ladies. Likewise, for a Traveler to be among "the 500" refers to the days "when the person who could put his hand in his pocket and pull out 500 quid was a wealthy man," explains Wood.He doesn't know if there's a term for the cleanest Travelers, but he does have a theory about their obsession for spotlessness. His speculation: that they spend so much time in strange places like motel rooms, apartments, and travel trailer parks, they've developed a clean-fetish as a defense against diseases.He also speculates that the latest generation of Travelers may also be the most ruthless. "I think the younger ones are greedier, more impatient, and more violent," he says. "Travelers are seeing more drug abuse among their youngsters -- the same things that are happening to our culture are happening to theirs, but at a much slower pace because they're so much more close-knit that we are."Does he respect them? Absolutely: "I consider them the most successful criminals in the U.S., bar none."Does he like them? About as much as tuberculosis: "They view people other than Travelers as being prey, period. They know that the most vulnerable prey are people who are elderly, sick, and alone, not necessarily in that order."But to most Americans, the Travelers' veneer remains innocuous, like their WASPishly bland surnames. Only once has it been different.Back in the 1970s, California fraud investigators so stigmatized a family of Travelers as "the Williamson Gang" that most Travelers born under the name have since changed it to Holden, Parks, Kelbie, Horn, Ford, or Woods -- in life, anyway. Upon their death, says Wood, they always revert to Williamson.In Los Angeles, Levos and Nielsen had heard rumors about a graveyard in nearby Glendale. Sure enough, at the same Forest Lawn Cemetery where Walt Disney is buried, lie some 200 Williamsons, the earliest dating to 1914.Who's to say they're of the Traveler clan? A few discreet questions received surprising responses. Although none would go on record, Forest Lawn employees from gardeners to guides said that Williamson funerals -- not to mention Stewarts and McMillans -- were long renowned for their wildly elaborate floral arrangements and a huge family of mourners dressed to the nines arriving in spit-polished new cars.In Arizona, where Travelers reputedly own several mobile home parks, McQuain says the flowers are something else. The arrangements symbolize "whatever the deceased party's interests were in life. If the person was a TV nut, he'd have a flower arrangement in the shape of a TV. A race nut's flowers would be in the shape of a horse. In one case, we even saw a flower arrangement in the shape of a money symbol."Wood has a theory about the funerals. To a nomad, the concept of a permanent home is profound. And to people as materialistically competitive as Travelers, who gets the biggest gravestone and the best flowers says a lot.After all, who's born a Traveler, dies a Traveler, with very few exceptions: "For a Traveler to totally opt out of the Traveler lifestyle is extremely difficult to do," says Wood. "If you're a Traveler, anybody of any importance to you is a also Traveler. Besides which, it's a very attractive lifestyle. What does mainstream America do for retirement? It buys a travel-trailer and goes around the U.S."So, like their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents before them for countless generations, most Travelers live -- and love -- to con."The con-man's ultimate rush is to get one over on somebody. That's why you see these Granny Men' in their 70s, who are literally millionaires, still out there doing paint jobs," says Wood. "When all is said and done, and they get around the campfire, the important thing is: Who made the best score today?"SIDEBAR:To Protect Yourself From Travelers And Other Home-Repair Scam Artists:*Be wary of anyone peddling home-repair services door-to-door. -- Don't allow yourself to be rushed into a decision on an offer. If the company is legitimate, its offer will be around for awhile. -- If the company claims that it can seal a roof, paint a building, or pave a driveway in one day, it's probably not legitimate. -- Don't be fooled by professional-looking work trucks or business logos, addresses, or phone numbers on the vehicles. The address could be a mail-drop, and the phone number could belong to answering service. -- Insist on a written estimate and contract for the work. -- Do not pay in cash. Pay with a check, and on the back of it write "FOR DEPOSIT ONLY." This will at least create a paper trail, and might very well prevent bogus home-repair "businesses" from cashing the check at a local bank.