Stupid people are everywhere. Sometimes I am one of them.
In the spring of 2007, I was living on a sailboat, traveling up and down the California Coast. I owned three pairs of pants, six t-shirts and one of those white plastic MacBooks that I could only charge when my boat was connected to shore power.
I had been accepted to a graduate school program in New Hampshire and was trying to plan how I could shift from the transient life of a wayward sailor to one on land where I would have to grocery shop and wear shoes from time to time.
I was 25 and had a college degree, but I had avoided many of the lessons of adulthood by running away to the sea. There’s a certain comfort in the necessary restrictions of life on a boat. When all of your possessions have to fit into a two foot by two foot storage cubby, you don’t worry about having the right outfit or making sure your nails are polished.
Instead, the focus of every day is drinking enough water, wearing sunscreen and not losing your hat or sunglasses overboard. It’s a simple and beautiful life.
But it’s not one that you can live forever.
Which is why I found myself sitting at the dock scrolling through craigslist ads looking for a place to live and a car to buy in a state 3000 miles away.
I felt triumphant and savvy when I found a little 600 square foot cottage that was in my budget. I had several long conversations with the landlord explaining my situation and asking questions about the rental agreement. Finally, I mailed him a check, imagining what it would be like to live on dry land where my coffee mug wouldn’t slide across the table and spill every time a big wave hit.
Feeling confident about my ability to make adult decisions, I moved on to shop for a car. My plan was to fly from California to New York or Boston, where I would then get a ride from a friend to pick up a sassy little sedan that would reliably carry me to my grad school classes and a life away from the ocean.
At this point in my life, I had shopped for and driven several cars, so I felt experienced and wise instead of the rookie that I really was. On top of that, I was still optimistic about the world, believing that anyone would be delighted to help me climb the ladder of success by selling me a cheap, safe car at a fair, low price.
So when I found an ad selling a 2000 white Jeep Wrangler for $2500, I was psyched. Even better was the fact that I could have the vehicle delivered to anywhere in the country for no additional fee.
You’ll laugh at me for getting sucked into this stupid scheme, but it was a different time and internet scams weren’t as prevalent then as they are now.
I emailed back and forth with the man selling the Jeep. His name was Mark Bicklehaupt and he explained that the Jeep belonged to his 22 year old son who had been diagnosed with Leukemia. The son was in the hospital and the family needed money to pay for his treatments. The family business was in buying and selling used cars, so it was no big deal to ship the Jeep from where it was parked in Colorado to New England.
I feel a little bit sick when I think about what happened next. I called my mom and asked her to get a money order for me for the full purchase price of the Jeep. I was still using my hometown bank, so with a phone call, I was able to transfer money out of my checking account and into hers so she could walk into CVS with a fat stack of cash and walk out with a little slip of paper that I could use to wire the money to Mark.
I copied the confirmation number from the money order down in sharpie on a white piece of paper and faxed it to Mr. Bicklehaupt. Then I triumphantly bragged to my shipmates that would soon be behind the wheel of a sick new ride.
Several days later, I left California. Mark had assured me he would have the Jeep delivered to my sister’s house in New York by 5pm on the day requested.
So I waited. I researched what I would need to register the Jeep. I did laundry. I listened to every car that drove by, waiting to hear the heavy rumble of a big car carrier that would slow down and pull into the driveway.
By 2pm, I started going over the events of the last few days in my head. Leukemia? Really? And free shipping from Colorado?
I hung on to the fact that I had spoken with Mark on the phone. I had scrounged quarters and stood at a payphone outside a hotel on Catalina Island, as if speaking to a real human meant I wasn’t getting scammed. For five minutes, I asked questions and heard the answers I wanted to hear. At the time, it was reassuring.
Now, days later, as the reality of owning a Jeep faded away, I wondered who had been on the other end of the phone call. Who was I speaking with when I wished his son a speedy recovery and assured him that the money order would arrive shortly? Did the Jeep really exist, or was it just a stock photo that had swept me off my feet?
5pm came and went. No vehicle. My bank account was nearly empty. My sister and her husband came home from work and looked confused at the empty parking spot in the driveway. I sent Mark another email, knowing I would never hear from him again.
I felt so stupid I couldn’t even cry.
If someone comes to your house and steals from you, you can call the police to come investigate. But if an imaginary person with a dumb story scams you out of money you’ve been working for months to save up, it’s not so straightforward. I filed a report with a consumer protection agency, but it didn’t give me much hope.
I felt my money, my jeep and my innocence drifting away, like a rudderless ship into the night.
Thirteen years and several vehicles later, my chest still tightens and my face flushes with embarrassment when I think about falling for such a ridiculous scam. But it also reminds me that people can do dumb things when they feel vulnerable.
My desire to be an adult and have everything work out was so strong that it clouded my judgement. It sucked a lot be on the losing end of a scam, but it also taught me the value of seeing a problem from multiple perspectives. It made me see how strong emotions can put us in a state of suspended reality.
I can’t say that I’m glad I fell into such an obvious trap. But it has helped me be more empathetic towards smart people who do dumb things. When you’re far removed from a situation, it’s hard to understand why someone makes bad choices. But sometimes in the heat of the moment, a bad choice feels like a good choice.
It’s made me less judgmental and more sympathetic when I hear about people who lose money to a fake wedding photographer or a caller who pretends to be the IRS. When confusing information comes at you from every angle, it can be easy to latch on to the wrong thing.
It’s also made me wary of deals that are too good to be true. I steer clear of pyramid schemes, sketchy online transactions and sob stories that aren’t verifiable.
In the end, I guess life lessons wouldn’t be memorable if they came easily. Maybe $2500 is a small price to pay for a masterclass in how to not be a sucker.
I just hope Mark’s son used that money wisely.
For a story about life on a boat that has a happy ending, try this: