A few days before last Christmas, one of my best friends showed up at my apartment after traveling across the country over a circuitous 20 hour, multi-airport journey. Along with a suitcase of his stuff, he was carrying a giant paper bag filled with the foulest-smelling fake leather jackets I've ever encountered. He proceeded to tell me all about how he ended up getting scammed into buying 10 of these monstrosities—a scam, it turns out, that is being perpetuated all across the United States (including NYC) in the name of Giorgio Armani.
As I've learned from countless online testimonials from victims, the scam is always the same: a man who claims his name is "Gianni" (or "Sergio," "Vincenzo," "Pasquale," "Donato," etc) approaches the mark in a car, asking for directions to the airport, and then launches into a story about needing to offload very expensive, high quality Armani leather jackets (sometimes due to expensive "custom taxes"). He talks a little Italian, shows his business card, is genuinely friendly, and offers the mark a huge discount. Sometimes he even offers it for free...at first.
There are 13 pages worth of entries about this scam on Ripoff Report, dating back to 2004. This isn't just a matter of being gullible—though I'm sure it was that for some victims. It's a scam that's been perfected over a decade or more, one that plays on basic human decency (as well as basic human greed). I'll let my friend recount his own tale of how he was fooled in the San Bruno area:
A December evening in 2013, I've finished using the ATM at a Chase bank on El Camino Real in San Bruno, CA and have gotten in to my car when I am approached by a young man driving a black SUV. He asks me in a thick Italian accent if I know how to get to the San Francisco airport. I point him in the right direction, and he then asks me if I could help with something else. His boss is Giorgio Armani, and he has just come from the Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco, where they were participating in a fashion expo. He has these jackets, "very nice," and can't afford to pay customs duties on them. He hands me his card, with the Emporio Armani logo on it, his name "Gianni," and his phone number.
Inviting me to see them, I find myself in the back of his car while he takes out jackets of various sizes and kinds of leather ("this one is Buffalo [proceeds to sniff it long and earnest, then asks me to do the same], very nice, eh?") and shows me a print out with the original, and high, prices of the jackets. He is willing to offer me a half dozen of these jackets for $200.
Perhaps sensing that I am not convinced, he proceeds to tell me that he has another problem. He had gone gambling—produces a gambling chip—and has maxed out his credit card. Now he can't pay for the rental car. This earns my sympathy, and when I consider that these leather jackets, even if not Emporio Armani, may at least yield my money back by virtue of their still being leather jackets, I walk to the ATM with him and get him his money. Calling me his true friend and brother—see, we even have the same name, "John!" —he walks back to his car and makes a last minute pitch for a few more jackets. Who knows what I'm thinking now, as I go back to the ATM with my Italian brother and buy a few more from him. We have even exchanged a few words of Italian; by this point it is a question of solidarity. When he gets back into his car, he quickly shifts into drive. His long hair covering his face reminds me of Emilio Estevez in some risky situation.
It is only then that I realize what had happened. "Shit! I got scammed!" In the light, back home, I see that the jackets aren't appealing after all: while the "Buffalo" jackets are not so bad, the black ones have the shiny look of plastic and smell like petroleum. Upon Googling the name on their name tags, EA Collection, the first results are "scam," as well as eBay prices for the jackets starting at one dollar. Back in New York for Christmas, I bring the jackets as joke presents to a friend's party; a bunch of us wear them, about ten in all, but no one wants to keep them. The next morning, I leave them on a bench for a homeless person, and about ten minutes later see a man with a shopping cart scooping them up. I wonder where they are now.
The author tries on one of the jackets skeptically
At first I thought this was just my friend giving a stranger the benefit of the doubt and getting bilked. But then I started reading through all the online testimonials with near-identical scenarios: in Las Vegas and Houston, in Frankfurt, Edmonton, and Ontario, in Dallas, Calgary, LA, San Antonio, Santa Ana and Fairfax, Virginia. It extends from Waterown, MA to Sydney, Australia. And of course, in NYC as well.
A man named Paul wrote of his encounter with the scammers on April 8th of this year:
Having lived in New York City for 35 years I've developed a sense of when I'm being scammed. Today however I bit.
Perhaps the con man caught me at just the right moment while walking on a residential block on the Upper West side of Manhattan about 6 in the afternoon. Same story as above—asked for help with directions to the JFK airport—heavy Italian accent—thanked me graciously—said he'd been attending a fashion show—said he worked for Armani, couldn't take the Armani leather jackets home because it was too expensive to pay taxes—couldn't sell them—said he wanted me to have them because I'd been so helpful—(did an excellent job of making me fell special) after he "gifted" me with six alleged Armani Designer leather jackets, three for me and three for my son that were worth a few thousand dollars a piece—he then took me aside and asked if I could do him another favor—help him buy a iPhone 5 for his son who was having a birthday.
I told him I really was broke and didn't have any money. He said that is alright, use your credit card. I was so busy feeling cheap after his gracious gifts that I offered to get two hundred from an ATM. He pulled off an excellent con job. Got me to give him something / help him, told me in a charming way how wonderful and special I am, pretended to give me a gift because he was so grateful for my help and because I was such a wonderful person. He played on my greed, made me feel cheap for not meeting his request to give him something far less valuable than what he was giving me. When I returned with the money he asked me to take his picture with a battered iPhone (this itself should have been a clue since he could have used a map on his phone to find JFK )
He then gave me the bag with the jackets—and drove off quickly. Instead of six jackets there were now only two and when I took them out of there pretty plastic wrapping, it was obvious they were fake, not leather, and that I had been had. I feel like shit—have been confronted once again by my own greed and grandiosity. Hope you don't fall for this one.
Two other New Yorkers wrote about getting scammed in 2012. This story below give you some idea of the variations that the scammers use to rope people in:
Just happened to me last night in Times Square, NYC. Same story, only one Italian guy, late 20's early 30's Well dressed driving a silver SUV. He got me for $200.
He started by asking for directions to JFK, otherwise I wouldn't have given him the time of day. Then he just reeled me in, very smooth! He said he wanted to buy a Playstation for his son; just came from a show, had all these jackets and a suit and didn't want to pay the duty tax on them. He showed me a passport and had business cards from the Armani Store in Milan; then used the lighter on the leathers.
I was walking away and he offered to give me the jackets for wasting my time, and actually handed them to me and was about to drive away; and thats when I went stupid and offered him the money. I can't believe I fell for this shit!
I got back to my hotel and realized I had been duped. I'm going to donate the clothing to a charity. It won't hurt so much that way. These guys are a disgrace to the Italian people. Not all Italians are criminals. There's good and bad in all kinds.
It's unclear whether this is one organized group traveling from city to city (all the scams seem to take place relatively close to airports) and moving along before local police can get wind of the game—or if it is several different people perpetuating the same crime. But the card above, taken from one of the scammer forums, is the same business card my friend was given by "Gianni."
They've been caught on camera before as well:
After telling this story to various other people, I discovered someone else I knew had also been taken by this scam back in 2008 in NYC:
I was on Park Avenue between 33rd and 34th Street when this guy pulls next to me in a white SUV asking for directions to the Lincoln Tunnel. It becomes apparent that he's Italian, and I launch into speaking Italian, telling him I've studied there and love it there.
He tells me he works in Milan in the fashion business for Emporio Armani. He's extremely jovial, very respectful and kind. He launches into this story about how he's just been in NYC for 10 days for a fashion event, and he's going to the airport (in Newark, I guess, hence Lincoln Tunnel?) to meet his boss, and he has leather Armani jackets, which he shows me, making sure I note the eagle-like logo (which is vaguely familiar in my mind from Armani), and the "2008-2009" tag on it. The jackets were in their plastic protective bags and all I see/feel is the tips of the arms. He says, 'feel how nice they are.' Do I know what they cost? One $1800, the other $1400, and the last $1200. Because I'm his friend, and helped him out, he'll GIVE me two of them, and sell me the third for only $600.
I think, 'yeah right, fuck this, no way I'm spending $600 for a jacket, even if it is real.' I tell him no, I don't even have that much in my account (the truth). He says, he's desperate—he needs to get rid of the jackets because the taxes to take them home with him would cost him $400, he'd like to help me out. I'm thinking the whole time, 'hmm, what if they're real, and I can sell them for a huge profit—this guy's really in a bind, so should I try to help him out?' I tell him I only have about $160 in my account, and he says, 'Well I could give you two for that.' I think, well, if they're worth what he says, I can still make a hefty profit (it's actually hard to remember exactly what I was thinking, but I remember definitely thinking, at the very least, I can sell them for what I paid for them, if not for at least slightly more).
He tells me to get in the car, and we drive a few blocks. We go into an ATM, and he respectfully stands back as I type in my pin, and then I show him on screen, 'look, see? I really only have $170.' I take out $160 and follow him back to his SUV. He gives me the jackets. My mind starts to race: "What the hell am I doing? But it's ok, he's so nice, he's legit, I'll sell them anyway—no worries."
I ask when's your flight, and he tells me "12 [midnight]"—in retrospect, an unlikely time for an international flight, probably. I hand him the money, and he shakes my hand. He drives off, and I walk off, feeling slightly triumphant but a little confused. I don't actually have time to look at them until 4 a.m. that night, after a long night out, which is when I realized they are definitely fake, vinyl, "Reportage REA" (note the title). I ended up dumping them in a big bro, big sister clothing box (I don't need three fake leather shitty jackets).