Tennis pro turned techie? Too good to be true

A scam artist leaves behind a mess of faulty machines, blatant lies, and a broken network at an unlucky business

Tennis pro turned techie? Too good to be true
Credit: Thinkstock

As an IT contractor, I like hearing clients' stories -- about their company or employees, how they made their tech decisions, or how they got themselves into the mess for which they're seeking your help.

"Mr. George," a country club president, shares his story with "Tom," a tennis pro -- or so Tom claimed. The club hired him to teach tennis without checking any references. The club activities director was impressed with how well he played, and he was so charming and very popular with the club members. What else did they need to know?

After a few months, Tom had schmoozed his way into playing opposite Mr. George. They got along well, and Mr. George came to trust Tom more and more and confided his concerns about the club's lack of office automation. Competing clubs had joined the modern era, while his own club was still using paper and copiers.

Renaissance man?

To the surprise of the office staff, one day Tom was put in charge of computerizing the club. He decided to do all the work himself: build the PCs, run the LAN wires, and program everything in Microsoft Basic.

He put PCs in front of some of the staff and had them using word processing software to send out collection letters. The head accounting clerk began using a spreadsheet to do budgeting. Tom installed a server and wired the PCs to it. Two PCs at the front desk were supposed to act as point of sale and customer service terminals. He got a beta version of the POS software running and started debugging the software.

Then, one day, Tom vanished without a trace.

Gone, but not forgotten

About two months after the day Tom last showed up for work, Mr. George called my boss to ask for help. We got these calls from time to time -- troubled people trying to run their businesses but stuck because the computer, software, or LAN they bought from someone else wasn't working.

Could we send someone to inspect their computer system and write a proposal for finishing the work Tom had started? Yes, we could. My boss quoted our hourly rate, and Mr. George agreed to pay for our time.

I left for the midmorning appointment under strict orders to gather information, take copious notes, and render no judgments. I could take as long as I wanted. The budget included a second trip should that be required.

Mr. George was not a happy man. He had hired a private investigator to find his missing IT whiz/tennis pro. What the PI reported surprised and dismayed him: Tom was a traveling con artist. The last company he'd scammed was 200 miles away.

I was told that the club staff had not been informed of this. They had been told that Tom was ill and in the care of family in another state.

Eyewitness accounts

Mr. George took me on a tour of the facility. Along the way he showed me where all the PCs were placed, the parts storage area, and, finally, the office where Tom had worked. The closet was full of motherboards, power supplies, minitower cases, and add-on cards -- a tiny parts store. Boxes on the shelves held various versions of DOS; some of them were illegal copies.

Back in Mr. George's office, we reviewed a list of reported problems. Sometimes, a file could not be saved on the server. Sometimes, the POS system processed a transaction, sometimes not. He presented me with a set of copies of printouts of various error messages. One of the POS machines worked more reliably than the other. After a month, they had shut down the less reliable one. Still, the better machine had been running slower and slower. I asked how they backed up the server, but he had no idea what I was talking about. I wondered how they handled power outages; he had never heard of battery backup.

There were invoices for recent hardware purchases on the desk. I asked for and received copies of several of them.

The more I saw, the sadder I became -- what an incredible mess. Mr. George was trying to be upbeat, but at the same time concerned because of the PI report. I was convinced this was an elaborate scam, but I followed my orders and kept smiling and finding out more information.

Though he'd been absent for a while, Tom's charm had not worn off. One employee told me he was the greatest programmer in the world and they were lucky to have him while they did; he had probably gotten a better offer and jumped. However, all she had on her PC was commercial software -- she had never seen any of his custom work. Also, as we talked it became obvious that he had tricked her into thinking he was the author of SuperCalc.

But not all employees thought well of Tom. The employee who worked at the counter was saddled with the least reliable PC. He spoke sourly and bitterly about the system and its maker. When I had him alone, he told me he thought the whole thing was a scam from beginning to end, but he dared not say so because Tom was beloved by management and staff. As a lowly clerk, what could he possibly know? He believed the system was so badly broken that it wasn't worth using. He had clashed with Tom but wouldn't tell me the details of those conversations.

My boss and I sat down to review my notes not long after I returned to the shop. The club had spent more than $100,000 on the project. Invoices for all the hardware and software totaled less than $25,000. The rest went to Tom.

I went back to the client site to take a complete inventory of the hardware, including serial numbers, then compiled a report.

The cleanup

Mr. George called the local police to report a felony theft. The investigating officer got the reports from us and the PI. The next day the police began interviewing staff selectively. We heard that the cops suspected at least one staffer was loyal to Tom and was reporting back to him any progress in the investigation.

A month later, with that investigation stalled as far as we could tell, we got another call from Mr. George. He accepted our proposal to replace some of the hardware with well-known brands and had decided to buy one of the proposed backup systems. He wanted a referral to a trustworthy programmer.

We sent him to "Steve," one of the guys we worked with, and that was the start of the upside to the whole situation. Steve was able to set up a working system in about a month, which led to years of a solid professional relationship. We continued to supply hardware, Steve wrote all the custom software, and the business flourished.

No, they never caught the scammer. Tom truly was a pro -- but in a different way than everyone first thought.

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