The key to any scam is making it sound like a good idea. How else would it work?
Having your home address number painted on the curb in front of your house in reflective paint, so that it's easier for police and fire services to find in an emergency, might sound like a pretty good idea.
But it's still a scam if you do it the way it's being done here and now in Wauwatosa – and it's probably totally unnecessary.
Parts of the city including, at the least, large areas of East Tosa, were papered Tuesday with flyers taped to residents' doors saying that crews would be coming back Wednesday morning to do such painting.
Looking very much like an official city notice – although with the disclaimer that the painting would be done only with "your permission," and with the purported name of the "Reflective Street Address Maintenance Co." – the flyers might leave some residents feeling that this is something sanctioned and recommended by the city.
It's not. To all appearances, it's a get-rich-quick scheme perpetrated by fly-by-night operators.
For $15, you get a number you don't need painted on the city's property, not yours, without the city's knowledge or permission.
Ald. Bobby Pantuso was handed one of the flyers Tuesday afternoon by a canvasser who disappeared before Pantuso realized what he was holding.
As an elected official, Pantuso said, it took even him a few minutes for it to sink in that this was not a sanctioned service.
"It looks official," Pantuso said. "It looks like this is something you're supposed to do, even if it does say you can opt out."
Tuesday being a Common Council committee day, Pantuso was able to speak to City Administrator Jim Archambo, City Attorney Alan Kesner and Public Works Director Bill Porter before the evening was out.
Not one of them had heard of any permitted address-painting operation by a company of that name or any other, and all thought it probably illegal.
Pantuso also exchanged e-mails with Police Chief Barry Weber, who was fairly succinct in his response:
"Every couple of years, different vendors try to get people to do this. If we can catch them, we can put a stop to it. It certainly is not something required by the city. Unfortunately, not all citizens know that. If you have any other info, please let me know; we'll get on it."
To begin with, the street curb is not part of a resident's property; it's the city's. So putting anything on it would be subject to the city's approval.
If you decided to paint your own number on there, or even hired someone to do it for you, probably no one would care. But to solicit such a service would require a permit, and vetting of the procedure by public works and public safety staff, which hasn't occurred.
There is also the possibility of gross abuse, amounting to out-and-out fraud. The way this operation works, you're supposed to write your name on the bottom of the flyer and leave it in place to have the "work" done.
But suppose you don't even notice the flyer, someone shows up at your door, waves it at you and says you owe them $15 because you left the flyer in place and the job has been done? Many people might pay out of pure confusion.
Lastly, is there any need to do this?
"Maybe in 1975," Pantuso said, "but this is 2012. I've ridden with police and firefighters, and I've not seen them have any trouble finding an address.
"They aren't hanging off the side of the fire engine with a dog sniffing things out. They've got a computer with a digital map right in front of them. They've got a GPS showing them exactly where they are."
Pantuso also questioned the purported low cost of the service at "only $15."
"They use about 8 cents worth of paint and pocket $14.92. Not bad."
Wauwatosa is not alone in this con, by any means. An article published in October in the San Francisco Examiner warned of the practice and said it was "bogus" in the eyes of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which manages all transportation in that city.
The article concludes: "The scammers have been asking residents to leave a check for $20 for the curbside painting. Unless you want to spend $20 on useless decorative paint, do not write this check, the SFMTA says."