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When looks and height nab crooks, I'm the man

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By JAN GLIDEWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 17, 2002


A lot of guys my age start looking around for a second career. Maybe I have one in law enforcement.

I would make a great undercover operative in investigations of dance studios like those currently being looked at by Pinellas County law enforcement folks.

If you've missed the news, the allegation is the same as has been made against other studios -- that they pressure lonely elderly customers, usually women, to spend up to hundreds of thousands of dollars on dance lessons and related activities.

The problem is that the fine line between fraud and high pressure sales is sometimes hard to find.

I learned five years ago that widows, and to a lesser extent widowers, are suddenly hit with a rush of sales offers for everything from aluminum windows to cremation services, and that vulnerability is a term more easily defined in moral than in legal terms.

If a lonely widow wants to spend money on dance lessons, clothes, cruises and parties, and has the money to spend, and is legally competent -- who can or should stop her?

An element of such cases almost always involves the nature of the sales techniques used, and the offer or hint of possible romance is one questionable technique. A colleague of mine, in fact, once wrote about a window salesman who used that technique to sell new windows to a widow who probably didn't need them.

That's where I would come in.

Prosecutors could introduce dozens of witnesses to testify about how badly I dance and my total lack of coordination. And, as for other types of misleading pitches -- implications that the prospective customer is unusually tall and attractive, for instance, all they would have to do is march me into the courtroom and take note that spectators in the back rows would have to stand to see what was going on.

I'm willing to help, but I wouldn't do any of this, of course, without a wire and without heavy backup.

"What's that you say, baby?" I would say, imperceptibly moving my lips closer to the microphone on my lapel, "You say I'm incredibly good looking? Really?"

(In the van parked outside, jubilant fraud-unit cops would be high-fiving each other.)

"You say I have a natural sense of rhythm and a lot of undiscovered talent? That I am very light on my feet for a man my size, and with a little training could be dancing professionally within a few months?"

(Quietly, outside the van, the assault team is getting ready, donning body armor and night vision goggles.)

"And you say I'm tall? Really?" (I am 5 feet, 73/4 inches tall -- if my feet and head are both swollen.)

FLASH-BANG!

(The cops enter)

"Okay, everybody, this is a bust. Up against the wall. You. Over there. Step away from the contract. I mean it, just put the contract down and all of us go home alive tonight."

And I would be quietly hustled out of a side entrance so that I could dance, and bust again.

Seriously. Some, probably most, dance studios perform a legitimate service and give people who might have thought they had lost the opportunity or motivation to dance real enjoyment. My great-aunt Neva and her husband, in their 70s, took $10,000 worth of dance lessons back in the 1960s, when $10,000 was an awful lot of money, and spent nearly a decade dancing rhumbas and waltzes and merengues until they were no longer able. They never regreted the expenditure, and neither did those of us who wanted to see them enjoy their lives.

On the other hand, some studios have been proved in the past to use illegally deceptive and fraudulent tactics and practices to deprive vulnerable, grief-stricken people of money they can't afford to lose, and good studios should want to see them closed down as much as the rest of us do.

Until then I will be available to help put the cuffs on anyone who says I am good-looking, talented or tall.

Cover me.

I'm going in.

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