Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2008 | La Jolla professional surfer Derek Dunfee had just finished a surfing session at Black’s Beach when he got the call.
The man on the other end of the phone said he was Nathan Fletcher, a revered professional surfer and one of Dunfee’s idols. He claimed he had just returned from a trip to Bali, but that his car had been towed and he was stuck in Los Angeles with no cell phone and no money to pay the tow yard to get his car back. He asked if Dunfee could immediately wire him $451.18 to get him out of the bind.
But Dunfee knew better. He sensed immediately that the caller was actually an infamous con man who has, for years, been bilking surfers and surf industry professionals out of thousands of dollars. For two hours, he strung the con man along while he tried, unsuccessfully, to convince the San Diego Police Department and a money wiring company to help him trap the thief. Eventually, however, Dunfee had to settle for simply giving the con man a piece of his mind.
Evan Slater, editor of Surfing magazine, who has become a de-facto point man for surfers targeted by the con man, estimates that over the last two years the scammer has struck dozens of times and conned victims out of thousands of dollars. The con man usually offers a similar story, Slater said. He almost always says he’s had his car towed or his wallet stolen and that he needs money quickly.
The surfing con man has so far evaded prosecution for his crimes, but a theory is growing among his victims: Because of his intimate knowledge of the surf industry and the lives of the people he has been impersonating, the con man’s targets have begun to suspect that he may be a member of the tight-knit surfing community.
The surfing con man has proven himself a tireless researcher of both his targets and his aliases. When he calls aspiring professional surfers, he usually pretends to be a famous, well-respected surfer. When he calls surf shops he often masquerades as a surfing industry bigwig well known for his clout in the business. Recently, when he targeted surf filmmakers, he posed as the father of one of the teenagers who had been featured in one of their recent films.
Whether the surfing con man’s a professional surfer himself, works in the industry or is simply an extremely avid reader of surfing magazines, the idea that the con man could come from within its ranks has sent shivers through the surfing community.
“It’s pretty scary, you know, the guy knows everything about me,” said Dino Andino, an ex-pro surfer and special projects manager for Billabong USA, who said the con man has impersonated him at least 10 times. “It’s pretty alarming actually, he knows about my kids, what their names are, where they go to school.”
The con man appears to have picked his targets and the people he impersonates very carefully, and has shown a knack for exploiting budding surf industry workers and professional surfers who would be wowed by the chance to help a big name in the surfing world.
By posing as a seasoned athlete or an industry bigwig, he has been able to leverage surfing’s ingrained tendency towards hero worship to his own benefit and has conned surf shop clerks around the country into wiring him hundreds of dollars at a time.
Dylan Slater, Evan’s brother and marketing director of Rip Curl USA, said the con man has targeted several Rip Curl stores. Often, Slater said, the con man pretends to be a Rip Curl-sponsored athlete who is stuck somewhere and needs money to get out of trouble. On other occasions, Dylan Slater said, the con man pretends to be Andino, a well-respected figure in the surf industry.
Dylan Slater recounted one attempted con from a about a year ago when the surfing con man, pretending to be Florida professional surfer Adam Wickwire, called the Rip Curl store in Pacific Beach. The con man said he was stranded and had lost his wallet and asked for money to be wired immediately. The shop clerk called Dylan Slater, who nipped the scam in the bud.
Recently, the con man targeted surfers and film directors Chris and Emmett Malloy and Tim Lynch, a movie producer who produced Chris Malloy’s latest surf movie. The con man again posed as Andino and said he was stuck at New York’s JFK International Airport and had lost all his money and contacts and needed money sent over.
Andino’s son, Kelohe, stars in Chris Malloy’s latest movie, which Lynch produced. Lynch wired the surfing con man $380.
And, when the con man tried to scam Dunfee, he seems to have specifically selected to impersonate Fletcher because of the older surfer’s fame and his position of respect within the surfing world. Dunfee said the con man could have chosen to imitate Fletcher knowing that he’s someone a less famous surfer like Dunfee would be likely to admire and want to help in any way he can.
“I don’t know if he thought we were friends or just that I was the kind of guy who would look up to him,” Dunfee said.
Similarly, surf store clerks who suddenly get a call from someone they think is a professional surfer or an industry veteran are more likely to believe the con man’s story because they want to believe they’re helping out a famous and well-respected member of the surfing community, Evan Slater said.
Sgt. George Thomas of the SDPD’s Financial Crimes Unit said the surfing con man’s been using classic confidence trickster tactics.
“If you’re somebody who’s coming up in any field and you get a call from somebody who you would put up on a pedestal, you think it’s your lucky day,” Thomas said. “You think: ‘All I’ve got to do is send this guy a couple of hundred bucks and I’ll be his best friend for life.’”
The fact that the con man usually chooses to impersonate someone who’s known to surfers, but isn’t necessarily a household name, also makes the story all the more believable to people in the surfing community, Evan Slater said.
“It’s not as if Barry Bonds called you on the phone and said that he needed some money,” Slater said. “There’s just credibility to it, so that you feel that this is actually happening.”
The level of detail the con man knows about his subjects and the canny ability he has to recognize which people to impersonate and which to target has the surfing industry abuzz that the con man could be one of their own.
“It’s definitely someone who’s in the know,” Dylan Slater said. “It’s probably somebody who works within the industry, it’s very strange.”
Andino said until recently he was convinced that the con man worked in the surf industry in San Clemente, which is something of an epicenter for the surfing business on the West Coast. But recent targets like Dunfee and the Malloy brothers — who Andino said are “more Hollywood than San Clemente” — have him scratching his head.
“A couple of the people he’s targeted, I’m blown away that he even knows. Like Emmett Malloy, I’ve barely met the guy, he’s out of my circle, but this guy knows to call him, and he’s got his cell phone number,” Andino said. “That made me think maybe he’s not a San Clemente guy.”
Finding out who the surfing con man is has so far proved difficult.
By using wire transfers to instantly receive money anywhere in the United States, the scammer has been able to collect cash quickly and easily before his victims realize they’re being robbed and call the police.
When Dunfee received his phone call, he immediately called Evan Slater, who then contacted the SDPD and Moneygram International, the company that the con man has used to receive wired funds. Both organizations were unhelpful, Slater said, and after more than two hours of trying, Slater told Dunfee that his only recourse was to confront the con man over the phone.
Lynda Michielutti, a spokeswoman for Moneygram International, said that scams like this are an unfortunate byproduct of the money wiring industry. A thief can pick up money anywhere in the country as long as he or she knows the transaction number and can produce a picture ID for the person named in the wire transfer.
“There is no way to really catch these people in the act because they can pick it up anywhere,” Michielutti said. “The best protection is educating consumers.”
The surfing con man doesn’t have the money wired in the name of the person he’s impersonating. Instead, once he’s hooked a victim, he gives them a different name to wire the money to, claiming that he has lost his ID and needs the money to be wired to a friend, or that the name he’s giving is the owner of the tow yard where his car is impounded.
The names the surfing con man uses for the wires are probably names for which he has fake IDs, Michielutti said. There’s a chance, however, that the con man could be using his real name to pick up the cash. As such, Michielutti said, the names are one potential lead to find the con man.
One of the names the surfing con man has used frequently is Ken or Kenneth Daul. Willard Hart, Moneygram’s director of fraud prevention, said, as of Tuesday, Daul had received 28 transactions through the company’s service, for a total of $5,060. Moneygram has also received 10 complaints about Daul, he said.
“After tonight, he won’t be able to pick up funds in that name any more,” Hart said in an interview Tuesday.
And Hart said he would be passing on the information about Daul to local law enforcement in California.
The SDPD’s Thomas said the department doesn’t currently have any cases open concerning a con man posing as a member of the surfing community. He said crimes committed by the con man would most likely be investigated by a local police division and would not necessarily be passed on to the Financial Crimes Unit.
Capt. Shelley Zimmerman of SDPD’s northern division said she hasn’t heard anything about the surfing con man but urged Dunfee to file a police report that her team can follow up on.
Thomas said these sorts of confidence crimes are extremely common, and said that his detectives spend a lot of time investigating crimes involving wire transfers of money. But, because of the small amounts of money involved in the surfing con man’s scams, he said many law enforcement agencies probably wouldn’t be able to make finding the surfing con man a priority.
For now, most of the surfing con man’s targets and the people he has impersonated agree that the scammer is likely to remain on the loose, unless he slips up and gives away his identity. Andino said he’s hoping the con man gets caught soon so that he can get his identity back.
“It’s almost like somebody’s playing a joke or something, but there’s a lot of money involved,” Andino said.