Law enforcement authorities were all too familiar with the story they heard Wednesday from a 77-year-old Lawrence man who was rooked out of $4,500 in a con game.
Officials believe the two men who cheated the victim have been operating in the Midwest for several years, always using the same technique and always targeting elderly people.
Authorities say the team is accomplished in its profession and at eluding the law.
"Without a doubt, these guys are professionals," said Chris Mulvenon, administrative assistant to Lawrence Police Chief Ron Olin. "They're very, very cunning."
This week, at least, they also were very successful. The team apparently struck Tuesday in Warrensburg, Mo., conning a 71-year-old Nevada, Mo., man, who was in town to visit a hospitalized relative, out of $2,000.
AFTER TAKING the Lawrence man's $4,500 on Wednesday, the two traveled to Salina, where they tricked a 73-year-old Salina man out of $7,000 on Thursday.
That's $13,500 for three days' work.
Witnesses described the team as a black man in his 50s or 60s, 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds with medium-length hair and a white man in his 40s, 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds with medium-length brown hair.
In every incident, the con artists use the same technique.
First, the men strike up a conversation with an elderly man at a grocery store. The partners give the victim the impression that he can make a lot of easy money by playing a game of "three card monte," a takeoff on the shell game in which the dealer lays out an ace and two other cards face down and challenges players to pick the ace.
THE DEALER allows the victim to win the first few hands, then stops making it easy for the victim to pick the ace. The victim quickly finds himself in debt, and the suspects persuade him to withdraw a large amount of cash to prove he can cover his bets and continue playing.
When the victim returns to the game, the suspects wrap the cash in a bandana and tell the victim to put it in the glove box of his car for safe keeping.
But while the victim isn't paying attention, the suspects replace the bandana with an identical bandana that contains paper slips. They then smuggle the bandana containing cash away from the victim and leave the area.
Tom Carey, a Warrensburg, Mo., police detective, said the con leaves victims feeling extremely embarrassed.
"They have to go home and tell their wife how they lost all that money," he said. "Then they feel stupid about it. My guess is that a lot of these things go unreported because of that."
CAREY SAID Warrensburg police have documented four cases of the team's scam over the past four years. In Lawrence, the team has struck at least one other time during the past two years.
But for several reasons, officials say, it will be tough to catch the crooks.
Carey said victims often can't remember many details.
"A lot of older people don't have a very good memory," he said. "For all they remembered, the person who was taking their money could have been Elvis."
Victims frequently don't report the incident until several hours after the suspects have left. The suspects, who don't linger in one area very long, are long gone by the time police are notified.
AUTHORITIES say they are keenly interested in catching up with the con artists because they prey on victims who are basically defenseless.
"It's extremely frustrating from a law enforcement standpoint," Mulvenon said. "It's very disheartening for us to have to see this."
Carey said he believes the only way authorities will catch the con artists is if bank tellers become suspicious about a customer's withdrawal and notify officers.
Salina police Capt. Dave Dunstan said he hopes media attention will help officers nab the team.
"I think that if enough (attention) is focused on this, at some point somebody's going to catch onto these guys," Dunstan said.