A long, long time ago, in a state far, far away, I learned the hard way that both the philosophers and Bruce Williams were right. Philosophers tell us that while its lessons are dearly won, experience is the only reliable teacher. Williams, the longtime syndicated radio advice man, said you never should give your business to a tradesman who, claiming it will go for supplies, wants money up front.
If they're not well-enough established to have a line of credit at the home-improvement warehouse, Williams said, they're not well-enough established to work for you. And I knew this even as I was writing out the check for $538 so the very smooth talker whose classified ad ran in the Sacramento Bee — the newspaper I worked for then — could acquire what was needed to landscape our postage stamp of a yard.
This was the last time I saw him. Of course, you knew that. He didn't even come, months later, to defend himself in small claims court, where I won a perfectly uncollectible judgment.
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The episode turns 30 in the spring of 2015, and by then I really hope to have put it behind me. Not that it keeps me up nights now, even when online inflation calculators tell me that $538 is equivalent to nearly $1,200 now. Or knowing, if instead of allowing myself to be snookered — I swear, Williams' voice was in my head yelling “Don't do it, Tiger!” even as I signed the check — I'd bought $538 worth of Disney stock, my investment would be worth nearly $30,000 today.
Indeed, the experience is useful today, when memories of my long-ago capacity for rank dopiness helps me judge less harshly the decisions that culminated with the name of a former Zephyrhills High School student appearing on a phony diploma. So it is entirely without rolled eyes that we report Candice Re Phillips said she was astonished and dismayed to discover her certificate, issued by CHS Inc. High School, was a fake, the signatures of the district superintendent and school board chairwoman evidently forged.
The document bears another signature, that of Nina G.S. Duffield, once the registered agent for Country Home School Inc., which achieved defunct status in 2009. Duffield is listed as the CHS principle on the diploma.
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Now the sheriff's office is involved, trying to figure out whether this was an isolated incident or something more widespread and sinister.
What's crucial is it seems someone tried to cut a corner and someone else was there, as someone always is, to abet the cutting. But the scheme exploded — college admissions offices rejected her diploma.
The whole affair is a sad twist of events, but one — like my encounter with the underhanded landscaper — ripe with time-honored lessons. Do your research. The right time to learn whether some outfit has its certifications in order is before you do business. Shortcuts often are more trouble than they're worth. If it seems too good to be true, well, you know the rest.
Scammers are out there, and they are persistent. Anyone who's had an email account for more than a month knows this: Lots of Nigerians are sitting on tens of millions of dollars they're desperate to transfer to the United States, and in exchange for allowing them to park it briefly in an American bank account, they'll leave behind a seven-figure reward. Actually, the sender is fishing for bank routing and account numbers to steal deposits, and more than 99 percent of us know this.
But in that gullible fraction of one percent hoping for easy riches — if it's just one-tenth of one percent, that's still about 217,000 fleecing-eligible Americans — there's gold.
And when it's over, there's usually someone sadder, wiser and poorer, and he still has a yard full of weeds and no sprinkler system.