When I lived in Los Angeles, and was much poorer, I took many odd jobs. One of those jobs required me to drive around the city collecting money from those acrylic, honor-boxes typically found next to cash registers at liquor stores.

I’m sure you have seen them, but if not they look something like this. You put money in the top (coins or bills) and take a candy from the bottom. The paper usually has a picture of a sick child or equally sad graphic asking for your donations.

This was a scam.

At least the guy I worked for was running a scam. When I first replied to the ad I didn’t know it was a scam. When I drove to every liquor store and nail salon on the list I didn’t know it was a scam. When people who ran the establishments saw me that first day and excitedly told me we had a “good haul” that week, I still didn’t know it was a scam.

I felt good doing it. I was collecting tons of money. (Literally, I had to go to the bank twice a day to deposit the coins that I rolled by hand.) I liked meeting people and there was a bit of camaraderie as I went about my job behind the counter of their business.

Over the weeks when I had to meet my boss (who was a lawyer by day) to hand him deposit slips or get checks to buy more mints he slowly revealed how the whole thing worked. It wasn’t a scam in the way you might be thinking. The boxes were legitimately rented to my boss from a charity. I cannot remember the name, but it was one I remember recognizing at the time.

The price for renting a box was $2.50 per month. The mints were purchased through the charity for (I think) $15 a box which contained hundreds of mints. Like I said, he’d give me a check to swing by the charity and get more mints when we ran low.

So where was the money I was depositing going? I don’t know. But after I got to know him I certainly had my ideas. When I would drop the box rental checks and checks for mints off at the charity I did notice on the form I was supposed to mark whether they were for mints, boxes, or simply donations. I never dropped off a donation.

I often think about this experience when I think about how seemingly simple situations and businesses can be far more complex when you actually dive into them.

The charity received money for the box rentals and mints. My boss made a terrific amount of money. People felt good for donating their spare change or dollar. They also got a mint. It was actually a pretty good mint.

And me? I made minimum wage plus a few dollars more. And I will admit I probably ate more mints than I was supposed to.


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