The Cultural Curator

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The True Story of the ‘Shekel Scammer’…

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Over six years ago, on Monday July 24th, 2006, I was approached by a man on the New York City subway, as I was heading down to Brooklyn for an early morning shoot.

“Is this train going to Brooklyn?” he inquired. “Yes, it is,” I answered cheerfully.

And so our interaction began…

“I’m here from Israel,” he continued. “I had to bring my mother to New York for a life-saving operation.”

“I hope the surgery goes well and that she makes a full recovery,” was my response.

The man went on. “I’m so sorry to ask but, unfortunately, I only have Israeli shekels with me, and I need $250 in American money to pay for the surgery. Is there any way you can give me a loan, and I will repay you by money order as soon as I return home?”

The man pulled out his passport to show ‘proof of person’ as well as photos of his “children”.

Is this guy on something?!” was my initial reaction. As if I would willingly hand over $250 of my hard-earned money to a complete stranger.

I offered my regrets and let him know that I was: a) A full-time student who didn’t have this kind of cash to part with; and b) Late to a photo shoot with no time to stop by an ATM and withdraw the kind of cash that he needed.

He looked me dead in the eyes and pleaded: “Please, Miss. As a mitzvah.” In Judaism, a ‘mitzvah’ is a charitable act.

Now, I’m not a religious person, but the only thought that ran through my head was ‘if one of my family members was in a terrible, potentially life-threatening situation, and required the kindness and generosity of a stranger, would I want that stranger to turn a blind eye?’ The answer, of course, was ‘no’.

“Ok,” I said. “I’ll loan you the money.”

Together, we got off the subway in Brooklyn and ventured over to an ATM machine. I withdrew $250 in coldhard cash and handed it over. We exchanged contact information, and he offered his reassurance that he would repay me.

Shockingly (I know…), I never saw that money again.

At first, I told no one. I was a 21-year-old (seemingly ‘naïve’ but good-natured) university student who was interning (read: VOLUNTEERING and making $0 MONEY), and who had just readily given a random individual a pretty hefty payout. Also, I really didn’t want to relive the experience by talking about it.

When I finally told my sister, her reaction was: “That sucks, but I believe that, one day, he’ll get his.” Nice words but certainly not overly comforting. “Yea, I guess,” I replied, knowing full well that I would never see or hear about this man again in my lifetime.

Or so I thought…

Fast-forward to 2013 and there HE was, making news headlines: “Israeli tourist caught after defrauding Jewish women out of thousands”, “Tube shekel scammer is finally jailed”, and it goes on and on.

“I can’t believe this! This just can’t be! … Can it?!?!” were the only words that escaped the corners of my mouth.

All these years later, and here HE was. An image of his face callously staring back at me on the television screen: Israel Aharonovitz, 63, ‘Shekel Scammer’. An international fraudster who had duped thousands of people out of money in major city centres with subway systems, such as London, New York, and now… Toronto. I’ve lived in all three cities. I couldn’t have imagined running into him again. And, yet, the possibility was there.

He has already served prison time in England and it looks as though he will be meeting the same fate in Canada. I have contacted the Toronto police, who have heard from others in New York, and US Homeland Security will be made aware of this man’s wrongdoings, using his ‘faith’ and ‘religiosity’ to “seal the deal”.

My sister, as it turns out, was right. “One day, he’ll get his…”

That day is today.


If you know anyone who has fallen pray to Aharonovitz’s scheme, please contact Detective James Turnbull, Toronto Police Service, at 416−808−1370.



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This entry was posted on January 11, 2013 by in Current Affairs, Life and tagged , , , , , , , .

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