Unsuspecting conned yearly

Trust me. Give me your credit card number, the keys to your apartment, your life savings. Let me hold your baby a moment.

Smooth as honey, believable as a best friend, con artists scam thousands of victims each year – hapless “marks” who have no idea they’re being manipulated by masters, much less how.

“I am convinced most people don’t realize the impact fraud has on their daily lives, or how easy we’ve made it for others to deceive us,” said retired Milwaukee police Detective Dennis Marlock, an expert in fraud and con investigations. “It is, without a doubt, the No. 1 crime in America in terms of frequency.”

Those who spin elaborate webs of deceit rake in billions each year. But sometimes the victim’s loss is far more dear than money.

On Christmas Eve, a young Milwaukee mother named Marcella Anderson stood in the swirl of humanity at Chicago’s Greyhound bus terminal. As she struggled with a 3-year-old and a babe in arms, suitcases, coats and tickets, a kindly stranger approached.

“You look frazzled,” the stranger might have said, her tone comforting. “I’m going to Milwaukee, too. Let me give you a ride. Here, I’ll hold the baby while you return your bus ticket.”

And then she was gone. She and the baby.

After three wrenching days, little Jasmine Anderson was discovered with 33-year-old Sheila Matthews at a house in West Virginia.

According to authorities, Matthews had told her boyfriend they had a child together, which they had not. When he was released from prison, she needed a child.

The Baby Jasmine case was one of two sensational scams that burst upon the national radar screen in recent months.

The other involved a handsome, winsome guy named Jerome Brandl.

A native of New York state, Brandl had nearly two dozen aliases and had accrued an arrest record that stretched across several states.

Immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center, Brandl dropped the Australian accent, rushed to Manhattan and pulled the wool over the eyes of an entire company of grieving New York firefighters.He told them he was a volunteer firefighter from

Wisconsin who wanted to help his brothers during their time of need. He sounded so convincing he was allowed to spend several days unsupervised at Engine Company 39, which lost two firefighters on Sept. 11.

Brandl helped himself to room, board and catered meals donated for WTC rescuers. He traveled with them to ground zero, collected cash relief donations, posed as a firefighter during a memorial service at Yankee Stadium.

By Oct. 30, it was all over. Brandl was arrested in Pennsylvania. Police said they found an FDNY parking permit, fire department sweaters, electronic equipment and other stolen items in Heidepriem’s car.

How does a con artist persuade a mother to hand over her baby? An educated government official to loan out her luxury car? Veteran firefighters to offer access to large amounts of cash?

Easy, Marlock says. Marlock was a lieutenant of detectives in the Criminal Intelligence Division before he retired. Cons, he says, are “masters of psychology.”

A good con specializes in one segment of society. Some target senior citizens. Others focus on investors. They know the weaknesses of their victims and pitch the scam to what the victim wants to hear.

And they’re incredibly adept. Baby Jasmine’s kidnapper planned her act and picked the location carefully, Marlock says. A bus terminal. A place the kidnapper would blend in with the crowd. A mark under obvious stress.

And Brandl? How did he get away with so much for so long?

“He did it because he’s a gigolo,” said Betsy Herzog, spokeswoman for the Queens County, N.Y., district attorney’s office. “This guy’s tall and somewhat good looking and apparently has a history.”