A mock auction is a scam that used to be seen in market places in Britain in the early 1990s. I'm not sure where or even if the scam still operates but I witnessed it first-hand in Wembley Market and Felixstowe Market. (See bottom for more recent sighting!)

It's basically a large-scale confidence trick - the scammers win their audience's confidence and then abuse it. It goes like this:

The set-up

There is a large stage set up, with lots of interesting looking boxes at the back, apparently containing shiny new consumer electronics products like twin cassette decks, video recorders and game boys (it's the early nineties remember - no doubt today it's DVD players and camcorders).

A charismatic man takes the role of "auctioneer" and stands at a lectern on the stage. He makes jokes and teases the audience and generally does the whole "loveable Cockney rogue" act, like something out of a Guy Ritchie movie. This goes on for a while, until he deems he has attracted a sufficiently large crowd.

He begins to "auction" some of the highly desirable products he has stacked up behind him on the stage, but it's not a real auction - rather, he says he'll sell a video recorder for a bargain thirty quid to the first person to raise their hand. Or maybe he'll sell a portable telly for a ridiculous twenty quid to the prettiest lady to shout out for one.

Whenever he "sells" an item like this, one of his tracksuit and trainer-wearing likely lad assistants will bundle it up from the pile of "stock" on the stage into a black dustbin bag, and come down into the audience with it, supposedly to make the transaction with the lucky winner.

The thing is, there is no lucky winner - the people "winning" each of these items are just stooges. The boxes are empty. No actual transactions take place - this whole section of the act is just part of gaining the audience's confidence.

This goes on for a while, and the bargains appear to get better and better - the man is selling game boys for only two quid! This is obviously absurd, but the audience have been drawn in by his charisma, and because they want to believe that these great bargains are there to be had, if only they can be the first to shout out this time. It's exciting!

The pay-off

Finally, after this charade, comes the part where the "auctioneers" really make their money. The audience believe they have been watching the man sell really great stuff for practically no money for the last fifteen or twenty minutes. He has their confidence.

He announces that while all the previous "auctions" have benefited just one or two people, he can now make an offer that everyone can take part in. Every lucky audience member that wants to can get a bargain this time.

At this point the audience is full of people that believe they have seen people around them get amazing bargains but are slightly frustrated that they've never quite got one themself. The idea that this time they are guaranteed to benefit is exciting.

This time, he says, it's a lucky dip. For just two pounds, you can each get his very special item, worth much more. But you have to trust him - you won't see what it is until you've bought it. Just hand over your two quid to one of the assistants making their way around the crowd, and they'll give you a ticket. When everyone that wants one has a ticket, he'll exchange each ticket for his special mystery item.

Now, buying something when you don't know what it is is obviously a bad idea. But the audience have seen game boys and stereos sold for two quid right in front of their eyes! Clearly, whatever the man is selling will be a steal at two quid - even if it's only, say, a walkman!

So, due to all the groundwork planting the idea that two quid will buy them an amazing bargain, a sizeable portion of the audience hand over a couple of pounds to the slightly shifty looking youth that thrusts a biscuit tin under their noses, with no idea what they are buying.

The finale

Having collected a huge load of cash from unsuspecting punters, the auctioneer announces that the special offer entitles all the lucky ticket holders to a brand new, digital, water resistant chronometer! That's a cheap plastic watch worth about fifty pence.

In an hour or so, the procedure can be repeated. Say £1.50 profit per punter, fifty punters an hour, eight hour day - something like six hundred quid for a day's work, which isn't bad.

Karma

On a personal note, I first witnessed this as a kid, and was taken in enough by the excitement of it all to risk my two pounds. Even though I knew there was something suspicious going on, I couldn't bear to let the chance of getting a game boy for two quid pass me by.

As luck would have it, the new style ten-pound notes had just been introduced, and it was one such note that I handed over to the spotty youth. He mistook the unfamiliar note for a twenty, and gave me eighteen back in change. Thus, I profited by one cheap nasty watch and eight quid. Serves them right for trying to con a little boy out of his paper round money.


This from theboy - "sounds like the kind of thing goes on in various shops on or around oxford street. A few bargains get won, then you have to choose between paying to stay in the shop for the great lottery bargain, or being asked to leave by some men wearing black. Trying to stay in the shop without paying is tricky, in my experience, and tends to lead to manhandling... last time i was in one it was a fiver for the mystery prize."

The mock auction lives on!

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