The Watchdog: Be careful of hucksters at a state fair

Kim Crossley of Keller glides through the State Fair of Texas with a skeptical eye and a hand on her purse. She won’t fall for any midway fakery or crazy creams or signs that promise everything but deliver very little.

Good thing. Kim won one of the Dallas Morning News Facebook contests to go to the fair with a newspaper staff member.

First prize? She goes to the fair with The Watchdog. (Not my idea, but I’m game.)

The first unofficial Watchdog Day at the State Fair. The one and only!

The winner could have been a sucker, falling for every come-on there is.

Instead, this contest-winning mom, who runs her own business and brings her college-age daughter Carrie with her, is a natural watchdog. She sees. She questions. She moves on. I like her.

“Why do mattresses come with 25-year warranties when they recommend you buy one every eight years?” she asks at the Embarcadero at the very first sales exhibit we see, a mattress gallery. “Replace Every 8,” a sign says, but yet …

A step or two away, the next offer comes — a San Antonio trip, two nights in a Riverwalk hotel (“Buy now, travel later”), river boat tickets and more. $99. Oh, there’s a catch, a salesman says. A 90-minute sales presentation to learn “what Wyndham has to offer.” See ya.

She pushes past “Clean Your Shower with No Scrubbing” and “Lower Your Cholesterol with Greaseless Frying.” She turns a corner and makes eye contact with a woman hawking an all-natural cleanser.

“Let me show you something,” the hawker says into her headset microphone.

Kim Crossley and friend at Texas State Fair

Kim Crossley and friend at Texas State Fair

Kim moves in close. She watches the lady with the microphone spill, dab and rub. Kim looks at the label. There’s no listing of biodegradable ingredients. “What’s in it?” she asks. The woman is three feet away. But the answer comes in an amplified shout, “COCONUT OIL AND SEAWEED KELP!”

Turn around and listen. From every direction, there’s more of the same.

Someone making promises into a headset microphone. Late-night infomercials come to life. A cacophony of Big Tex chaos. Stretch lids. Ultra vitamins. Skin wrinkle removers.

The sign says “BOTOX.” The letters are big. In tiny print underneath, it adds “Effect.” Kim snorts her dismay. The salesman defends, “You’re never going to know if something works unless you try it.”

“Does it last?” she asks.

“If you do it every two days, it lasts,” the salesman says. She snorts again.

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She sees the Bionic Band display. Helps back pain, numbness, poor circulation, carpal tunnel, arthritis, sleeping disorders, attention deficit disorder and much more, the signs says. The multicolored bands in shapes and sizes are alluring. The salesman seems quite sharp. But Kim’s eyes wander to small print on the bottom of a display sign. The words are partially obscured by a lamp.

“These products have not been evaluated by the FDA. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or illness. Individual results may vary.” She bolts.

More signs. “Lose Fat. No Hunger!” “Soft Cotton Dream Sheets, Feels Like Egyptian Cotton.” “The Lamp That Can Change Your Life.”

“Do you need windows?” a man asks. Another asks her to fill out a coupon.

Win a 1967 Camaro.

“Who are you with?” she asks.

“Silverleaf Resorts.”

“They bug you to death with phone calls and emails,” she says. Bye bye.

She walks along the midway, where it’s a different kind of sale. The rhythmic words are hypnotic.

“Come on. Don’t be shy.”

“Two credits to play, two credits to win.”

“Always a winner, always a prize.”

“Come on up, come on in.”

“Winner gets any prize, any size.”

She scoots past a basketball game with the deceptively small rims, ignores a man with gold teeth offering her a baseball to toss.

At my urging only, she lines up at Scooby ring toss. “I’ll show you how to win,” the man behind the counter says. He shows. She tosses. Lots of clinks.

Not one solid clank.

The worker offers her extra advice. Lady, when the other countermen scan your game tickets, make sure they punch in the right number of credits.

“They ain’t crooked,” he says of his colleagues. “Just some of the boys — you got to watch ’em.”

Her daughter sets up at the water pistol shooting gallery. The kid strikes a pose. “Aim. Set. Shoot.” She points a straight line into the clown’s mouth.

The kid wins. Heck, somebody does. She chooses the appropriate prize for Watchdog Day at the State Fair. A giant wolf.

How come? Because at this wonderful place, a sheep can easily get slaughtered.

[This story originally appeared in the Dave Lieber Watchdog column at The Dallas Morning News. Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.]

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation won a 2013 writing award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists

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Are you tired of fighting the bank, the credit card company, the electric company and the phone company? They can be worse than scammers the way they treat customers. A popular book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, shows you how to fight back — and win! The book is available at as a hardcover, CD audio book, e-book and hey, what else do you need? The author is The Watchdog columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Visit our store. Now revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber


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