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Opinion: That unbelievable street violinist could just be a 'finger-syncer'

Tom Driggers

Can a violin be an instrument for a scam?

You may have seen people playing Bach or Vivaldi on the street, inviting passersby to toss them a coin or crumpled bill in appreciation.

But there are reports from across the country that many of the performers are not violinists, but flimflam artists. People called finger-syncers who set up on a street, flick on a speaker, and slide a bow over an electronic violin while a pre-recorded track plays. These forged Joshua Bells leave out instrument cases to receive money, often with signs saying they need help for rent or medical bills.

But the website of the UK's Classic FM and other media report that police in Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Texas, and Arizona have issued alerts, and caution that many of these ersatz Itzhak Perlmans are part of a growing national hustle.

David Wallace, chair of the Strings Department at Boston's Berklee College of Music, says he has received videos from friends around the country asking if a violinist was really playing — they weren't — and he worries that true musicians may suffer for this scam.

"Busking has been a longstanding way for musicians to earn money or to make an honest living for centuries," he told us. "But when people become skeptical about whether a musician is legitimate, they become more cautious about giving to any musician."

We seem surrounded by schemes these days. Text messages from strangers who say, "Miss you." Emails that invite you to claim winnings in lotteries you never entered, or collect spurious unpaid debts. There are tweeting bots, and deep-fake Tom Cruises, and so-called tech-support sites that ask you to grant them brief remote access to repair your computer. What could possibly go wrong?

A recent report in The New York Times says more than $100 billion of federal pandemic relief funds might have been paid to sham companies and schemers. And of course, about a third of the American people still tell pollsters that the 2020 election was rigged, a lie that has been used to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in political donations.

I don't think the duped commuters lose much money in this street violinist scam. But it may be one more raindrop in the storm of schemes that blur our view of what's right in front of us.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.