He thought he'd sold his Rolex for $15K. Sleight of hand left him with coupons instead

Buyer swapped out money inside envelope with flyer clippings

Laurent Mattel believed he had succesfully sold his luxury watch for $15,000 when the Facebook Marketplace buyer handed him an envelope with the money, which Mattel counted himself. But a sleight-of-hand trick left the seller with an envelope full of flyer clippings instead. (Natasha MacDonald-Dupuis/Radio-Canada)

Laurent Mattel recalls his legs turning to jelly when he peered inside an envelope meant to be holding $15,000 and saw a bundle of flyer clippings instead.

Hours earlier, he had sold his Rolex Datejust 41 to a man at his home in Blainville, Que., a suburb north of Montreal.

The man known as Marius, at least according to the Facebook profile which would be deactivated shortly after the transaction, had responded to Mattel's ad for the luxury watch on Facebook Marketplace.

"He told me he wanted to buy my watch to treat his wife. I didn't suspect a thing," Mattel said in an interview with Radio-Canada's La Facture about his experience back in November.

Once in the kitchen, Mattel recalls Marius placing a black pouch on the counter and pulling out a silver envelope with a rubber band around it. He remembers Marius removing the rubber band and handing him the envelope.

"He lets me take out the money and he takes back the envelope. I count out $15,000 in $100 bills. I even make little bundles of $1,000 on the counter," Mattel said.

"Then [Marius] picks up the money and puts it back in the envelope. He puts the rubber band back around the envelope and hands it to me."

A surveillance camera image shows the Facebook Marketplace buyer waiting for Mattel to open the door. Only his eyes are visible under the baseball hat and above the mask on his face. He clutches the black pouch containing $15,000. (Submitted by Laurent Mattel)
A surveillance camera image shows the Facebook Marketplace buyer waiting for Mattel to open the door. Only his eyes are visible under the baseball hat and above the mask on his face. He clutches the black pouch containing $15,000. (Submitted by Laurent Mattel)

With a $100 bill still visible through the clear window of the envelope, Mattel says he handed the man his Rolex and, after exchanging a few pleasantries, Marius left.

A little while later, Mattel decided to open the envelope again. This time, he realized, it'd been stuffed with a bunch of coupons.

"I came undone. I really felt the heat, thinking to myself, 'I've been had,'" he said.

Mattel had just become the latest victim of a criminal magician or magicians who allegedly committed other similar thefts in the greater Montreal area, Radio-Canada's investigation has found.

The Blainville police, with whom Mattel filed a complaint, would not comment on the case.

So how did the thief manage to leave with Mattel's watch and the $15,000? Montreal magician John Vincelli showed CBC News how combining distraction with sleight of hand "is really simple to do."

Vincelli puts his bag on the table, pulls an envelope from it and slides a rubber band off the envelope before handing it over. The seller counts the money in the envelope.

When the seller is satisfied, Vincelli offers to put the rubber band back on the envelope. He takes the envelope from the seller, and then pretends to search for the rubber band. He lifts up his bag, and moves his cell phone — movements that distract.

During that distraction, Vincelli slyly slides the envelope with cash into his bag and slides out an envelope containing playing cards. He puts a rubber band on the decoy, and then adds another element of distraction.

"I will ask you, 'how come you don't want the watch any more?' as I hand you the envelope. Questions that will make you think of the question and forget what just happened," he said.

After handing the envelope over, Vincelli pretends to make a hasty exit so the buyer is left with nothing but an envelope, a rubber band and a few playing cards.

Theft or fraud? Insurer says it matters

After contacting the police, Mattel turned to his insurer, Promutuel, to file a claim for $10,000 — the amount covered by his insurance policy in the event of theft of luxury items.

He said 10 days later, a claims adjuster called to say it had been accepted.

But a few days later, Promutuel backtracked on its decision.

"I was told that, in the end, the legal department was refusing to pay because I voluntarily handed over my watch," Mattel said, adding he felt crushed by the change of heart.

"I felt like I'd been robbed a second time by my own insurer. If I'd known there were papers in the envelope, would I have handed over my watch? No," he said.

I felt like I'd been robbed a second time by my own insurer.Laurent Mattel

In an email to Radio-Canada's La Facture, Promutuel said it relies on "insurance case law," which generally states that when an individual hands over property in exchange for a payment that turns out to be false, that person has been the victim of fraud, not theft.

"Generally speaking, home insurance policies will cover theft in the traditional sense. That is, someone breaks into your home and takes your belongings. Fraud is not generally covered," said insurance lawyer Jacqueline Bissonnette.

"But in this case, there was no real payment. We're not talking about a forged check or a bank draft that turned out to be fake. That's why I think this case is different. The person has clearly been robbed."

Incidentally, no claims for theft by sleight of hand seem to appear in the case law.

"It's quite unusual, a magic trick like this. I've never seen that in my practice," Bissonnette said.

Outraged by Promutuel's decision, Mattel opened a small claims file, in addition to filing a complaint with Quebec's securities regulator, the Autorité des marchés financiers (AMF), against the insurer.

Finally, Promutuel agreed to pay Mattel $10,000 plus damages in an out-of-court settlement.

The insurer maintains Mattel was the victim of fraud and that the loss of his watch is inadmissible, but said it would pay him this amount because its claims adjuster initially accepted his claim when they should not have done so.

Reached by Radio-Canada, Promutuel replied by e-mail that the handling of each claim is done promptly for each of its insured members and is in line with good practice.

A growing phenomenon

Mattel's experience is not an isolated case.

Since the pandemic, Rolex thefts have exploded due to their scarcity on the market. In Europe and the United States, robberies have gotten more violent.

"Online, there are plenty of videos of people being attacked … stores are getting smashed up," said Cristian Fatu, owner of Time Merchants, a luxury watch boutique in Montreal.

Fatu says in Montreal, most thefts are non-violent, "but that doesn't change the fact that you're going to be deprived of your property."

He says the Montreal community of luxury watch enthusiasts is well aware that a criminal magician or magicians seem to be operating in the area to rob people of their watches.

La Facture has spoken to other people who say they have been victims of the same scheme as recently as last week.

Victims say they have filed complaints with Montreal police.

Mattel's stolen Rolex Datejust 41. (Submitted by Laurent Mattel)
Mattel's stolen Rolex Datejust 41. (Submitted by Laurent Mattel)

Fatu advises people wishing to sell luxury items on Marketplace to carry out transactions at a police station or with the help of an intermediary, such as a jeweller.

"If there is a theft, you should register it directly with Rolex and the local police. If you have a serial number and the watch is found, you may recover it, but the chances are slim," he said.

For his part, Mattel is still hoping to get his Rolex back.

"I tell myself that the universe takes care of everything," he said. "I hope that my little belief in the universe will reward me one day."