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Pants on Fire

I always remember the moment in the TV show Ironside, when the wily, wheelchair-bound detective played by Raymond Burr summed up a stumbling block in his investigation of a murder. “The problem with believing what isn’t so,” he said, “is you keep asking yourself questions you can’t answer.”

That’s the dilemma of any good detective, and certainly one faced by such super-sleuths as Columbo (“Just one more thing...”), Sherlock Holmes (“Elementary, my dear Watson”), and the teams at the various incarnations of CSI (do they have a clever catchphrase?).

That is because most people don’t have access to lie detectors, truth serums, or other tools of the police and spy worlds. Therefore, the clever sleuth has to search for inconsistencies, lapses, and incongruities in statements to make out if someone is fibbing.

Take the most common type of lie in a co-op: “I’m still living here, even though you never see me, and there seems to be a stranger in my apartment.” Of course, people never say it quite that openly, but they might as well. Who do they think they’re fooling, anyway?

In my co-op, for example, the treasurer called me up one day to say he believed someone was subletting the unit across from him. He had not seen his neighbor for months and a stranger was coming and going from the apartment. The two of us knocked on the door and even if we didn’t suspect something already, the man who answered would have made us look twice. As Holmes might have said, the signs were all there. He was twitchy and nervous and couldn’t get his facts straight. He was a guest, well, actually, he was a friend who was house-sitting. Well, in fact, he was renting from an old friend. Well, really, he didn’t know the shareholder at all. In what was a parody of a crime show, he finally confessed, almost spontaneously.

Or what about the couple who had been living in the building for years and moved out on the sly to avoid paying move-in/move-out fees? I accidentally met them in the lobby, with chairs, books, suitcases, and other household paraphernalia. “Going somewhere, Fred?” I asked.

“No, no,” he said, laughing nervously. “Just moving some things.”

Some time later, we discovered that he and his wife had moved into a high-rise nearby.

In most cases, however, you don’t have to wait for a breakdown and confession – if it’s important enough, you can do a little research. For instance, how do you know that buyers are telling the truth? If they say they don’t smoke, it’s easy enough to check that out. Nonetheless, people frequently lie with impunity. Attorney Arthur Weinstein reports that lies in an interview – large and small – happen more often than most people realize, and he adds that a lot of the liars get away with lying. Some boards, Weinstein notes, try to protect themselves with carefully drafted “pre-buy agreements” (PBA), which are specially designed for liars and other strangers. The PBAs are important because once the sale is closed it’s otherwise hard to get rid of the liar.

Weinstein points to lies he has seen: a buyer saying in the contract that he will be a non-smoker and then, after he moves in, takes up smoking in open defiance of the board. Or, the musician who agrees to maintain an outside studio but, after moving in, simply chucks the rehearsal space and plays his trombone in the apartment. You could go after them on house rules breaches, of course, but PBA restrictions make it even simpler. They are specifically designed for liars.

Indeed: having a signed statement that they will not do what they eventually do should make it easier to get them out by showing them to be brazen liars. And it’s important to nip such lies in the bud, says attorney Marc Luxemburg, a partner at Gallet Dreyer & Berkey, because “whatever they lied about is of great significance. It has to be. Otherwise, why lie?”


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