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How LinkedIn, Airbnb and Seattle Metro reunited $1,100 cash with its Saudi owner

July 28, 2021

Imagine visiting a foreign country by yourself and losing your wallet. ID card – gone. Credit cards – gone. $1,100 in cash – gone.

That’s what happened to a visitor from Riyadh who joined me last week on one of my Airbnb experiences. We enjoyed a nice little hike together on a Monday morning. He paid me a very generous tip, wrote a positive review and we said so long. As with most of my Airbnb experience guests, I assumed I’d never hear from him again.

That’s how it played out until the next evening. While relaxing in front of the TV around 9 p.m. I received a message from him – first through the Airbnb app, then via text, then on WhatsApp. “Hi Cynthia, how are you doing? I need your help if you can.”

I responded: “What’s up?”

I had no idea those two words would lead me on a three-day quest to help out this foreign traveler, who informed me that he had left his wallet on a Metro bus in Seattle. Luckily, he still had his Saudi passport with him. He called the University of Washington Police Department to see if anyone had found the wallet (he was staying at an Airbnb in the U District). The police offered no advice. He was scheduled to take the train to Portland and decided to cancel his credit cards and head south with $50 in cash.

In an amazing stroke of luck, someone messaged him via LinkedIn to say they had found his wallet and turned it into Lost and Found at King County Metro. Since I was the only person who he had contact information for in the Seattle area, he reached out to ask if I could retrieve the wallet for him. He asked that I mail the wallet via UPS and wire the cash to him via Western Union to Portland  – or to his next destination – San Francisco. He even sent me a photo of his passport with all his personal information.

I put myself in his shoes and agreed to help out.

He thanked me “Seriously I do appreciate what you will do for me. I will not forget it whole my life,” he texted.

Are you thinking that something must be up with this? Could this be a scam? I wondered the same thing. But I thought it through and couldn’t figure out what the scam would be.

He then texted me the lost and found report he filed with Metro and gave me their address and phone number. The next morning I headed to the Metro office in Pioneer Square. They e-mailed my new Saudi friend to get permission to release the wallet to me and I was able to retrieve it – and the full $1,100. I noticed on the log that I signed that it was the most amount of cash anyone had retrieved. My new friend was incredibly lucky. Not only did someone find his wallet, they found him on LinkedIn, reached out to him, he responded, and they didn’t steal a dime. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised about this. But the cynic in me can’t help but be amazed.

I took the wallet to UPS to send to Portland. And I took the $1,100 cash to the Western Union at my local Safeway to wire it to my new friend. He told me to take any fees out of the $1,100 and to send him whatever was left over. And he told me to keep $100 for myself. By 12:15 p.m. I was done.

Or so I thought. I messaged him the receipts for UPS and Western Union and kept waiting to get a notice that he had retrieved his money.

At 8:04 p.m., I got a text message from him telling me to look at WhatsApp. He was unable to retrieve the money from Western Union in Portland. After spending nearly two yours working with him, the Western Union rep in Portland and a Western Union rep I connected with through corporate, it was determined that Western Union had messed up.

The transaction wouldn’t work. I’d have to cancel it in person back at the Safeway where I made the original transaction and would have to try again. It was too late to deal with it that evening, so I’d have to go back in the morning. Meanwhile, my friend had no cash. So I wired him $200 out of my own account to hold him over.

You’re thinking – why would you give him money? I did it because I was confident I’d get a refund from Western Union the next day and I could take the $200 out of the $950 I wired him (the amount left over after paying all the fees to send his wallet and to wire him the funds).

I got up early the next morning to get to Western Union at Safeway before I started my workday. The same clerk who helped me the day before was there but said she couldn’t open the Western Union computer until 9. So I returned around noon to try again. This time I was able to get the $950 refund. But Western Union failed to refund the $90 fee! The Safeway clerk patiently worked with them and even continued to work with Western Union after I left for a previously scheduled appointment. At this point, I heard from my friend that his wallet had arrived – completely intact with all his cancelled credit cards and two forms of ID in it.

I went back a few hours later and got the $90 fee, which Western Union finally reimbursed to for. I deposited all the money in my own bank account, believing it would be easier to make the transfer from my own bank account by calling Western Union, rather than trying to make a cash transfer like I did at the Western Union at Safeway. The previous night I was able to send $200 from my own account over the phone. Ultimately, after another 45 minutes on the phone, which included three debit card and one credit card rejections, that method worked. My friend was able to retrieve his money at a Western Union kiosk at a Safeway in Portland and he was on his way! He sent me a photo of the cash in hand at 6:47 p.m.

Why am I writing about this? First off, it’s a pretty crazy story. Secondly, it proves that sometimes people do the right thing. Many people did the right thing to help out this foreign traveler – everyone from the person who found the wallet and contacted him via LinkedIn to all the clerks along the way to the nice Airbnb experience host (that’s me).

That said, I will never use Western Union again. It so saddened me to see the unbanked who were behind me in line who had to waste so much time and spend so much in exorbitant fees to transfer money.

Ironically, during the midst of this, a memory popped up on my Facebook page from July 22, 2014, where I wrote a post about a stranger in New Jersey who found my son’s cell phone at the airport and turned it in to Verizon. Verizon checked the serial number, called me, and mailed it back.

It’s true. Humans can be … well, human! I told my new friend that the next time I’m in Riyadh he’d owe me dinner. He told me to call. And he left me with this message with a photo of a Starbucks drink he bought with a gift card I tucked into his wallet: “I am heading home, I just want to say thank you again for what you did for me. U safe my trip and make it great. Thank you for the last coffee in state.”


$100 cheesesteaks, iPhone smoothies and sexy Puerto Rican videos: The secrets of contagious marketing revealed

February 6, 2018

You’ve seen those crazy videos – the ones that quickly rise to millions of  views. Ever wonder what makes them go viral? Ever wonder why things catch on?

U Penn Wharton School marketing Prof. Jonah Berger answers this question in an entertaining, quick fashion in his book “Contagious – Why things catch on.” It’s a must-read for any marketing professional interested in spreading the word to the masses.

I recently read “Contagious” for an Integrated Marketing Communications continuing education class I’m taking at my alma mater the University of Washington. I spent the first half of my career working as a journalist and the second have as a public relations consultant. With the traditional media landscape shrinking and new media exploding and fragmenting the way we communicate I determined it’s time for me to add marketing to my skillset. This class has opened my eyes to many new ways to communicate and get my clients’ messages to the right people.

The book comes to life with the examples of catchy and memorable marketing campaigns. Some involved huge marketing teams for Fortune 500 companies. Others were created by an individual with virtually no budget. All are noteworthy and offer lessons in brilliant ways to bring in customers and sell products. Here are two of my favorites:

  1. The $100 cheesesteak created by Barclay Prime in Philadelphia – Barclay Prime created this crazy concoction to draw new patrons to its high-end steak house.
  2. Blendtec’s “Will it Blend?” campaign shows off the amazing powers of the company’s blender by blending everything from golf balls to iPhones.

Interestingly, Berger notes that despite so much focus on social media, online conversations reach only 7 percent of people. Word of mouth and real conversations are way better ways to spread the word.

He  outlines his six “STEPP” principles to drive things to catch on.  Here are the steps and some examples of when, how and why they work:

  1. Social Currency – We share things that make us look good

Example: The secret “Please Don’t Tell” bar in New York only for those in the know.

  1. Triggers – Top of mind, tip of tongue

Example: Sales of Mars candy bars increased when NASA’s Pathfinder was on its way to Mars.

Example: Votes in favor of school levies are higher when people vote at a school.

  1. Emotion – When we care, we share

Example: What is the one emotion that creates the most viral videos? Berger’s own research, based on most shared New York Times articles and viral videos, is the emotion of awe – “the sense of wonder and amazement that occurs when someone is inspired by great knowledge, beauty, sublimity or might…It encompasses admiration and inspiration and can be evoked by everything from great works of art or music to religious transformations, from breathtaking natural landscapes to human feats of daring and discovery.”  Check out these popular viral videos and see if you agree:

Decpacito, featuring music, scenery and sex

Charlie Bit Me, featuring adorable, hilarious kids

  1. Public – Built to show, built to grow

Example: In 2003 a group of friends from Melbourne, Australia, decided to grow mustaches during November to raise awareness of men’s cancer. The idea caught on and now men all over the world grow facial hair in “Movember” and raise money and support for men’s health.

  1. Practical Value – News you can use

Example: Sharing usable content builds brand. I’m offering usable content in this blog post and I hope you’ll share it to help build my “Flash Media Services” brand.

  1. Stories – Information travels under the guise of idle chatter

Example: Stories are wonderful ways to deliver messages. The most successful message sharing of any of my clients, Providence Mount St. Vincent, came in the form of a story around a nursing home that shared space with a daycare center. A video trailer of a movie about this nursing home has been seen by millions of people and generated hundreds of news stories.

One of the keys to selling products and getting clients involves marketing to the masses. Lessons learned in Berger’s book “Contagious” offer research and examples to help marketers attain success.

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