When it comes to inventiveness, it’s hard to top the people of our hometown. Detroiters put the world on wheels — invented the highway, too — then went on to become the arsenal of democracy, the home of Motown, birthplace of techno music and the city of origin for the honey-baked ham.

OK, not everything we’ve turned out is great. There was the Pontiac Aztek. And crack cocaine, which was even more addictive than honey-baked hams. The only bright side is that no one ever found the Aztek as compulsive as smoking crack, which would have left our highways choking on bumper-to-bumper butt-ugliness.

Still, as inventive as Detroiters can be, I’ve got to tip my hat to a few deviously clever anonymous scam artists in California. Using nothing but their criminal cunning and basic sleight-of-hand, these guys have perfected the wiliest debit-card scam ever.

Getting hosed

These guys eschew high-tech thievery, such as card skimmers that steal your data and hidden wireless cameras that capture your ATM pin numbers. Instead, they trick other unsuspecting customers into paying for their gas.

It works like this: Before you arrive at the pump, the scammers swap the hoses between the two sides of the pump and drive off to wait nearby. After you arrive, they pull up to the opposite pump, go through the motions of buying their own gas, and put the hose that actually runs to your side of the pump in their tank. As you swipe your debit or credit card and select your gas, they start pumping. If you’re not paying attention, all you see is the numbers rolling up on your side of the pump display, and you assume the gas you’re paying for is, like always, going in your own tank.

OK, it’s scummy, but you have to admit: It’s also brilliant in its simplicity. Although, five miles down the road, you are unlikely to appreciate the dazzling elegance of it all when you run out of gas.

No complaints in Michigan

So far, the scam has shown up in at least half-a-dozen gas stations around Santa Rosa, California, but hasn’t spread elsewhere — yet. The Attorney General’s office in Michigan — which fields gas-price and consumer complaints — hasn’t heard of it happening here, a spokeswoman says. In the meantime, the AG’s office cautions to be alert and observant when pumping gas.

Likewise, the AAA hasn’t gotten any complaints.

“No gas customer needs to run into that kind of problem,” said Susan Hiltz, public affairs director for AAA of Michigan. “It’s unfortunate that people are that creative when they’re stealing gas, when that brain power could be better used.”

Maybe, maybe not. If these light-fingered lords of the unleaded turned their creativity to perfecting nuclear fusion, eradicating cancer or bringing the world a good low-fat cottage cheese, I’d be all for it. My fear is that if they do try to go straight, they’ll end up doing billions in damage working for in the only industry that already specializes in siphoning off other people assets — banks.

Brian O’Connor is author of the award-winning book, “The $1,000 Challenge: How One Family Slashed Its Budget Without Moving Under a Bridge or Living on Government Cheese.”

(313) 222-2145

Twitter: @BrianOCTweet

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