Many of us feel inspired to keep with the spirit of the holidays and as a result are more likely to open our hearts and our wallets in the interest of helping our fellow man. This is fertile territory for scam artists. And while they aren’t interested in their victim’s giving hearts, the wily con artist will certainly look to exploit this sense of compassion as a means to open up that which truly concerns them – the victim’s wallet.
There are many types of Good Samaritan Scams out there. Some employ elaborate schemes executed by several con artists in perfect orchestration, while more commonly individuals or smaller groups will distract or confuse and then grab what they can from you. Either way, the bottom line is their goal is taking what is rightfully yours and their method is to play on your altruistic instincts.
Here are a few examples that you should remember the next time you are approached by a stranger asking for assistance.
These come in different sizes, from large organizations to the guy on the street corner holding his hand out and his sign up. Here are two examples of how scammers hide in their midst.
BIG TIME CON – One of the largest was busted just a few years ago. California scammer John Franklin Harrell, with the help of a cult-like following of 20 acolytes, bilked hundreds of Americans from all across the country into giving him more than $30 million. Many actually forked over their life savings to this man who claimed to have access to a secret trust fund worth over 1.6 Trillion created by the descendants of Mormon Church founder John Smith. He and his cronies claimed the funds would be released once an insurance company was created to convert the fund into insurance policies. Investors were promised 100% yearly returns on their investments for up to 99 years.
This wasn’t just a case of victim’s getting scammed because they were greedy. The biggest hook in Harrell’s scheme was a promise that significant amounts of the profits, millions on a yearly basis, were to be earmarked for humanitarian projects. The “investors” were pitched this con based on their charitable interests. Religious types were sold on bible theme parks, Christian radio stations and faith-based scholarships. Philanthropists were told stories of “social development centers” to be opened across the country helping everyone from single mothers to the homeless and jobless. The sick were pledged money to be spent on miraculous cures for autism, Parkinson’s disease and cancer. These people trusted John Franklin Harrell and his phony ties to a major religious organization, and many lost their life savings because of this mistake.
SMALL TIME CONS – On the other end of the spectrum from John Franklin Harrell and his fellow con artists are the individuals who are out on the street asking for charity every day.
While many who panhandle are legitimately homeless, some have simply found a way to make decent money from the small contributions of passersby. Michael S. Scott of the director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing stated in his online article “Panhandling” that some of these beggars can rake in “about $300 a day on the high end. Women, especially those who have children with them, and panhandlers who appear to be disabled tend to receive more money. For this reason, some panhandlers pretend to be disabled and/or war veterans. Others use pets as a means of evoking sympathy from passersby. Panhandlers’ regular donors can account for up to half their receipts.”
A recent news story tells of a couple from Ashland, Oregon, who have christened themselves “affluent beggars.” These two estimate they can make up to $40,000 a year from panhandling. They claim to have taken home $800 on their best day. Although they present themselves as homeless and destitute, they rent an apartment in a nice area of town and own a car among other prized possessions.
A regular panhandler in the Rockefeller Center area of New York City can be spotted on daily basis writhing on the ground unable to speak, a pleading hand extended, and her body wrapped in garbage bags instead of actual clothing. Normally, tourists surround the woman, giving her money, food, shirts bought from local street vendors and other clothes from stores in the area. Although she acts as if she can’t speak to those who show her concern, she has been known to use a telephone for normal conversations at the end of the day when her begging is finished. Come back the next morning and she won’t be wearing any of the numerous clothes given her, but is once again in her garbage bags playing on folks’ sympathies.
By no means do these con artists make up the majority of those who panhandle, but if you truly want to help the homeless and the destitute invest in a local shelter or give to trusted organizations that will make sure the right people get the care they need.
Victims are often approached by those who have money problems. In this instance, the problem isn’t that they don’t have money; they will assure you that they do. Rather the problem is that they need your help to access it. Here are two very different examples of these cons.
COMPLEX – The victim was walking in the parking lot of a Home Depot in Aventura, Florida when approached by a man claiming to be an undocumented worker from Honduras who needed help finding a law office to get some important papers.
A second man who had “overheard” then walked up and, claiming to be a Christian, offered his help since he knew of a law office nearby. The victim had some time and decided to help the men decide if the law office was legitimate and rode with them in the car. Once in the car, the man from Honduras explained his problem: he had won the lottery but could not claim his prize because he did not have legal residency papers.
The second man then put in a cell phone call to the “lottery commission”. The victim claims he could hear the conversation on both ends and that the person over the phone said the funds could be released with a simple $20,000 deposit of good-faith money.
The victim, assuming he would be paid back quickly, offered $7,000. The second man claimed he could cover the remainder and went into his bank, returning with an envelope supposedly holding $13,000. The victim then withdrew his $7,000, after which the second man suggested they get stamps and mailing materials. The victim went into the post office alone to procure the materials, but when he came back out the two men were long gone. He checked his envelope to discover the envelope he held had been switched with one stuffed with cut-up newspapers by two sharp con artists.
SIMPLE – An elderly customer walking up to her ATM when approached by a desperate gentleman. He claimed to have been robbed, and then opened up an envelope to show her several thousand dollars claiming it was the only money he had left in the world. He didn’t feel safe holding the cash, it was a Friday evening and he would have to wait to open a new account, so he wondered if she could deposit the money for him. He would give her $100 for her trouble.
The woman agreed. He stood next to her as she keyed in her PIN, then put the envelope in the machine. She didn’t feel comfortable withdrawing cash with the stranger next to her so she finished the transaction. As her ATM card came out, he grabbed it and ran off. He had her PIN number and her card, she reported it stolen, but not before he was able to withdraw some $1,200 from her account. Later, when the ATM machine was opened up the woman learned he had switched envelopes while she was entering her PIN and had actually deposited worthless strips of paper cut to money size.
DISTRACT AND GRAB
At the bottom of the Good Samaritan Scam list is a simple con that is often run in pairs and totally plays on the victim looking to lend a hand to his fellow man. Here are a couple of examples:
HELPING HAND – In Cordova, Tennessee a group has been scamming folks at gas stations without being caught yet. An older woman in her 50s, Asian, will approach those pumping their own gas, especially if they are already distracted by talking on a cell phone, and thrust her credit card in the victim’s face claiming she can’t figure out to work the machine. She will continue to harass the victim until they accompany her to her car on the other side of the station.
Once the victim is helping the woman pump her gas, one or more accomplices will then break into the victim’s unwatched car and take whatever valuables they can manage. Always lock your car when you are out of it pumping gas, and don’t talk on your cell phone at the gas station.
EMERGENCY – Even worse are those who play on potential heroes out there by manufacturing an emergency as a distraction. A 48 year old grandfather with a heart condition was walking with his wife and dog one morning when a woman rushed out of the bushes claiming a swan had attacked her baby. She pointed to a nearby lake where a man saw a fully-clothed baby with shoes on floating face down in the water. Springing into action, the gentleman took off his jacket and jumped into the murky waters.
When he grabbed the child’s leg he realized it was actually a doll. Turning back to the shore he spotted the woman and her male accomplice stealing from his coat. By the time he back to shore, they were long gone with his bank and credit cards and over $100 cash.
We shouldn’t be discouraged from helping out those in need, but we should always keep our guard up and listen to our instincts. Sometimes being a Good Samaritan is a quick way to be scammed by a con artist.