Panhandling or begging for change is something that is prevalent in almost every large city in the world. Some people use a very simple yet harmless approach where they sit on the sidewalk in a busy public place and just wait for others to deposit change in a container. Others are more aggressive and will actively approach people on foot, asking for money. The most devious ones are the scammers.
The scammers always have a well-rehearsed story that is designed to prey on people’s sense of goodwill. Some of the simplest scam stories involve being a quarter short of bus fare. Sometimes it’s a dollar short. It’s a story that almost everyone can understand quickly because who doesn’t understand the concept of bus fare? Occasionally, they’ll throw in a comment to put the person at ease, for example, “I’m not a crazy person but…” or “I swear this is the first time I’ve been short on money”.
The more elaborate scammers have a more complicated story that is designed to take advantage of people’s kindness. One individual in downtown Vancouver has a particular script that he stays pretty close to. If he approaches you, he puts on a bit of an emotional tone. It’s not over the top but he’s definitely not nonchalant or relaxed. He is always just hours into his visit to Canada. He’s flown in from a very far place, often it’s Australia. This is to establish he’s very far from home and anyone that might be able to help him. He’ll tell you he’s trying to get to Whistler or Squamish where supposedly he might be able to join up with some people he knows. Unfortunately, he’s just a few dollars short of the Greyhound bus ride up to his destination. There are small variations to his story but the general premise is always the same. Of course, you’ll see him repeat this story to other people just weeks later. He’s always fresh off a plane from some distant location looking for people to scam.
While most scammers operate in downtown Vancouver, the most elaborate scammer I’ve met operates within two blocks from where I live. The first time I met this woman was sometime in the fall. I was returning from Safeway downstairs and walking through the mall area. A woman who looked to be in her 50s approached me. Her clothes looked normal and nothing about her outward appearance gave me the impression that she was a scammer. Indeed, I expected her to ask me directions because she looked slightly lost. Instead, she opened with an apology for having to ask for help. She explained that she had been just discharged from the hospital. To that end, she showed me a patient bracelet on her left wrist. I didn’t look at it too closely but it seemed like it could pass a cursory glance without looking fake. She further explained to me that she was trying to fill a prescription for some medicine she needed after leaving the hospital. It was at this point she showed me a piece of paper that looked like a prescription form. Again, I did not look at this too closely but it didn’t seem completely fake. Then came the kicker, she told me that she was about $20 short for the cost of the medicine. The most interesting part of her story though was here. She said that the medicine was expensive but she already had the majority of the money. To prove it, she was clutching some neatly folded $20 bills in the same hand as her prescription form. Most scammers don’t use the money they have to attempt to put potential victims at ease. I believe she was trying to make people think she was legitimately just $20 short because hey, she already had some money for the drugs.
I admit that her story was unlike anything else I’d heard before so it did make me think for a second or two. The whole hospital discharge, patient bracelet, prescription form, and fistful of money was somewhat compelling. Fortunately, something still felt a bit off to me about this. I can’t explain what it was except that it just didn’t seem right. I told the woman I didn’t have any money on me and walked away. I will admit though that afterwards, I did wonder for about five minutes if she was actually telling the truth, which I never do whenever I’m approached by other scammers.
Vindication came to me just last week. I got off the Skytrain one station early because I wanted to walk on a pleasant summer evening. As I was leaving the station, an older woman in front of me turned around to talk to me. I didn’t recognize her at first but then I saw the bracelet, the prescription form, and the cash. I let her do her spiel, which was exactly the same as last time. Before she could get to the part where she asked for money, I said to her, “oh, I’ve seen you before and remember you”. I did this for two reasons: to let her know I’d heard her sob story before and also to give her a chance to own up to the scam. To her stubborn credit, she barely paused for a second while looking at me and then proceeded to once again ask me for money. I told her there was no way I’d be giving her money and walked away.
I’m looking forward to seeing her again because next time, I want to take a long look at that bracelet and to read what’s written on that prescription form. I might even call the police and see what they might have to say about this.
The final point to this is that scammers are everywhere and their stories can be complex and convincing. Don’t let your guard down. It’s sad that we have to protect ourselves from our own tendencies to help people but that’s the reality these days.