How Distress Scam Storylines Aim To Win Your Sympathy

It may be pure fiction but a distress scam tale can still tug at your heartstrings — and your purse strings: Internet Scambusters #407

A distress scam occurs when a con artist spins a tall story in hopes of getting you to hand over some cash.

Claims of ill health, family tragedies or legal problems, are sadly often just cunning ruses to play on your emotions.

When this happens it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction, but in this week’s issue we detail the most common storylines and offer some pointers on the actions you could take.

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Time to get going…


How Distress Scam Storylines Aim To Win Your Sympathy


In a parking lot, on a sidewalk, in your workplace or even on the phone, it’s likely one day you’ll encounter a distress scam.

You know the sort of thing: someone tells you a story of despair and asks for your money to help put things right.

All too often these are con artist tricks — and they succeed because they sound like they’re real.

Or, because you’re not sure, the crook knows that you’ll hand over the money because you have a conscience.

But often, you can sniff out a distress scam or take a safer course of action to provide help.

Here are some of the most common stories you’ll hear in a distress scam — and some suggestions on what you can do about them.

Gotta get home

This one tops the distress scam charts — most often a panhandler at a rest stop, off-ramp or gas station with a sign saying they ran out of fuel or their car broke down and they need money to get home.

Sometimes, they might have “props,” like an empty fuel can or a nearby car with the hood up.

You can be 95% sure this is a con artist trick and, if you give, know that you’re probably paying for some other kind of “fuel.”

A different version is the acquaintance who claims a family member is seriously ill or died and they need money to travel home for a bedside farewell or even a funeral.

Dealing with this is difficult. You might be able to seek more details that you can check out independently, or offer to help them financially when they get back. Unless you’re 100% sure, just don’t donate a large sum.

Another variation is the hacked email or Facebook distress scam, in which a genuine friend’s account is taken over by scammers who contact you, claiming to be them and to have been mugged while on vacation.

Supposedly having lost all their money, they now ask you to wire cash for them to buy an air ticket home.

Avoid this by checking the real whereabouts of the supposed victim, with them or with acquaintances.

In trouble with the law

This distress scam is most often seen in the notorious grandparent con trick, in which the victim receives a phone call supposedly from a grandchild, claiming they’ve been arrested and need cash to post bail.

You can read more about this scam in an earlier Scambusters issue, Scammers Pose as Grandchildren to Swindle Grandparents.

Alternatively, a phone call to an employer pretends to be from a police officer, saying one of his employees has been arrested and, again, needs cash for bail.

In both cases, as with the email/Facebook hack mentioned above, simply check the story by either independently calling the real law enforcement agency supposedly involved or by confirming the whereabouts of the individual concerned.

Serious illness or disability

This is another common type of distress scam.

The con artist claims either to be sick (often supposedly suffering from cancer or other terminal illness) and unable to pay for treatment, or to be raising money for another person similarly afflicted or perhaps for a disabled child.

It takes many forms, most often in the workplace or a social group such as church or a club. An individual, sometimes even a person who has been well known to the group for years but more likely a newcomer, announces the sickness and asks acquaintances for financial support.

Another frequent version is a collection box in a company reception lobby or a convenience store, supposedly to raise money for a sick or disabled child.

This usually has been left by a visitor, who spins a plausible tale to the company or store and returns later to collect the box.

It’s difficult to question these people without appearing distrustful or even heartless, but you have to probe tactfully with questions — about where they’re being treated or the name of their specialist doctor, for instance.

People who tell lies in these circumstances often give themselves away by their behavior. Find out more about how to spot a liar in an earlier Scambusters report, 12 Ways to Tell When Someone is Lying (in Addition to the Ones You Should Already Know!).

With collection boxes, the best advice is not to donate large sums or, if you’re particularly concerned to help, take the details off the box and check them out.

Vacation beggars

It’s difficult enough trying to judge the real degree of need of people you meet on the streets of your own country, but when you travel abroad, the problem multiplies.

Beggars frequent well-known tourist spots, sometimes distressingly exhibiting some kind of disability or even an accompanying child with a serious deformity, especially in Third World countries.

In this latter case, such children are actually passed from one begging shift to the next, while the beggars themselves are experts at pulling a mournful expression.

The fact is that you can’t tell if these cases are genuine or not and you are actually far better making donations to legitimate charities devoted to helping people in need in these countries.

Remember too that begging is often used in tourist locations to distract you while an accomplice steals from your pocket or purse.

Other tall stories

Not all parking lot and sidewalk con artist scams rely entirely on tales of woe.

For example, there’s the crook who shows you what they claim is a valuable item or even a bar of gold they invite you to buy for a knockdown price because they need the money urgently.

Another person turns up (really an accomplice) and vouches for the value of the item to try to persuade you to buy.

Solution: Just don’t.

Or there’s the supposed charity giveaway scam, where the crook shows you what appears to be a big wad of cash (actually just a roll of paper with a dollar bill around the outside) that they’re trying to give away to needy people.

The scammer says they’re leaving the country and need to entrust the cash to someone else to give away. But, to prove your trustworthiness and supposedly convince them you won’t steal their money, they want you to give them a bundle of your own cash.

Sounds pathetic, doesn’t it? But people fall for this all the time. Bottom line: This is 100% a scam. People just don’t do this for real.

Distress scams like the ones listed here succeed because the crooks are often very plausible; they seem genuine — but that’s the essence of con artist tricks and is especially effective when it preys on your conscience.

Also, as we always warn, any request for you to wire money should put you on the alert.

The best general policy is to be skeptical of anyone who asks you for money, when appropriate to do what you can to check out their stories, and, if you really feel moved to do so, to only donate small sums of money.

And if your conscience is pricked, donate money to a relevant charity such as those for the homeless or cancer treatment and research. You may not be helping the individual who’s asking for the cash but you know that your donation will be put to good and genuine use.

That’s a wrap for this issue. Wishing you a great week!