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

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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!