Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Safety I: Kind Stranger Scams



Today I’m going to write about something that happened to me this past weekend as I was coming home from Anime Midwest.

I traveled to and from Anime Midwest with Alexis, all our stuff crammed into her Honda. The convention didn’t end until 5pm, and we got a late start on the road because I’m such a slow packer. It was late and dark out when we pulled into a Love’s truck stop for gas. It was well lit, visible from the exit ramp, and had quite a few other vehicles in it.

We were pre-paying for fuel in cash so like always, I pulled the bills out of my purse before stepping out of the car. As I closed the door, I heard footsteps coming my direction and saw a really scraggly looking guy coming towards me with a gas can.

“Excuse me ladies, I don’t mean to bother you but I was wondering if you could spare some gas? Our radiator blew and my wife and baby are in the car over there. I’m not asking for money, just a little gas to get us on our way. We were on our way home from Chicago.”

After he finished his sad story, I plainly told him we didn’t have any extra dollars. When I stepped in to prepay, he and his truck had already disappeared.

Red Flags

  • He was white, male, in his 20s, barefoot, wearing tattered clothing and looked like he hadn’t showered since he was 10.
  • He was carrying a red gas container in a plastic bag. The bag is used for huffing the fumes, according to my law enforcement hubby.
  • His truck was parked in the darkest part of the parking lot.
  • He walked past several other vehicles and people to ask Alexis and I, who were the only travelers that were all female.
  • There was no wife and baby, but I could clearly see his male buddy waiting in the truck.
  • He was gone as soon as I stepped inside to pay.
  • You don’t need gas to fix a broken radiator.

 This is the kind of stuff you read about in those warning emails your mom forwards to everyone on her contact list. Is it possible that he wasn’t lying through his teeth? Yes, but unlikely.

These are “kind stranger” scams. They’re hoping that you’ll do something nice for them because they have a sad story for you; and it’s never anything crazy, just little favors, a few dollars. The reason these are dangerous is not just because they make you uncomfortable and sort of a jerk for not helping, but because you never know what they really want from you.

This guy probably just wanted a tiny bit of gas so he and his buddy could get high, or a few dollars. But what if he was waiting to see where I might pull out that extra dollar or two, and he and his buddy robbed me?

Usually with scams like these, a woman will come ask you for money/help, while the guy holds a “baby” on the other side of the parking lot. The woman is much less threatening and so they’ll send her to approach people because who doesn’t feel bad for a stranded mother and baby?

Also be aware of similar scams where people might ask for small favors. Examples include:

  • Do you have a light?
  • Can you break a five?
  • Do you have a pen I could borrow?

These will usually take place in a parking lot, garage, or gas station. When you open your wallet for those singles or your bag for that pen, they’ll be able to quickly case you and know:
  • Where you keep your money
  • How much cash you have
  • If your wallet is in your purse or pocket
  • How easily distracted you are
Even if they’re holding a cigarette in their hand when they ask for a light, be aware of your surroundings. Sometimes they’ll pick your pocket, sometimes they have a buddy who will come up behind you while you’re digging around in your bag. This robbery method actually became quite a problem a few years back at the shopping mall where I worked. A woman would ask strangers to break a five dollar bill. When they were pulling out singles, her accomplice would come up behind the kind stranger and demand their wallets. This happened A LOT.

So what do you do if someone approaches you for help?

You could help. Someone’s keys are locked in their car and they need a little money for a locksmith? Offer to call the locksmith for them, and pay the guy directly. You’ll normally see how fast the story changes if they didn’t actually need a locksmith.

You can say no. Need a light? Sorry I don’t smoke. Need change? Sorry I don’t carry cash. Even if you dismiss them with a “logical explanation” you’ll still want to keep an eye on them and your surroundings. Just because you tell them you don’t carry cash doesn’t mean they didn’t notice your iPhone, engagement ring, or leather bag.

And if you’re going to turn someone down, don’t be wishy washy about it. They’ll sense your hesitance and keep trying because maybe you’ll give them that few dollars just to get them to go away. The guy I encountered kept walking towards me while talking. No matter how small, sad, or harmless someone seems, don’t let them get close enough to grab or rush you. At about 10 feet, I stepped towards him (one step) and he stopped. Don’t shrink back or turn away. Be resolute and he’ll likely leave to find an easier target. 

Other tips:
  •  Handle your cash somewhere that's not publicly visible. Get your debit card/cash out before leaving your vehicle so you never have to open your wallet or purse where other people are watching.
  • Don't go into details about what you're doing. If you tell them you're coming home from selling at a convention, it just screams ROB ME.
  • Pay attention to your bubble. There's nothing wrong with telling someone to back up if they're getting too close.
  • Consider defense tools and training. I'll go into that another time.
  • Always be ready to move. This might be the crazy in me talking, but mentally prepare to take action quickly, be it running or fighting. Freezing up equals bad.

Remember, most crime takes the path of least resistance and greatest convenience, so don't be an easy target.

Stay safe, stay alert. Situational awareness is the best preventative from becoming a victim.

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