Fact Check

Checkout Scam

When a strange woman asked a shopper to call her 'mother,' he never thought he'd end up paying for her groceries.

Published July 10, 2000


Legend:   At her request, a young man calls a stranger "Mom" at the checkout counter and is rewarded for his kindness by being stuck with her grocery bill.


[Brunvand, 1988]

A young man is shopping in a supermarket when he notices that an older woman seems to be following him, staring at him in a sorrowful manner. He moves to the next aisle, trying to avoid her, but she follows, still staring.

And when he finishes shopping, he ends up behind her in a long checkout line. Her grocery basket is full to overflowing; his contains just a few items.

She keeps staring at him sadly, making him feel most uncomfortable.

Finally she speaks up. "Pardon my staring," she says, "but you look exactly like my son, who died just two weeks ago."

And she begins to sniffle as she repeats her claim that the young man perfectly resembles her late, beloved son. "I mean, exactly like him," she moans.

Then, as the cashier bags her groceries at the front of the line, the woman asks: "As a favor to a grief-stricken mother, would you mind saying 'Goodbye, Mom' to me as I leave? Somehow, it would make me feel so much better."

The young man gulps and agrees to her request. She gives him a tearful smile, waves and picks up her three heavy bags.

"Goodbye, Mom!" he says, waving back.

All the scene needs now to make it a perfect melodrama is violins welling up in the background -- or maybe a little supermarket Muzak.

The young man, reflecting on his good deed, feels such a warm glow of self-satisfaction that he barely notices the cashier ringing up his own few purchases. Until, that is, the cashier tells him that the bill comes to $110.

"There must be a mistake," the young man says, pointing at his single small bag.

"Your mother said you'd be paying for hers too," the cashier says.

[Dickson and Goulden, 1993]

A business man picked up a hitchhiker and after stopping at a rather expensive roadside restaurant offered to buy him dinner. After they finished, the driver said "You go ahead and enjoy another cup of coffee, I'm going to have the tank filled with gas so we won't have to stop again. You wave back when I get to the cashier's so that he'll know that you're with me."

The hitchhiker waved as directed, finished his coffee, fretted when the driver didn't return in fifteen minutes or so, and finally decided he'd go on outside. The cashier stopped him at the door.

"Hey," he said, "you haven't paid the bill." The hitchhiker told him that the other man was going to pay. "That's not what he told me," the cashier said. "He said you would take care of the check, and that you would wave to me to confirm it." Sure enough, the driver and his car were gone when the cashier and the hitchhiker went outside.

The restaurant owner eventually accepted the hitchhiker's story but only after a long wrangle.


  • The action takes place in a grocery store, a large discount store, a restaurant, or a roadside diner.
  • Usually the victim of the scam is male, though occasionally a female victim falls for the "dead daughter" routine.
  • In tellings featuring "Mom" as the con, the dead child is said to have been killed in an auto accident; in others, he was a soldier killed in Vietnam.
  • "Mom" isn't the only flim flam artist out there: sometimes one man cons another by way of convincing the cashier the other will wave to indicate he's picking up the tab. As well as the truck stop version quoted above, a soldier dining with his girl at an expensive restaurant fobs off his bill upon an officer in this fashion.

Origins:   The underlying theme of this is universal: Beware the kindly stranger, because you never know what his game is. Be they teary-eyed little old

Cartoon of the legend

ladies or kindly motorists who stop to offer a ride, watch your back and your wallet.

In the grocery store version, a young person looking only to do a good deed (albeit a painless one) gets stuck with a huge food bill. Each of the grocery store versions always mentions that the patsy has only a few items on the belt, and we're left to imagine what a shock it must have been for such a careful and clearly underfinanced shopper to get hit with this charge. Similarly, our hitchhiker above is not only presumably poor (he's thumbing a ride, remember, not driving his own car), but the story makes a point that the place they stop at is a "rather expensive roadside diner." The ante of the tale is upped as we realize that money means even more to the person being taken advantage of than it does to us. This bit of subtlety drives home the victim's predicament in a much more telling fashion.

Older versions of this legend lack the "poor shafted stranger" feature and simply present a humorous tale demonstrating a clever way of getting something for nothing:

[Braude, 1965]

A gentleman went into a Paris babershop with a small boy one day and explained that since he had an appointment in the neighborhood he would like his own hair cut first. This accomplished, he handed the small boy up into a chair, urged patience upon him, and departed. When the boy's haircut was finished, the gentleman had not returned, and the barber transferred the boy to an ordinary chair. A half hour passed.

"Don't worry," said the barber reassuringly. "I'm sure your father will be back soon."

The boy looked startled. "He isn't my father," he said. "He just came up to me in the street and said, 'Come along, let's both get a haircut.'"

Though in each of these stories the cost to the victim is purely monetary (and in one instance he gets out of paying by convincing the diner's owner that he'd been conned), the cautionary message of the tale runs deeper than that. Place your trust in the wrong stranger, and it might not be your wallet you'll lose — it could be your life!

Barbara "patsy (de)cline(d)

Sightings:   The "wave at the cashier" trick was used in the 1994 film Dumb and Dumber and in 1986's Something Wild.

Last updated:   27 December 2004

  Sources Sources:

    Braude, Jacob M.   Complete Speaker's and Toastmaster's Library: Business and Professional Pointmakers.

    Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1965   (p. 67).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Curses! Broiled Again!

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.   ISBN 0-393-30711-5   (pp. 247-252).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   "Heart-Wrenching Ruse."

    The San Diego Union-Tribune.   24 March 1988   (p. D2).

    de Vos, Gail.   Tales, Rumors and Gossip.

    Englewood: Libraries Unlimited, 1996.   ISBN 1-56308-190-3   (p. 180).

    Dickson, Paul and Joseph Goulden.   Myth-Informed.

    New York: Perigee, 1993   (p. 175).

  Sources Also told in:

    Holt, David and Bill Mooney.   Spiders in the Hairdo.

    Little Rock: August House, 1999.   ISBN 0-87483-525-9   (pp. 86-87).

    The Big Book of Urban Legends.

    New York: Paradox Press, 1994.   ISBN 1-56389-165-4   (p. 167).

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