Fact Check

'Distressed Stranger' Scams

Strangers pretend to need cabfare to get to a hospital or money to buy gasoline or baby formula in common panhandling scams.

Published Dec. 27, 2004

Strangers pretend to need cabfare to get to a hospital or money to buy gasoline or baby formula.

You're refueling your car at the local gas station when you find your eye caught by a somewhat bedraggled looking 20-something young woman standing beside a beat-up van parked near the property's perimeter. The girl returns your gaze, smiles in an embarrassed way, then hesitantly makes her way over to you.

"Mister, can you help me? Me and my husband ran out of gas, and we've no money to buy any — we spent what little we had on formula for the baby. If you could spare a twenty, we could get her home 'cause it's getting awfully cold out." Her voice drops a bit. "It's just a loan I'm asking for, mister. I'll mail it right back to you, soon as I get my paycheck this Friday." At this point you see an equally scroungy-looking young man standing by the van clutching a blanket-swaddled bundle you assume is the couple's infant.

Your kind heart says to give this young woman the twenty dollars she asks for. But your common sense says otherwise. So which do you listen to?

If you're like a great many folks, you fork over the twenty ... only to later discover you've been had. The "stranded baby-toting couple at the gas station" is but one of the many successful "distressed stranger" scams common to the urban experience.

These swindles are a fact of modern life, and it is only a matter of time before you encounter one being run on you. Our desire to believe what we've been told coupled with our urge to perform occasional good deeds leaves us vulnerable to such cons. We take people at face value, which sets us up as pigeons to be taken advantage of.

When presented with tales of woe and asked for relatively small sums that will help set things to rights, only the very rarest among us will as a matter of course turn down direct appeals for help. The vast majority will hear the unfortunates out, then make their decision to help or not based on the believability of the stories.

Yet that filtering is often not enough because successful con artists know how to spin plausible-sounding yet touching yarns. They also know how to employ props (such as the swaddled "baby") that further increase the probability of their prospective pigeons falling for their cons.

In March 2001, a writer for the South Bend Tribune reported on his encounter with not one, but two "Please help my baby!" con artists in the space of a few minutes. Flim flammer #1 approached him on the street, saying she needed a few dollars to buy formula and diapers for her baby. When asked where the infant was, she claimed he was sleeping in a car parked a block away. When the reporter insisted upon being taken to the baby (who he'd just been told had been left alone in a freezing cold car), the "needy mom" turned tail and ran.

He ran into scam mom #2 a couple of blocks further on. She was carrying what appeared to be a baby wrapped in a receiving blanket to keep out the cold. Her car was at a local gas station, she said, and she needed a few dollars to get home with her young one. The reporter lifted a corner of the blanket to peep at the child only to find a doll staring back at him. This swindler walked away defiantly with her head held high, knowing that there were other sheep to be fleeced.

In 2004 a reporter for The Daily Telegraph in London ruefully detailed his run-in with the "stranger in distress" con. Half-asleep, he answered the door late one evening only to find there a young woman who claimed to live in nearby Apartment 2A, "the one with the black door." Her mother had suffered a heart attack, announced the distraught neighbor — could he lend her cab fare to the hospital? The taxi, she said, was waiting, and the police had told her she could "get a docket from the hospital" which would reimburse him. The projected cab fare was £22.50, so he gave her £25.

Only after she'd gone did he realize that there was no Apartment 2A in his complex.

In talking over his experience with colleagues, he discovered this form of swindle was common in London, with men its principal targets because they tend to answer the door after dark more often than do women. A female co-worker of the bamboozled journalist recounted how her husband, a tough criminal lawyer, had been about to hand over taxi money to a distraught woman who claimed to have been mugged until she intervened to insist the "victim" come inside to telephone the police. At that point the "mugging victim" turned tail.

Men run versions of the "stranger in distress" scam too. In 1998 a Pittsburgh man was arrested on four counts of theft by deception after going door to door with a tale about needing money to get to the hospital to see his son who'd just been injured in a car accident in a city some distance away. Folks who heard his sad story routinely gave him $40 or $50 apiece. The man, of course, had no son, injured or otherwise.

In 1995 a con man successfully ran a version of the "injured son" tale on a number of Denver restaurants and bars. He would telephone these establishments and tell bartenders or managers that one of his sons had either just been killed or injured in a car accident and that he needed money so his other son could catch a taxi and go to the hospital to the hurt or dead son. To collect the money, he'd either go to the restaurant, or he would have the restaurant employee meet him at a convenience store or gas station.

In 1996 in Providence, a swindler working the "I need money for gas" con admitted in a signed statement made after his arrest that he made between $50 and $350 a day from this endeavor. "I usually call any business and tell them" a relative's car "broke down and needs help, and usually people give me money, thinking it's for real." He'd been taken into custody when he arrived to pick up the $20 he'd persuaded a filling station owner to give him to get his pregnant niece's car towed. The money he made on this con he used to fund his drug habit.

A number of readers have written to describe their experiences with the 'distressed stranger' con. We quote from five of those e-mails on our "Using Regular People" page, an article about a widely-circulated account that might have been an encounter of this sort.

Although there are real cases of need out there, this scam is so common that one needs keep it in mind when approached by strangers seeking assistance.

How To Avoid Falling Victim To 'Distressed Stranger' Scams:

    These sorts of scams work because the amounts pleaded for are relatively small, and people want to help others, both for the ordinary feel-goodness of it all and as a form of karmic protection against those inevitable days when their cars break down or when they are chagrined to discover they've left their wallets on dressers at home. While fraud is sorry repayment for a kind heart and generous nature, the only way to entirely safeguard yourself against falling victim to "stranger in distress" scams is to refuse to help those unknown to you who appear to be in dire straits. Such a course of (non)action will appeal to some but will be heartily eschewed by others who will view the occasional $20 lost on a con artist as but the cost of maintaining a positive view of their fellow man. Therefore, portions of the following advice will apply to some but not to others.

    • Beware the pull on your heartstrings — it's often the pursestrings that are actually being reached for. When approached with tales of woe, keep in mind those making the request should have other avenues of relief available to them beyond that of asking random strangers for cash. Is it reasonable to assume they have no family or friends who could come to their assistance, either monetarily or to give them a drive home? Or that they do not have so much as one credit card they could charge a necessity against? Remind yourself that a great many taxis do accept credit cards and so regard with suspicion any well-heeled stranger's claim of needing $20 for cabfare.
    • When strangers seeking your assistance hit you up with sob stories, become comfortable with saying "No, I'm sorry but I just can't do that" and walking away or hanging up. If you cannot bring yourself to say no and instead feel you must make some attempt to aid those who appear to be in need, proffer your assistance rather than the cash that has been asked for. Offer to telephone on their behalf whichever friend or relative the stranded couple believes could come for them, or to ask the police for help in getting the child home. Insist that mugging victims contact the police and indeed place those calls for them. Strictly limit your help to non-monetary forms: making phone calls, brainstorming possible solutions, mucking about under the hood of non-functioning cars, etc. But above all, keep your hand away from your wallet.
    • Never let strangers into your house to use the phone. Instead, offer to place whatever calls they need made on their behalf. Likewise, those seeking the use of a bathroom should be given directions to the nearest gas station or restaurant. People have been robbed or sexually assaulted in their homes by those whose "car broke down" or who needed "a glass of water" or "to call a doctor for the baby." Those not assaulted immediately still run the risk of being burgled later by thieves who have inventoried the home's contents and are now familiar with its layout.
    • Churches in some communities have adopted a policy of refusing to provide cash to those who appeal to them for emergency assistance. Instead, those thrown upon hard times are given whatever other kind of material assistance they have requested (e.g.; tank of gas, place to stay for the night, transportation to another city where a relative is supposedly languishing, something to eat), but are refused money.
    • A group of churches in another community has worked out an arrangement with that city's police department whereby those looking for aid are directed to the police station for a bit of vetting of their stories and their identities. Those who appear to check out are provided with vouchers (paid for by the local churches) for whatever it was they had appealed for. Once again, money is never given.


Lyvers, Glenn.   "Those Being Asked For Assistance Can Defend Themselves Against Scams."     South Bend Tribune [Indiana].   22 March 2001   (p. A13).

Pankratz, Howard.   "Con Man Allegedly At It Again."     The Denver Post.   18 December 1995   (p. B3).

Robinson, Marilyn.   "Many Fall for Tow Truck Scam."     The Denver Post.   17 April 1998   (p. B2).

Robinson, Stephen.   "Shame On Me: I Was Conned By a Damsel in Distress On My Own Doorstep."     The [London] Daily Telegraph.   5 February 2004   (p. 19).

Sabar, Ariel.   "Target of Borrowing Scam Alerts Police; Suspect Arrested, Charged."     Providence Journal-Bulletin.   22 August 1996   (p. 1D).

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.   "Swindling Suspect Arrested."     30 March 1998   (p. A12).

Article Tags