How I Fell for the Out-of-Gas Scam — Or Not

How do we know the difference between the real scammers and people in real need?

(photo: Pixabay/CC0)

It’s happened more time than I can count. I’m heading to my car in the grocery or discount store parking lot and some guy carrying a gas can approaches me with a story about having run out of gas. He has no money and wonders if I can spare some cash. Or a similar character rings my front doorbell with the same scenario. I say no, I don’t have any cash and it’s the truth because I do not habitually carry cash in my wallet.

But this time was different.

I was filling my car at a gas station and, as I was getting back into my car, I was approached by a middle-aged woman who seemed genuinely panicked. Yes, she was asking for money to buy gas. She said her daughter had become seriously ill and she was trying to get her to the urgent care center. They have no car, so they borrowed her daughter’s friend’s car but in the rush none of them noticed that the gas tank was near empty. They made it to the gas station “riding on fumes” but realized when they got there that none of them had brought any money along. Did I have some cash to spare to get her daughter to the hospital? She didn’t need a lot of money, just a few dollars.

There actually was a hospital nearby, and the woman pointed out the friend’s car, sitting in an awkward spot several yards from the pumps. There actually were two girls sitting in the car and the woman did seem badly shaken. And, this time, I actually did have cash in my wallet. Now what?

I knew there was a distinct possibility that I was being scammed, but the expression on the woman’s face seemed genuine. I‘d seen her walking around the parking lot approaching other people just before that. Something about her mannerisms and shyness – almost embarrassment – made me think she could be the real deal. If she was the real deal, I wasn’t willing to take the risk that I’d refused to help a mother in need. I leaned into the car, grabbed my wallet and handed her a five-dollar bill. She immediately broke down crying and thanked me profusely.

“I don’t know how to repay you,” she said.

“No need,” I answered. “Just be sure you pay it forward by helping someone else in need.”

“I will,” she promised. She clasped the money in her hand and hurried over to the car with the girls waiting inside.

Generally, folks in the know warn against giving in to scammers because it proliferates their scamming. Many of these scammers, they say, have no intention of using the money for the stated purpose. In fact, we could be helping to fund their drug or alcohol addictions. This is true. There even are reports of scammers begging for money and later returning to fancy high-end vehicles at the end of the day. That makes me sad but doesn’t surprise me. For those reasons, I believe we shouldn’t enable scammers.

But how do we know the difference between the real scammers and people in real need? Common sense, intuition, alertness, I suppose. At the same time, we can’t neglect to exercise Christian charity. There’s a definite possibility of misjudging. Did I misjudge the woman at the gas station? Perhaps. Perhaps not. God knows the truth. In the case she was in real need, I’m content in having leaned to the side of charity and given her the five dollars.