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Using Regular People

Glurge:   Account of a Denver physician who helped a woman in distress.

UNDETERMINED

Example:   [Collected on the Internet, 2005]

This was written by a Hospice of Metro Denver physician

I just had one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and wanted to share it with my family and dearest friends:

I was driving home from a meeting this evening about 5, stuck in traffic on Colorado Blvd., and the car started to choke and splutter and die - I barely managed to coast, cursing, into a gas station, glad only that I would not be blocking traffic and would have a somewhat warm spot to wait for the tow truck. It wouldn't even turn over.

Before I could make the call, I saw a woman walking out of the "quickie mart" building, and it looked like she slipped on some ice and fell into a gas pump, so I got out to see if she was okay.

When I got there, it looked more like she had been overcome by sobs than that she had fallen; she was a young woman who looked really haggard with dark circles under her eyes. She dropped something as I helped her up, and I picked it up to give it to her. It was a nickel.

At that moment, everything came into focus for me: the crying woman, the ancient Suburban crammed full of stuff with 3 kids in the back (1 in a car seat), and the gas pump reading $4.95. I asked her if she was okay and if she needed help, and she just kept saying "I don't want my kids to see me crying," so we stood on the other side of the pump from her car. She said she was driving to California and that things were very hard for her right now.

So I asked, "And you were praying?" That made her back away from me a little but I assured her I was not a crazy person and said, "He heard you, and He sent me."

I took out my card and swiped it through the card reader on the pump so she could fill up her car completely, and while it was fueling walked to the next door McDonald's and bought 2 big bags of food, some gift certificates for more, and a big cup of coffee. She gave the food to the kids in the car who attacked it like wolves, and we stood by the pump eating fries and talking a little. She told me her name, and that she lived in Kansas City. Her boyfriend left 2 months ago and she had not been able to make ends meet. She knew she wouldn't have money to pay rent Jan 1, and finally in desperation had finally called her parents, with whom she had not spoken in about 5 years. They lived in California and said she could come live with them and try to get on her feet there. So she packed up everything she owned in the car. She told the kids they were going to California for Christmas, but not that they were going to live there.

I gave her my gloves, a little hug and said a quick prayer with her for safety on the road. As I was walking over to my car, she said, "So, are you like an angel or something?" This definitely made me cry. I said, "Sweetie, at this time of year angels are really busy, so sometimes God uses regular people." It was so incredible to be a part of someone else's miracle. And of course, you guessed it, when I got in my car it started right away and got me home with no problem. I'll put it in the shop tomorrow to check, but I suspect the mechanic won't find anything wrong.

Sometimes the angels fly close enough to you that you can hear the flutter of their wings...

Psalms 55:22 "Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and He shall sustain thee He shall never suffer the righteous to be moved."

Instructions were to pick four people that I wanted God to bless, especially for the months in 2005, and I picked you. Please pass this to four people you want to be blessed and a copy back to me.

This prayer is powerful and prayer is one of the best gifts we receive. There is no cost but a lot of rewards, let's continue to pray for one another.

Here is the prayer:

"Father, I ask You to bless my children, grandchildren, friends, relatives and email buddies reading this right now. Show them a new revelation of your love and power. Holy Spirit, I ask You to minister to their spirit at this very moment. Where there is pain, give them Your peace and mercy. Where there is self doubt, release a renewed confidence through Your grace, In Jesus' precious name. Amen."

I know I picked more than four and you can, too. When Satan is knocking at your door, simply say, "Jesus, could You please get that for me?"

Being blessed is GOOD...being HIGHLY FAVORED is best! Don't settle!
 

Origins:   We began seeing this account in mid-February 2005. According to a spokesperson for the Hospice of Metro Denver, one of its doctors was its author, but we're leaving the status as "undetermined" for the moment, pending our having a chance to discuss with the writer the encounter she chronicles.

What strikes us about this account is how well the events portrayed therein seem to fit a common panhandling scam we describe in detail in our Distress Cull article: A distressed young woman hits up marks at a gas station, claiming she's run out of gas or that her vehicle has broken down. Usually in such tales, there is mention of a baby sleeping in the car, sometimes even of one urgently needing medicine that had been forgotten at home.

It could be the physician's recounting is an accurate narration of an encounter its writer had with a woman who appeared to be experiencing hardship. (Indeed, we would be surprised if it turned out otherwise.) However, that the benefactor in that tale thought she was helping someone who genuinely needed assistance does not necessarily mean the recipient of her largesse was in the dire straits she appeared to be.

One aspect of the account tends to point in that direction: The young mother scrabbling in the snow after a fallen nickel was buying $4.95 worth of fuel at a Denver gas station . . . but said she was driving to California. What would she have done, then, if the kind-hearted doctor had not come along? Driven out of Denver only to run out of gas somewhere on a highway in Colorado, at night, in the dead of winter, with her three starving kids in the car?

A number of this site's readers have written to describe their experiences with "stranger in distress" cons. Here are a few of their stories:
[Collected on the Internet, 2005]

My husband and I got taken by a girl named Andrea, (at least that was the name she was using), In downtowne Salt Lake City early last Summer. Around June of 2004. She was trying to raise money for her and her boyfriend to get back to Seattle. She claimed that someone had stolen her purse with their bus tickets and her ID in it, and that her boyfriend was trying to get a temp job with a day labor place to raise money, but they wouldn't take her without ID, and Travlers Aid wouldn't help her for the same reason.

My husband and I had come into a slight winfall, (or so we thought), and decided to help her. At first we went to the bus station and tried to buy tickets, but they were having trouble with a poorly trained Clerk at the ticket counter. So we gave her the $160 and wished her luck.

The check that we were expecting got lost in the mail and arrived later then expected. So everything that we were counting on it to pay for bounced, and we could not get the charges reversed. So we had to get help from an Uncle to buy groceries.

On the way home from the store less then a week later, I saw Andrea playing her scam on another street corner. I don't think that I will ever give a stranger more than five dollors ever again. I hope that Andrea reads this some day, and askes God to forgive her. I can forgive her, eventualy, but others may suffer for her lies, because we're not the only ones she scamed.



I opened the door one day to a man who wanted to mow my lawn or other small chores because he needed to pick up money to buy a coffin for his young daughter, who had just died. Unfortunately (for him), I'm very literal-minded, and didn't have any chores. (I never even thought of handing him a $10!) Okay, not a great story, except — a few years later I opened the door again, and there he was, wanting to mow my lawn or other small chores because he needed to pay for a coffin for his daughter, who had just died. At that point I only laughed. Fool me once, shame on you.



I worked in a church office for many years. One day a woman came into the office and said that she had brought her ailing father to the doctor and she had no gas money to get back to her home 30 miles away. She looked so distressed, and because she lived in the city that I live in, I gave her $5. About two years later, the same woman came in, looking distressed again, and said that she had brought her ailing father to the doctor and she had no gas money to get back to her home 30 miles away! (I didn't give her money that time. There's a sucker born every minute, but that's no reason to be a reborn sucker.)



A comment on the "stranger asks for gas money so can go to sick/hurt relative scam". When I lived in Gospel Oak, North London, I answered the door one night to a distressed man saying he lived up the street and needed money because he'd just heard his girlfriend's child had been knocked down by a car and was in hospital some miles away. I gave him a few quid (pounds sterling, to you Americans).

Some months later, I answered the door one night to the same distressed man with the same story... I politely told him I couldn't help and shut the door.

A couple of months after that, I answered the door one night — I'm sure you've guessed it. Yes, the same man, the same story. I explained to him that as this was the third time he'd tried the same trick, I was not only not going to give him any money, but I was going to call the police. He seemed stunned — couldn't understand how I could have mistaken him for anyone else — but when I was unmoved, he disappeared sharpish. Not only did I recognise him, but the story (and the delivery) was identical every time.



The first time I ran into the scam was immediately before a church service in a small, rural church I was serving at the time. The organist had already begun playing the introit when a young woman rushed into the church entry, looking quite distressed. Seems that she was desperate to get to her sick cousin's bedside in a town a hundred miles away, but doubted that she had enough gas left to make it to the town just down the road. The easy thing would have been to give her ten or twenty bucks and get on with the church service, but I told her that if she would just wait - or come join us for the service - I would personally drive her to see her cousin immediately after the service, wait for her, and make sure she had enough gas to return home after we got back. Saying she just couldn't wait that long, she quickly departed.

Being a bit suspicious, I called several other pastors in the town up the road after church that day. The same young woman had shown up at three of the churches (immediately before services were to begin at all three) and used the same story. At two of them, ushers took up a quick collection for her.



I've also been approached in the street a couple of times by people with very similar stories. I'm afraid they got nothing from me — thanks to my late night caller.

This is not a FOAF story. It happened to me.
Two of our readers told us about policies their local churches had adopted to both ensure help was made available to those truly in need yet safeguard their congregants' offerings from scam artists playing the 'distressed stranger' game:
For those in distress we have come up with a system that works for us. All the churches in Gainesville, Texas has joined an alliance. When someone needs food, gas, housing, etc. we send them to the police station. We call ahead to let the police know they are coming and to give a voucher if cleared. The police do a search and if truely in need give them a voucher, not money, for food, motel, gas etc.



My rule became to NEVER give cash, but to do everything in my power to provide whatever other kind of material assistance was requested, and I shared this policy with my parishioners and other pastors. By following this policy, we were able to help many times when people actually did need to have prescriptions purchased, food, gas, rent or utilities paid, etc. We would go to the drugstore with them to purchase the prescription, go to the gas station and pump the gas for them, serve a meal, go to the utility company or landlord and pay bills - but never, ever give anyone a single dime in cash. Naturally, when such an offer of direct aid is made, a number of the people I encountered who claimed they needed help found some reason why it wouldn't work: they were in too much of a hurry, the office/store/pharmacy was closed, etc. In those cases the response was always, "Sorry, but we simply can't give cash. We'll do anything else we can, but we won't give you cash."
Our desire to believe what we've been told coupled with our urge to perform occasional good deeds leaves us vulnerable to the 'distressed stranger' con. We take folks 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.

Given that the con artists working "Stranger in distress" cons are making their livings at churning out one touching tale after another, their come-ons are often quite believable. Our ability to filter often proves no protection.

The underlying message of the physician's account of her experience at a gas station in Denver is the good of heart should look for opportunities to help their fellow man and when they see them, act upon them. While that is a praiseworthy endeavor to undertake, those so motivated need also consider that the not-so-good of heart are simultaneously out there looking for them.

Barbara "help wanted" Mikkelson

How To Avoid Falling Victim To 'Distressed Stranger' Scams:
    These sorts of scam 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 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 rides 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.
Last updated:   27 February 2012

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Sources:

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