Scam, Quick Ripoff, or Just Kids at the Mall?
March 28, 2014 4:00 PM   Subscribe

So I was sitting in a common area at our local mall while my wife was shopping. I was checking mail on my phone, and a couple of young men, somewhere between 18 and 22, I would say, came up to me. One of them had an old-looking iPhone in his hand. He asked if he could use my phone to "call his mom," since his phone had no SIM card in it. He offered to let me hold this phone as "security" while he made the call. I just waved them off with a shake of my head and they sorta stomped/wandered off. I have been debriefing this with myself for the last hour or so.

This was a quick decision, but now I am wondering what sort of scam it might have been, if indeed it was a scam.

Possibilities: 1. They could have just run off with my phone, leaving me with a worthless/stolen replacement (I am in really good shape so I probably would have caught them.) 2. Maybe they could have dialed some sort of evil code into my phone, wreaking havoc. 3. The kid just needed to call his mom.

Is there a known scam related to this? I recently got ripped off pretty bad in France for the sole reason that I did not have my wits about me. So my default has been to be very careful.

Was I just telling them to get the hell off my lawn, or dodging a bullet here?
posted by Danf to Technology (34 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I feel like they were probably going to take off with your phone. Why would anyone be walking around the mall with an iPhone without a SIM card...?
posted by cyml at 4:05 PM on March 28 [18 favorites]

Well, what's on your phone, with passwords already entered? Because you were giving them your unlocked phone, so if they were to get away (and assuming that they would be caught, so they had that planned out), you'd have to get somewhere to change all your passwords et cetera before they wreaked havoc on your life.

I say, good call. Next time, if you're feeling generous, you could ask for the number, and call on speaker, never turning over possession of the phone. But I would have done what you did.

Bullet dodged.
posted by China Grover at 4:08 PM on March 28 [2 favorites]

Sounds like a scam to me. Offering a security when you haven't even accepted their offer sounds like something from The Gift of Fear. If they were in dire enough straits, they could have walked into any of the stores in the mall and asked to use their phone. I'm having difficulty believing that neither of the two of them had a phone they could use to call someone.
posted by Solomon at 4:09 PM on March 28 [9 favorites]

If they'd have been 12 or even 15, I'd have perhaps beaten myself up over this, but 18-22? Those are grownups. There's no way of knowing -- they might have stolen your phone, cloned it (that's a thing, right?), distracted you with the phone stuff while the other guy picked your pocket, whatever. If there'd been an emergency, the mall office would have let them use the phone even if none of the stores would have. Add me to the growing list saying that you made the right decision.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 4:16 PM on March 28 [5 favorites]

My gut says you made the right call. As others have said: who goes out the door with a cell phone with no SIM? What are the odds two teens both don't have a working cell phone? Why do they already have a "security" plan before approaching you? And, if it was truly an emergency, they could use a store's landline or ask mall security for help.
posted by bluecore at 4:16 PM on March 28 [3 favorites]

Sounds fishy to me. If he really needed to use a phone, he could have asked to use the phone at the information desk or a store.

Besides, it's good sense to never let strangers touch anything you don't want stolen, no matter what their intentions are.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:20 PM on March 28 [6 favorites]

I feel like there is a somewhat weird cultural sense around asking to use someone's phone that makes it feel like it's a reasonable favor that you should somehow feel guilty for denying someone. Maybe because phones used to be cheaper and have less personal information on them? That's not true these days. If someone asked if they could just hold onto your WALLET for five minutes, you would recognize it for the ridiculous request that it is. Your phone would probably cost $500 to replace, and likely has tons of personal information on it (I know mine has all my email, an app that links into my bank account, passwords, direct access for someone to post to my Facebook and Twitter accounts, ability to purchase items on Amazon, etc.) Regardless of the reason/need, it is unreasonable for someone to ask you to simply hand over something that valuable, just as it would be unreasonable for them to ask you to hand over $500, your wallet, your bank statement, etc. You don't need to feel guilty!
posted by rainbowbrite at 4:27 PM on March 28 [29 favorites]

Hmm, not one of them had a working phone? I don't buy it.
posted by cecic at 4:29 PM on March 28 [1 favorite]

you did the right thing. there are bad people out there, and these two fit the profile. i would have told them to fuck off.
posted by bruce at 4:30 PM on March 28 [2 favorites]

Why would anyone be walking around the mall with an iPhone without a SIM card...?

A good number of kids at my son's high school have hand-me-down iPhones w/o SIM cards. They work just fine on Wi-Fi: FaceTime or Skype for calls, iMessage and 3rd party texting apps) for texting, games etc. It's essentially an iPod Touch.

However, that said, I wouldn't hand over my cellphone to a stranger to make a call either, especially not an expensive and personal-information-laden smartphone.
posted by jamaro at 4:36 PM on March 28 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I have let a kid at a ski resort call their parent on my phone because theirs had a dead battery, and I (note the "I") dialed a students parents for him the other day on my phone because he didn't have one and needed to stay late....handing your phone over to someone?? At the mall? Who's a legal adult? No. Too weird. Not worth the risk...
posted by bquarters at 4:40 PM on March 28 [1 favorite]

I feel like there is a somewhat weird cultural sense around asking to use someone's phone that makes it feel like it's a reasonable favor that you should somehow feel guilty for denying someone.

It's not just phones and this is an old, old, ruse. "Let me skate your board." "Can I ride your bike for a sec?" are age-old intros to people just running off with the thing. OLD.

A street-smart response would be to have him tell you his mom's number and you'd call and relay a message to her yourself, but, you know, you did the right thing anyway.
posted by rhizome at 4:41 PM on March 28 [12 favorites]

"If you can't afford to lose it, you can't afford to lend it". That axiom has served me well over the years. People generally take as much care over something as it cost them to get that something.

I would very likely make a call for someone if they asked to use my phone. I wouldn't let them hold it. If someone balks at me making the call for them, they're obviously not that desperate to have the call made.
posted by Solomon at 4:41 PM on March 28 [4 favorites]

I feel like there is a somewhat weird cultural sense around asking to use someone's phone that makes it feel like it's a reasonable favor that you should somehow feel guilty for denying someone.

Few people (does anyone?) have party lines any more. But most states still have something like this on the books:

Massachusetts' law on refusing to yield a party line in an emergency
posted by Hatashran at 4:59 PM on March 28 [1 favorite]

A few months ago, driving alone, I pulled off the road to a deserted viewpoint, about 3am at night. A beater car followed me off the road and parked nearby. A group of shady-looking young men in baggy pants all got out, came over to me and asked if they could use my phone, because none of them had working phones and they needed to find where their friends were, after having split when the cops showed up (the impression I got was street racer scene).

So, plenty of reason to be concerned (but I also have a lot of privilege I can use) so I got my phone out, and asked the number to dial - doing the courtesy of dialing it myself meant I could check if they at least knew a number. (After being given the number. I asked for the area code, then for the number again, it was the same each time, among other appearances that things were legit, despite the potentially dangerous situation.)

So it turned out they just needed to call their friends to find out where they'd gone, exactly as they said.

In the common area of a mall, I would not be worried about theft - like you said "I am in really good shape so I probably would have caught them." and that would be apparent to them beforehand.

In that environment, I think it was most likely a legitimate request.
But I think people understand that most phones these days are too valuable (in multiple ways) to lend, and shouldn't be surprised if someone declines, or if they accept but will hold the phone during the call. I don't think you dodged a bullet, but I don't think it was a foul either.
posted by anonymisc at 5:25 PM on March 28

You should report them to mall security.

Yes, they were going to rob or scam you in some fashion. They would not need to run off with your phone to do something shady with the data on the device.
posted by jbenben at 5:27 PM on March 28

Oh, c'mon -- as if 'mall security' is going to do anything. Their mission is to protect the owners' investments, not customer property.

Yes, you did the right thing. My own reaction would be to laugh in their face, while waving them off.
posted by Rash at 5:40 PM on March 28 [1 favorite]

Kid could have used a landline in one of the stores. Next time, suggest that as you begin to turn and walk away.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:17 PM on March 28

I would have assumed this was a theft attempt. Then again, that one time I accidentally locked myself out of my house at 4am, in my pajamas, in the middle of winter, I'm really glad that the random dude I caught on his way to work trusted me enough to lend me his phone so I could call my wife to let me back inside.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:21 PM on March 28 [3 favorites]

i've had people ask to use my phone. No one uses my phone but me. Why? It is not a phone it is a computer worth $300 The answer is always no. Sometimes I direct people to a pay phone or a place of business if it is an emergency. you made the right move. i don't trust anyone. it is sad, but it is just the way it is in todays modern world.
posted by Jewel98 at 6:34 PM on March 28 [2 favorites]

I can imagine cases in which I would agree to let a stranger use my phone. This would not be one of those cases. It just feels off -- and they're in a mall, it's not an emergency, so if you guessed wrong you aren't dooming them.

My guess is that if they had any phone at all, it would be an iPhone so old it is worthless, and the would run off with yours, conveniently unlocked for them. But I'm not sure.
posted by jeather at 7:01 PM on March 28

am i really the only one that would have let these guys use my phone? i suppose it depends on how nervous and twitchy they looked, but if they seemed legit, i would totally let them make a call if their story seemed legit. you're in a mall - the likelihood that they take off and cause a huge scene is low when they could do this in a park and be gone right away without mall security (or whatevs) and a shouting match. not everyone is out to get us all the time. of course your own personal vibe of the situation is fine, and it's cool that you didn't lend it to them (it's your phone and your choice, after all) but i bet it was just some guys needing to call someone.
posted by andreapandrea at 8:17 PM on March 28 [2 favorites]

It sounds sketchy, but perhaps that is because, when I approach someone about a phone, I ask them if they can call the person for me. If someone asks for my phone, I offer to call and talk to the person and relay any info, but I don't lend my phone. It seems somewhat unlikely that somebody would steal a phone in a mall, so it is possible these guys just needed to use a phone. If it happens again, I'd just offer to make the call and talk to the person for them.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 9:19 PM on March 28

Come to think of it, my approach is leftover from when I was a kid. We were always told that, if someone comes to the door and asks you to call - even if they have been in a bad accident - you should keep them outside and go back in and make the call, in case it's a scam.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 9:20 PM on March 28

Yes, I was thinking about the same thing. I remember clearly being told to close and lock the door, then call the police yourself. Sounds like a similar scam.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 10:30 PM on March 28

In the common area of a mall, I would not be worried about theft - like you said "I am in really good shape so I probably would have caught them." and that would be apparent to them beforehand.

This thinking is a great way to get scammed: even if you really look so fast that they wouldn't dare outrun you, there's tons of other ways they could approach this like passing the phone between several accomplishes to the point where you don't know who to chase, or having someone pick your pocket while you are distracted by the phone.
posted by Dr Dracator at 10:44 PM on March 28 [8 favorites]

This is a common scam in LA. They hand you a non-working phone (or sometimes an iPod Touch) and then run off with yours.

My easy way of telling if it's a scammer: "Oh, you want to call your mom? I'll call her for you. You just stand right there and tell me what you need me to say. That's OK, right?" If it's legit, they are totally OK with this. If it's not, they get snarly and leave.
posted by rednikki at 12:11 PM on March 29

Oh, c'mon -- as if 'mall security' is going to do anything. Their mission is to protect the owners' investments, not customer property.

Part of the owners' investment is keeping a safe reputation for the mall. Customers will stop showing up to buy things if a mall gets a reputation as a place where people get robbed, pickpocketed, etc. I think mall security would be very interested to hear descriptions of people pulling this scam, so they could escort them off the premises.

I agree that you did the right thing. With all this hindsight time to consider, I think I would respond with, "Sorry, but I can show you where the mall security desk is, I'm sure they'd let you use their phone."
posted by vytae at 4:43 PM on March 29

Yeah, this is a common scam, and they would have just grabbed your phone and run. The phone they were offering was either broken or stolen from somebody else, or they had some plan for getting it back off you. Worst case scenario was you chase them into an alley where their mates are waiting. People like this usually have perfected their routine through frequent repetition, there's not much point in trying to out-con them. You should just not engage with them (ie you did exactly the right thing).

Incidentally, anyone asking for 20p for the phone, or change for £1, or anything like that (change currency as appropriate) is pulling a similar scam and is after your wallet.
posted by tinkletown at 4:48 PM on March 29

When I was young and dumb and just moved to Chicago, I let a (seemingly homeless?) person use my phone on the street. They didn't run away with it, but it was kind of gross (I don't want anyone else's face/spittle on my phone, homeless or not, people have herpes and lice and flu and shit) and afterward I was like "WHAT AN IDIOT I AM" because seriously like $400 and this was before I had all my email and everything on my phone. So idk, I think you did the right thing.
posted by stoneandstar at 7:07 PM on March 29

If I were going to let a stranger use my phone I would ask to hold their wallets with all their ID and credit cards, not their broken phone.
posted by CathyG at 10:33 PM on March 29 [2 favorites]

The 2011 Swedish film Play centres around a similar scam in a shopping mall. It begins with a group of street-smart guys asking a couple of middle-class, younger boys for the time. When they get out a phone to look, one of the bigger gang claims that it looks like his brother's phone, recently stolen, and he takes the phone off them.
posted by cincinnatus c at 11:15 AM on March 30

Good instincts. They asked you in a way that created social pressure for you to comply, and made a request that might have put you at risk. It's totally, 100% completely okay to question the motives of people who do this. Double-plus true if the people in question are strangers, and if you appear vulnerable in any way.
posted by Flipping_Hades_Terwilliger at 12:51 PM on March 31 [1 favorite]

I'm not entirely sure it's a scam, but it's happened to me. It occurred at my local mall as well and involved two guys in their late teens. Both nicely dressed. One asked to use my phone and let me hold onto his DS as collateral. He used my phone for maybe 2-3 minutes - to call up his drug dealer to arrange a meet-up, as I overheard.

I no longer let random strangers use my phone.
posted by stubbehtail at 3:06 PM on March 31

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