Sketchy encounter while jogging, what now? How do I avoid future confrontations like these?
November 4, 2009 8:38 PM   Subscribe

A lady used my cell phone to call her boyfriend who had just taken her gas money and left; it seemed like a normal (err, kinda) situation until she told me not to tell anyone I saw or talked to her. Should I report this somehow, or am I overreacting?

I stepped out for a jog around 9PM as I hadn't been out for a while. After my first lap around the part of the neighborhood I jog in, I received a text and promptly pulled out my cell phone (yes, I'm a teenager). When I did so, a lady on the side of the road came over and wanted to use my cell, going on about how her boyfriend left her here with no ride or anything.

Apparently he drove over to pick her up, took a small amount of cash from her to use for gas, and then left her to go somewhere else -- I didn't catch where, it was either his dad's or his brother's place, the lady was talking too fast for me to keep up. She kept freaking out, wanting to go over to his place to see if he was really there. She also went on about how she needed a ride there, but when I suggested calling someone she knew she didn't really seem to have anyone to call, as she would ignore me or say something vague (like "yeah...").

The lady dialed and redialed her boyfriend's number using *67 multiple times (the counter on my phone went up to around 14, and she also had me delete the number off my recent calls list a few times), despite that half the time it went to voicemail due to him shutting the phone off. She seemed pretty distressed, so I just let her have the phone whenever she asked to call again, though eventually I got pretty uncomfortable.

It all seemed normal (ish) until she started asking questions that put me on the defensive -- she asked if I had an older brother or friend who could drive her over (not that personal, but I'm a minor so this was a bit iffy, didn't seem appropriate for her to do) and where I lived.

Then, the first time she seemed like she was about to leave, she said to me, "Don't call the cops on me, 'kay?" and laughed a bit, trying to play it off like it was a joke. When she actually did leave, she told me not to tell anyone in the neighborhood I saw or spoke to her, which set a multitude of alarms off in my head.

So, MeFi, here are my questions:

1) Should I actively do something to alert someone, whether it be parents (I'm a minor) or authorities about this situation? If so, who, and what main points do I need to focus on or say?

2) Do I have a legitimate reason to be worried about this, or am I just a little shaken because she started asking personal questions, and her little comments near the end?

3) Should I be worried about my personal safety? Not only because of her remarks not to tell anyone, namely the cops, but also because while we were standing around several cars drove by; quite a few slowed down a lot, and though she seemed to recognize a few "neighbors" or "friends," they didn't stop for her. Also, should I worry about someone having my phone number, despite that she used *67 to dial with?

4) How do I avoid situations like this in the future? By this, I mean, how can I get myself to firmly reject someone's request for help? I don't mean to be an ass, but after a few minutes of standing there with her on my phone, I realized what a stupid choice I made -- interacting with a stranger at night, handing over a personal belonging, and then not being able muster the nerve to ask for my cell back, saying I have to leave and be on my way, etc.

One last little question, though this is just to satisfy my paranoia: do I have to worry about transmission of anything viral, antibacterial, infectious, so on and so forth, from her using my cell phone? She also put her arm around my back and patted me on the shoulder real quick to demonstrate what her boyfriend did before he kicked her out of the car, what about that? The entire situation just seemed pretty sketchy, I just want to ask to make sure.

Huge thank you, MeFi, for helping me to deal with this situation. I'm just a bit shaken after that weird encounter, and my habit of being paranoid about this kind of stuff, especially germs and strangers, didn't help at all -- plus, I had to walk/run a half a mile home after the whole event. Everytime a car passed I was desperately they wouldn't stop and ask about some lady.

Throwaway email:

Thanks again.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (60 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds shady for sure, but it's over now. I don't think there is anything to report or worry about. You will never see her again, I'd be willing to bet.

re: the future. I got scammed a few times when I was younger, because I was just too polite to walk away, even from shady people. Finally I decided to just start saying "sorry" and walk away (or keep walking.) Don't give an explanation, it will only lead to an argument. You don't really owe any stranger anything- a simple "sorry" or "I can't, I have to go" is more than enough courtesy.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:44 PM on November 4, 2009 [5 favorites]

Her neurotic and paranoid behavior suggest she may have been on drugs. I wouldn't really worry about it now, but you really do need to learn to speak up when you're getting uncomfortable especially in situations with strangers. Like drjimmy suggests, just a simple "sorry" without stopping will do fine. I am an expert in this art. Sometimes I don't say anything depending on my mood. It may feel awkward at first to act like this, but it definitely gets easier with time. It's also safer not to stop and engage with sketchy people. Just a few things to keep in mind for the next time a weird situation occurs.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 8:51 PM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

My interpretation of what happened: there was no boyfriend. The story was manufactured with the goal of getting money from passersby. The phone calls were to her dealer.

How to avoid situations like this in the future: become massively cynical (like me!). Or, just say no and walk away when anyone pushes your personal boundaries.
posted by jamaro at 8:52 PM on November 4, 2009 [5 favorites]

1) Should I actively do something to alert someone, whether it be parents (I'm a minor) or authorities about this situation? If so, who, and what main points do I need to focus on or say?

I wouldn't worry about it. Yes, the whole thing was sketchy, and I'm sure she was up to some shit--drug deal, maybe? But she didn't commit any crime I can think of, and from your story, didn't threaten you. The police don't need to know every time you talk to somebody shady.

You might mention it to your folks, though, if they're the sort not to overreact.

2) Do I have a legitimate reason to be worried about this, or am I just a little shaken because she started asking personal questions, and her little comments near the end?

I can't think of any reason to be worried. She just sounds like a sketchy junkie to me. Just goes in the "don't talk to strangers" evidence bin.

3) Should I be worried about my personal safety? Not only because of her remarks not to tell anyone, namely the cops, but also because while we were standing around several cars drove by; quite a few slowed down a lot, and though she seemed to recognize a few "neighbors" or "friends," they didn't stop for her.

Again. Sketchy junkie trying to look like she's in some sort of legitimate trouble and not just pissed 'cause her dealer threw her out the car when she asked for credit.

Also, should I worry about someone having my phone number, despite that she used *67 to dial with?

Well, maybe somebody has your phone number. If you start getting phonecalls, then maybe there's something to report. But I wouldn't worry about it.

4) How do I avoid situations like this in the future? By this, I mean, how can I get myself to firmly reject someone's request for help?

"I'm sorry, I don't let other people use my phone. I'd be happy to call the police for you, or a taxi, if you'd like."
posted by Netzapper at 8:54 PM on November 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

Sounds like a pretty "as you'd expect it to go" encounter with somebody like that if you let it get that fair. Nothing happened to you, why would you need to call the cops? Maybe it was weirder than you state, since you're actually shaken up by it. In any event, I'd still lean towards "there's nothing to be done here".
posted by floam at 8:58 PM on November 4, 2009

I'm probably a cynic from living in the city too long, but this is my assessment:
She may or may not have been kicked out of a car. She was most likely on drugs. She wanted a ride to get more drugs. If you (or someone else) had given her a ride, she probably would've asked to borrow the missing "gas" money. (I've gotten the "missing gas money" at least fifty times in the city I'm living). Of course, this money would've been used to buy more drugs. She may have been calling her boyfriend or maybe it was just her drug dealer who was ducking her because he knew she was out of money. Her fear about the police was probably related to the drug aspect. There's nothing really to report.

I'm often sad about the breakdown in civility and kindness in cities, but the unfortunate truth is sometimes you must firewall yourself from scammers or time wasters. In the future, you could run with headphones. Headphones often give off the signal of "leave me alone". I'd stop if you see someone genuinely in need of help, but if it turns into a scammer like this, I'd say "Sorry, I really need to get back to my run. Good luck!" and start moving.
posted by sharkfu at 8:59 PM on November 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

Sure, tell your parents, just to get it on record. Don't give up the phone in the future, tho, if someone needs help, 911 will work (my teenage son handed over a phone to a person that said they had an "emergency", phone was gone forever, they drove away, they had transpo).
Sounds like adult on "drugs". Always try to help if you can but stay out of the way at the same time. Next time, say you are "not allowed" (works for adults too, many "controlling" spouses out there) to share your phone, but will call for help.
Don't worry about germs. Germs are everywhere... wash your hands, and I mean that literally, then sleep well at night.
Take care.
posted by bebrave! at 9:00 PM on November 4, 2009

And the important part. Lesson learned: don't humor sketchy people that approach you on the street.
posted by floam at 9:00 PM on November 4, 2009

I would be shaken too! Why not talk it over with your parents; they may have a better bead on neighborhoods and whether there has been anything weird going on in that area in the news etc. Maybe you can talk about your jogging route if you're feeling sketched out by that area now. Plus talking it over in person may help you to think about what you'd do in future encounters, rehearse saying "i have to go, good luck" or whatever.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:01 PM on November 4, 2009

Yeah, this happens.

I once lent my phone to a young man who needed to call his parents to tell them that he was safe but late. Except that once he'd gotten through to them, he didn't tell them who was calling or where he was. Then, when he gave the phone back to me, he told me that he didn't want to give out any information about his identity or location because the Chinese Communists were listening in on phones to try to track him, because he had secrets encoded into his thought waves that could bring down the PRC.

Nobody ever called me back from the number he called.

You've just had an interaction with someone whose sense of reality is different to the one you're in. You're safe, you're not going to get phone germs, and you've got a good story to tell your friends.

And you shouldn't feel ashamed about letting a woman left by herself at night use your phone, by the way. That's just good manners.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 9:01 PM on November 4, 2009 [10 favorites]

Drugs, definitely.

Normal, non-drug addicted people don't act like she was acting.

Unfortunately, you are too young --- and almost certainly too sheltered --- to see the warning signs of people like her. Once you've been around for a while, you can spot a drug addict a mile away, blindfolded.
posted by jayder at 9:02 PM on November 4, 2009

Like drjimmy suggests, just a simple "sorry" without stopping will do fine.

This is a very good point.

However, in my incessant dealings with the Philly bums, I found that saying "sorry"--especially if you sound like you mean it--often annoyed them. "Sorry my ass, motherfucker!"

What I found infinitely better was just looking at them, without breaking stride, and saying "no" with exactly the same tone of voice and inflection you'd use to say "sure!". Happy, bright, cheerful, casual, friendly. But unmistakably "no". It causes a little bit of cognitive dissonance that seems to throw hustlers off their game.

Once I adopted this approach, the number of bums and junkies who'd curse or follow after me dropped to nearly zero.
posted by Netzapper at 9:02 PM on November 4, 2009 [6 favorites]

It sounds like it was somewhat of a sketchy situation, but I don't think you were in any danger at any point. She was probably high, or she might have just been a really selfish person. If you can't shake the "something's wrong!" vibes, jot down a few notes about the encounter (time, place, what she looked like, what happened, etc.) on the off chance something illegal did happen. You can tell your parents if you want, but I really don't think you have anything to worry about.

About your bigger question about how to avoid this situation in the future, the best way to extract yourself from an uncomfortable situation is to be firm. You don't owe the person an explanation for why you have to leave; keep it to something simple and firm like what drjimmy11 suggested. My first instinct is always to over-explain: "I'm sorry, you can't have my cell phone. My parents are expecting me to be home now so I can't stay." Don't do that. Inevitably the person will try to work around your excuse and then you're stuck.

As you experience more of these weird experiences (it's not if but when) you'll get better at sizing them up and figure out how quickly you need to extract yourself. Trust your instincts; you don't owe it to anyone to put yourself in potential danger because you're afraid of offending someone.
posted by lilac girl at 9:05 PM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

I doubt you have anything long term to worry about, and drug use seems probable. As Obi-Wan tells look, "Trust your feelings." Listen to those instincts when you begin to feel uncomfortable and exit stage right. You'll feel socially obligated to exit politely. If a polite exit is possible fine, if not exit anyway. A Predator will manipulate social etiquette and expectations to control your behavior until you're money, etc is gone or you're trapped and at their mercy.
posted by MasonDixon at 9:05 PM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

1. If you want to, you can tell your parents. They are probably going to lecture you about letting a random, erratic acting lady use your cell phone.
2. Probably the only thing you should be worried about is if this lady sees you again and remembers you and decides that you are her pal. She doesn't sound dangerous, but it sounds like she could be mentally ill or a crackhead or just really needy and clingy and looking for someone to do stuff for her. Just avoid jogging that exact route for awhile. If you see the lady again, you can always pretend you don't know her.
3. Your are most likely fine, but in the future, pay attention to your discomfort in situations like this. Your intuition is telling you something. If this lady was visibly injured or in trouble, you could have offered to call the police or an ambulance for her. Otherwise, keep trucking because you don't need to get involved in what sounds like personal drama. You do not have to stop, interact with or make eye contact with strangers unless you really feel like it.
4. See above. Use your intuition. Don't be afraid to be demanding or rude. Be very aware of your surroundings at all times.

You could wipe your phone down with an antibacterial wipe if you are worried.
posted by pluckysparrow at 9:06 PM on November 4, 2009

She was trying to score. If her boyfriend existed, he was going to buy and she wanted to make sure he came back for her.
posted by electroboy at 9:06 PM on November 4, 2009

You can always call the cops; doing so will either resolve a potentially bad situarion or get shady people to leave you alone/leave the area. That said, you can also ignore people. Unfortunately, you are often going to run into people that want something from you, and most of the time those people are looking to con you out of your money or possessions. I don't mean to scare you, but they figure you for an easy mark because (1) you are a minor and (2) you are a friendly-looking, somewhat distracted (jogging), young woman. If anything like this sketches you out, just leave (if sketchy people arrive at your door, tell your folks and/or the cops).

You ran into some junkie who used your phone to annoy the shit out of her dealer. Should you start getting a lot of calls from an unknown number, you'll need to change yours; a few calls that you allow straight to voicemail will usually allow any dealer to figure out that you were just a passerby and thus not worth further solicitation, and you can keep the number.

Definitely tell your parents, but this is not worth going to the police about at this point.

By this, I mean, how can I get myself to firmly reject someone's request for help?

It's easier for me as a I'm a guy with a somewhat pissed off-looking default expression, but what works for me is just cutting people off mid-sentence.

"Excuse me, excuse me sir, can you spare-"

"Can you lend-"

"Would you like to buy-"

It's a difficult type of situation to navigate, but there are points at which "I'm calling the police now" and doing it immediately is the best way to just get a sketchy person to fuck off.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 9:08 PM on November 4, 2009

As my mom used to say:
"One of the joys of getting older is the ability to tell people to go to hell in such a way, as to leave them eager to pack their bags."

You'll learn.
posted by Acacia at 9:13 PM on November 4, 2009 [8 favorites]

Where I live, the really popular one is:

"Excuse me, sir, could I ask you a question?"

To which the answer is always "No."
posted by jayder at 9:16 PM on November 4, 2009

Ha! Ha!

Like Netzapper, I look at these folks and cheerfully say, "No, thank you!" without breaking my stride.

Totally confuses them. Or if they understood "no" straight away, they're not angry.

Works. Every. Time.
posted by jbenben at 9:19 PM on November 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

There are a few plausible scenarios outlined above. She was either on drugs or needing more (enough drug use can make you act like you're high when you're not); the boyfriend either didn't exist or was on his way to buy. Either way, her story was bullshit, you're lucky she didn't ask you for money, and it's a lesson learned. It was a good thing, in my opinion, that you tried to help her. You never know when someone is genuinely in a spot. But you should have cut it off earlier. When the behaviour turns wacky, there's no need to waste your time further. And there's no need to report anything to the cops.
posted by Dasein at 9:20 PM on November 4, 2009

Was the area code someplace reasonable?

There are phone numbers that can charge huge amounts of money.

I've never heard of a scam involving this before, but new ones emerge every day.
posted by joshu at 9:22 PM on November 4, 2009

It may be a scam you'll learn about later on too. One evening a guy approached me at a gas station, while I was pumping gas. I was about 18. He said he'd swipe his credit card for me if I could give him $20 in cash... he needed cash. I told the truth, which was that I'd already paid at the pump with my credit card and didn't have any cash. A couple of years down the road I read online about situations like this and learned that the credit card was probably stolen.

Although drugs are a very good possibility in your case, so maybe it wasn't just a scam, but she was freaking out about a drug deal like others said.

Yes, do practice saying no to strangers. Next time just offer to call the cops for her or anyone in distress.
posted by IndigoRain at 9:26 PM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Scary time! I'm glad you're ok, and asking intelligent questions to help yourself in the future!

I would be aware of any breaking news in your city or town, missing persons or drive-bys or the like, but this incident is so minor, there's nothing the police would do or say anyway. Write out a description of the woman, as well as the event, as you did here. That will help a bit if you do need to tell the police about this in the future. If she is a known or previously arrested person, it may be sufficient for the police to identify her.

Unless she's violating a restraining order, there's no reason she can't call someone. Mainly her actions strike me as paranoid, of the sort that drug users are prone to! I doubt she would even remember you, much less care. She might remember that some nice person let her use a phone.... It may be that the people in those cars couldn't see your face, and won't be able to identify you as you don't regularly associate with "that sort", so I would just not go to that area for a week or two if you can avoid it, but after that, I think you'd be fine!

I applaud you for helping your fellow human in distress, that is a good thing. However after dark, and being a minor, I think it IS wise for you to develop a sense of discretion. You can act like you don't hear them (I use this tactic for panhandlers most of the time. If I feel truly snarky, I will say, without making eye contact, that panhandling is illegal in Los Angeles. It is a law here that you cannot ask a person verbally and directly for money. That empowers me to say no!). Continue to walk PURPOSEFULLY in one direction. Stay in well-lit areas. If you feel unsafe, get out your keys and hold them so they poke out from between your fingers. A punch or scratch like that is quite effective! Act deaf or like you have an mp3 player on, but stay VERY aware of your surroundings.

If ignoring the person doesn't feel safe, or the person is all in your face, look around for an adult. Head towards the adult, especially if they are a large male who is NOT with the person bugging you. Keep some "personal space" between you and the stranger. Head for a group of people, or find out where the local police or fire departments are. There are helpful people there 24/7. If someone attacks you, remember, it's best to yell, "FIRE!" instead of rape or stranger danger! People will look and see if you yell fire, that has been proven!! Go into a store, even knock on a door if you truly feel unsafe! A teenager alone asking for help calmly and politely, especially if the person harassing is you is standing nearby and acting all crazy might seem strange, but the person answering the door would be more willing to help you than the crazy adult!

If you feel icky or nervous about letting a stranger use your phone, it's ok to lie and tell them it doesn't make outgoing calls, or that the battery is dead. If you want to help, tell them that YOU will call FOR them, but aren't comfortable with just handing over your phone.

Once you start "helping" a person like that, it's VERY hard to disengage. The best thing is to NOT get involved, I know. But until you have the skills or size to convince people to stop, it's best to just say NO! Maybe let them know where they can find a payphone... I know, that's getting harder to do nowadays... You have EVERY right to protect yourself, they do NOT have the right to get in your face and frighten you!

If you have or can get, or even borrow, a dog, do so! My dog was very friendly, but he looked enough like a shepherd, and was VERY well trained, so people were hesitant to even ask me what time it was! A good sized dog as a jogging buddy would be ideal for you both! Otherwise, don't go out after dark alone....

As far as her touching the phone, I would give it a good wipe with an alcohol towelette, let it dry, and not worry about it! Most diseases aren't going to be transmittable in the open air from just a hug. Unless she was blatantly coughing and obviously sick, you should be fine!

(Which may be another way to keep people from bugging you nowadays: Play sick! If someone like this accosts you, start coughing and sounding congested, fake sneezes, say, "bleah... I don't feel good..."

If you feel bad about "leaving her in the lurch", perhaps you can offer to walk her to a safer place, again staying in well lit areas and on main roads. With her seeming to know all these people driving by, you might tell her to wave one of them down as they are IN cars. Insist that you cannot help her any further if you are uncomfortable, and that you RE leaving, and then GO!

As far as her touching you, that is ASSAULT! If this had escalated, you could have pressed charges against her. That's not always the best thing, as then they are angry, arrested, and able to find out who you are! Anyway, politely and calmly say, "Please don't touch me." You have that right. Wave her off. Step aside, duck away. It's ok to not want to be touched by a complete stranger, especially after dark! Don't cower, just dodge them like it's nothing. They may get the message. If they are really stoned or drunk, they may fall over or stagger, giving you more room and time to disengage. If you can ascertain that they are drunk or stoned, step away, apologize, and resume your jog. Chances are good that they will be unable to follow!

Good luck in the future, and remember, you have the RIGHT and RESPONSIBILITY to protect yourself FIRST!
posted by Jinx of the 2nd Law at 9:27 PM on November 4, 2009

I just always say "no, sorry" when people ask me if I can buy them gas (classic scam) or spare change. Just be calm and firm and you'll be fine. Claiming you don't have cash on you works too.
posted by Slinga at 9:39 PM on November 4, 2009

I would be aware of any breaking news in your city or town, missing persons or drive-bys

I feel inclined to tell the OP that she doesn't need to be this scared. I think this is some worry-wortism that's only going to make the OP more nervous. Seriously — monitor the airwaves over something that happens thousands of times every day in his or her city? The only thing that I found remotely odd about this encounter was how long she let it go on, but advise like that is overkill.

… If you have or can get, or even borrow, a dog, do so!
… remember, it's best to yell, "FIRE!" instead of rape or stranger danger!
… Go into a store, even knock on a door
… that is ASSAULT!

I'm sure this is all good and true, but in the domain of this experience the poster actually had, I've got to say, nobody is going to get along well if they worry about these kinds of things whenever a transient or drug dealer tries to eek something out of them. Perhaps this commenter thinks that by arming people with knowledge like this could make the OP feel more confident in general, but all this tactical defensiveness seems like it's only going to lead to fear.
posted by floam at 9:43 PM on November 4, 2009 [8 favorites]

This smelled like a scam from the second sentence, sorry. All the *67 stuff was pretty bizarre.

Quick advice - next time a total stranger asks to make a call using your cell phone, if you feel you must consent, offer to do it only if you dial the number yourself.

I used to live in quite possibly the scammiest place on earth (*cough* Tampa *cough*) and that tuned my Scamdar right good. My rule of thumb was: strangers with convoluted stories of ditching and desperation were pulling a game, period.
posted by contessa at 9:43 PM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

For future reference, don't ever let someone you don't know use your cell phone, make the call for them. If they aren't okay with that, it isn't worth the trouble.
posted by 517 at 9:46 PM on November 4, 2009

call your cell phone company to see if there are any crazy charges
posted by randomstriker at 9:50 PM on November 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

This used to happen regularly where I used to live. Either she genuinely was distressed or, far more likely is that she was scamming you:

A woman will knock on a door or find a stranger in a neighborhood that looks like a good mark, young and/or sympathetic. She says she's been stranded and has no money for a bus or taxi and will ask for a ride. If she can figure out where you live and you give her a ride, her partner who is hidden around the corner watching will roll up and break into your house while you're driving her around.

Now, mind you, there are people in genuine distress, but be wary of helping if the feeling you're getting is putting you off. Your gut feelings are there for a reason - you won't always be right if you go with your gut, but be careful anyway.
posted by neewom at 9:51 PM on November 4, 2009

The most important thing you can take away from this experience is that when you have a bad feeling about, or intuition to stay away from, a person or situation, ALWAYS listen to it. That's your number one best defense against this kind of weirdness--to avoid it in the first place as much as possible.
posted by so_gracefully at 9:59 PM on November 4, 2009

For the future, you also might want to check out De Becker's The Gift of Fear, a book commonly recommended here for various questions about personal safety. From the description: "The book teaches how to identify the warning signals of a potential attacker and recommends strategies for dealing with the problem before it becomes life threatening." Should be available in your public library.

Being aware of your surroundings and internal signals is very important, and I think that the things De Becker says can help you to get a better read on situations, without becoming overly paranoid.
posted by thebrokedown at 10:15 PM on November 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

People who need directions or spare change are usually pretty direct at stating their needs.

Hustlers, on the other hand, usually start with something like "excuse me, can I ask you a question?" "excuse me, can you help me?" "excuse me, I'm in a bit of a bind". It like a quick test to slow you down and see how polite or pliable you may be. If you find yourself wondering for an instant what this person wants from you, just talk over their patter with, "I can't stop right now"...and don't apologise.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:57 PM on November 4, 2009 [5 favorites]

4) How do I avoid situations like this in the future? By this, I mean, how can I get myself to firmly reject someone's request for help?

A line that I've found really useful when accosted on the street is "not now" or "not today," followed by briskly walking away. It's not an absolute rejection, but makes clear that I am not going to give that person what they want right now. (And so far, nobody has ever chased me down the street demanding to set up a future appointment for the collection of spare change.) In a situation like the one you were in, it implies that there's not necessarily anything wrong with her request, but it gets you out of feeling like you have to give in to that request on the spot.

One thing you have to remember, at any time when you are feeling creeped out or just "not right" about a situation, is that all kinds of sketchy people will abuse social norms to get what they want from you. They will ask you for seemingly small favors and you will feel obligated to give in because you're a nice person and you're in the habit of helping people out when you can. They will ask you personal questions and you will feel obligated to respond truthfully because you are in the habit of responding to small-talk questions in normal social settings. It feels rude to say "no" and it feels rude to ignore someone's questions. But if the situation seems sketchy, please remember that you are NOT, in fact, under any obligation to play along when someone tries to lead you down one of these familiar avenues of social interaction. This woman was abusing social norms, relying on the expectation that you would follow her leads. Recognizing that kind of abuse for what it is has really helped me get over the guilt that I used to feel about refusing to "help" sketchy-seeming strangers on the street, and it has helped me ward off all kinds of unwelcome approaches.
posted by Orinda at 11:06 PM on November 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm trying to imagine how I'd get out of the situation after the eighth time dialing. I think I use excessive well-wishing and imaginary solutions (since obviously I'm not going to be the solution).

Maybe something like "Wow, well, I'm sorry he's not picking up. {sad face} But {unfortunate reality coming, sorry to have to tell you this-face} I actually have to get going. I really hope that he comes back to pick you up, good luck."

Body language is helpful, too. Your body has to be saying "this is over" even more strongly than usual if you have trouble saying no directly. Like, if you start to walk away as you were saying that last sentence, even if she's saying "no, he's so crazy, he probably won't, just le--" you're already three feet away by the time she asks you to stay.

For avoiding stopping in the first place, I too use the happy "nope" or "no, good luck!" I realized that rather than feeling guilty and averting my eyes, I preferred to actually look at the panhandlers, share a well-wishing or friendly glance, but nevertheless, have no spare change.
posted by salvia at 11:06 PM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

>I'm often sad about the breakdown in civility and kindness in cities, but the unfortunate truth is sometimes you must firewall yourself from scammers or time wasters.

I agree. Also, that's a nice metaphor for the situation, sharkfu.

Listen to what everyone is telling you. She was high and paranoid. More than the germs/phone usage/whatnot, her paranoia set off the alarms in you, I'll bet. That shit is contagious. The whole interaction you describe had a weird texture, and you correctly identified that. You were right to feel sketched out. But I'm guessing the only thing you really need to do is reflect on it and make sure you always listen to those feelings.

I'm sure you were taught to respect others and help them when they need help. Nice sentiment. It's nice to be nice to the nice. But one of the most important things you can do for yourself is to gain confidence in your ability to perceive deception/danger. You were tested, and you did okay; that's encouraging. That impulse you acted on to disengage and not become embroiled in her larger problems is a good impulse, and you were very, very smart to listen to it. Always. Every time. Never set that aside in order to be "nice." Nice is not an occupation; it's a stupid, overused word. Don't strive to be "nice." Strive to be strong and confident, and the rest will take care of itself.

I remember feeling like a real asshole the first time I didn't help someone who asked me for help; I'd said no to the "I just need $20 for baby formula" hustle. (Yes, that is always a hustle. This is not how people really get their baby formula.) Afterward, I had a similar reaction to what I think you're feeling now -- it was all very unsettling, and it occupied my thoughts for days. I think the mildly obsessive thoughts about it are just your brain doing its job well. You'll remain focused on it until you learn the lesson you're meant to learn and find some resolution in your head.
posted by heyho at 11:29 PM on November 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

This sounds like a woman with mental illness. My guess is that her "please don't call the cops on me" was quite sincere. I'm sure that her freakouts in the past have indeed resulted in cops getting called because her behavior is so abnormal, at which point she's gathered up and taken back to wherever she came from.

I had a similar experience with a weirdo lady wanting to use my phone to call the cops because her husband was beating her children. Only, once the cops showed up, they made some calls and figured out that, no, there were no children, she just had mental problems. She felt "off" in the same way you describe.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 12:39 AM on November 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

How do I avoid situations like this in the future?

You know what was nearly good about your situation when that happened? Momentum! You were jogging, which would probably have kept this incident at bay if you hadn't stopped to check your message. In my experience, jogging or even just resolutely walking at a fast pace (not as if you are scared, but just as a fast-walker walks) will keep most people off you, because they are just not willing to work hard enough to try to keep up. Dark or mirrored sunglasses in daytime and obvious earbuds also help (though I like to hear what's going on around me, so I'm not actually listening to anything).

But you shouldn't feel dumb about this encounter... I don't know what your neighborhood is like, of course, but if I saw a woman who looked like she needed help in my neighborhood, I'd likely stop. In terms of getting out of such a situation once you have committed by talking to the person, don't forget that you can say anything - it doesn't have to make sense, and in fact, is probably better if it doesn't, because people who are importuning you have a bank of persuasive arguments to standard responses, but nothing for something they can't figure out. For example, cock your head and widen your eyes as though you just heard something: "oops! There's my signal - gotta run!" and rush off. In the case of the phone, you could say, "oh! maybe it's the... hold on..." grab the phone and punch in anything, "nope! I'm gonna try it closer to the streetlamp/horizon/solar flare/baby carriage!" rush off... etc.
posted by taz at 12:45 AM on November 5, 2009

She sounds very much like a druggie to me. Though it is very much to your credit that you were willing to help another human being you will do well to avoid fringe-types in the future. Unkempt, hyper people are suspect. In the future look someone like this square in the eye and say "--running late--sorry.....gotta run!"
posted by naplesyellow at 1:11 AM on November 5, 2009

Did you see all of the numbers she entered?
Could she have dialled a premium rate number from your phone?
I've heard of this scam happening over here in Europe (specifically UK) where you're asked for your phone and the scammer will dial a premium rate number (that they own) whilst they pretend to call their boyfriend/father/boss/whatever (earning them a fair chunk of the £1.50/minute you spend calling the number).
posted by at 1:52 AM on November 5, 2009

I think this is what is referring to.
posted by contrariwise at 3:11 AM on November 5, 2009

You're a teenager. Therefore, it's not your job to help passersby. Let someone else do it if they wish. Just keep walking/jogging next time and toss a "no, sorry" over your shoulder.
posted by hazyjane at 4:19 AM on November 5, 2009

I think it was kind of you to allow a stranded person to use your phone.

For future reference, it's okay to say "Tell me the number; I'll call." One call is plenty. Her insistence on taking the phone, multiple calls and deleting the number is unreasonable. As you may have learned from this thread, there are many dishonest people who will try to abuse your kindness, but I still recommend being kind.
posted by theora55 at 4:25 AM on November 5, 2009 [4 favorites]

In the future, you could run with headphones. Headphones often give off the signal of "leave me alone". I'd stop if you see someone genuinely in need of help, but if it turns into a scammer like this, I'd say "Sorry, I really need to get back to my run. Good luck!" and start moving.

I don't want to scare you more, but don't run alone at night with headphones on. Your senses and your instincts are your two best defenses in this sort of situation.

Also, with really aggressive panhandlers/scam artists, these sorts of signals make no difference at all--I get asked for money all the time when I'm reading outside a cafe by my work. Of course, once they start bothering me, I'm very firm. As everyone upthread's said "Sorry, no" are the words you're looking for.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:09 AM on November 5, 2009

Oh, also, don't hand your phone to strangers: there was nothing stopping her from just running off with it.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:10 AM on November 5, 2009

When I was your age I got into a few sketchy situations because I was just too damned polite and always willing to help someone out (picking someone up from rehab, almost getting arrested in rural New Mexico). I just eventually had to learn to trust my gut and be willing to say no/ignore people.
posted by nestor_makhno at 6:16 AM on November 5, 2009

I agree with the tossing "No, sorry." over your shoulder as you jog away. If she really pushed you, you have the built in excuse of being young. "Sorry, my parents don't let me loan out my phone."

It seems like the experience really freaked you out. I think you should go to your mom or dad and just tell them that you "just wanted to let them know" because the lady "was really creepy" and set off all kinds of red flags. Tell them that you know you shouldn't have stopped, and that you won't do it again. Then just tell them what happened. Let your parents worry about what (if anything) to do next.
posted by TooFewShoes at 6:26 AM on November 5, 2009

how can I get myself to firmly reject someone's request for help?

It's really hard to separate your need to say no from your feelings of compassion or pity when the person in front of you clearly needs help (even if you can't--or can't safely--provide it). By contrast, when you're dealing with, say, someone in Greenpeace jacket with a clipboard asking you for donations, you don't need to worry about "What if they really do need gas money/a phone/whatever?" and so you can simply get comfortable turning down requests you can't or don't choose to accommodate.

It's not an identical situation, but similar enough (sob story + sales pitch) that it's good practice. In your city, do you ever come across people asking for donations to Greenpeace/Save the Children/etc.? That's how I learned to confidently and firmly navigate interactions with strangers asking for things. I'd recommend you just walk straight toward them whenever you get the chance and practice saying "no" in whatever way feels most comfortable.
posted by Meg_Murry at 6:40 AM on November 5, 2009

A google search tells me that *67 is supposed to block your number from the receiving party's caller ID. So, sounds like she was doing you a favor, in that regard.
posted by amanda at 7:36 AM on November 5, 2009

This is slightly off-topic, but I do think the OP deserves compliments for writing such a well-organized and well-expressed post. Old fogeys like me love to complain about how teenagers don't know how to write any more, but the OP has a gift. I hope they write more.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 8:07 AM on November 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

It's the deer and headlights thing -- the mistake you made wasn't in acknowledging what was coming toward you, the mistake was that you froze. The skill that keeps you out of these situations is assessing the situation without completely breaking your stride.

You don't want to say no to the bait, you want to seem oblivious to the fact that it even exists: can't stop right now, gotta be home in ten minutes or my girlfriend will kill me... sorry, I don't even carry cash... I'm out of cell minutes this month, need me to call 911? Slow down only enough to assess the situation and be polite, keeping your momentum -- it's enough to dissuade most scammers, and keeps you moving away from possible danger. If your read of the situation is that someone is legitimately in trouble... then you should summon assistance before you do anything else anyway, which you can do from a distance.
posted by Pufferish at 8:18 AM on November 5, 2009

People have given you plenty of good advice. I'd just like to add that you almost certainly don't have anything major to worry about in terms of germ transmission, but that it can't hurt to spray down your phone with Lysol (or equivalent) or give it a wipe-down with a cleaning wipe. I do this as a matter of course with work phones; if people I don't know use my cell phone, I just treat it the same way.
posted by Cricket at 9:39 AM on November 5, 2009

I want to repeat the key element of Netzapper's long and good post:

"I'm sorry, I don't let other people use my phone. I'd be happy to call the police for you, or a taxi, if you'd like."

If someone is having an emergency you can help with, the police or a taxi would help. If someone is having an emergency that can't be solved by the police or a taxi (drug crisis, for instance), you can't help them either. If someone is trying to steal your phone, you don't want to let them.

I do let people use my phone all the time, and I've never been burned by it. But in this instance, I would have said exactly what Netzapper suggests.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:09 AM on November 5, 2009

You got taken. Nothing to worry about.

Memorize the phrase "I'm sorry, I can't help you with that" and recite it back the next time a stranger comes up to you and starts in on a BS hard-luck story.

Even people in my crappy Northern California, spun out on crystal meth and unemployment, hitting me up for cash/cigarettes/whatever, are no match for the above phrase and will move on to the next mark.
posted by porn in the woods at 10:11 AM on November 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

(Northern California TOWN, that is)
posted by porn in the woods at 10:11 AM on November 5, 2009

I first moved to a city from a very small town and wanted to help or at least respond to anyone who approached me as good manners. I certainly got taken in by scammers a few times. Eventually, time wore me down and I moved to an even BIGGER city with even MORE people approaching me and I learned that while there's no reason to be rude, I can't help everybody. If I gave any spare change to everyone who asked, I would pretty soon be out my entire paycheck.

I smile and say "I'm sorry!" while making eye contact and move on. Usually, I get an equally polite response and that's the end of it.

(That is, unless the citizen involved is giving me the howling fantods, in which case I skip the eye contact.)

The only times I've offered money to people were to "street people" I recognized as being in the same place every day and with whom I would occasionally strike up conversation. I have only once have let someone else use my phone, and it was a pretty legit situation. In general, while I do try to be nice, I can't solve everybody's problems. It's just not possible.

There's no reason for you to totally shut yourself off, but you have to realize that keeping yourself totally open just makes you vulnerable to people who aren't acting in good faith. Approaching the world with the mindset of keeping to yourself is a good policy if you want to do what you can to keep your money, your belongings, and your sanity.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 10:27 AM on November 5, 2009

I walk past several beggars, and several others spruking for charity, daily. Sometimes I will slip a buck or two to a polite beggar who I don't think is just gonna go spend it on smack or booze, but usually I have to brush them off. With the charities, I give to them by my own volition, on my own time, not when I'm walking down the street, so I have to brush them off too.

I just say "No, sorry" to the beggars, and keep walking. The ones looking for charity money are usually young backpackers just trying to make a few honest bucks. I give them a "Sorry, I don't have time right now".

As for real scammers, I think you just have to develop a sense of being able to tell when someone is genuinely asking for your help. I guess this comes with age and experience, but, if you have any doubt at all, just say "No, sorry" and keep walking. If they call after you, keep walking, don't look back, no matter what they say. If they follow you, like others have suggested, move towards other people, enter a shop, or knock on a door.

Although, the age and experience thing is probably subjective, too. A 40 year old male friend of mine got scammed by the "Can you help me out with petrol/gas money?" thing. He handed her $30, and his business card so she could get in contact with him to "pay him back". But he has a bit of the "gallant white knight" syndrome, so is a prime candidate for those kinds of scams, despite his age. I've been hit on by the same woman about 5 or 6 times. Now, as soon as I hear "Excuse me, I'm wondering if you can help...", that gives me enough time to recognise her, and I just cut her off and say "No" and walk away.

[If any fellow Melbourne mefites are reading this, she used to trawl Collins St about 5 or 6PM. I haven't seen her there for a while, but did run into her on Little Collins recently, still running the same scam]
posted by Diag at 12:31 PM on November 5, 2009

She was really looking for a ride and was just using the phone so had something she could do to make herself feel better until she could get high again.

You're lucky you still have the phone. A lot of the times people run off with them, but that's usually the dealers not the junkies.

There's not much to tell anyone, although it is a good story. It is a variation on one that's happened to all of us at one time or another.

The things to do to make yourself feel better. I'd just jump in the shower and wipe off my phone. I'd probably go online or call my wireless provider and change my number. There's no reason you have to change your number, especially if you're really attached to it. But it may be an action that makes you feel better and puts the thing behind you. Most cell companies will easily change your number. I know I can change mine online. I don't even have to ask a customer service rep to do it.

I'd think again about running at 9pm. It's a bit of a weird hour. I'd find a more normal jogging time.

And, honestly, although it's nice to help people. There's genuine help and then there's BS, which I'd say the latter is what you've been a victim. I wouldn't give out my cell phone to anyone, ever, unless I absolutely know them.
posted by VC Drake at 2:03 PM on November 5, 2009

As amanda pointed out, *67 is to block your phone number from showing on the other phones caller ID. She did it so that whoever she was calling wouldn't call you back thinking that you're associated with her.

My family has owned a convenience store in a rough part of town for quite awhile; it was through that exposure that I became aware of the kinds of scams people pull on others, and how to deflect beggars, so I'd like to give some advice on dealing with people who ask you for things.

First of all, always look people in the eye if you're walking towards a person who may ask you for a favor or money or whatever. If you look down or pretend not to see them they tend to either accept it or get even more aggressive; when you look down and seem timid they become in control of the situation and may press further.

Do NOT apologize; don't give them a smile and a shrug, simply say in a flat-tone "I can't help you" without breaking your stride. Look at them when you say it. If they insist, pause, keep your shoulders up, back straight, turn your whole body to them and repeat "I can't help you" and walk off. They'll usually look away from you if you do that.

I've also seen beggars retaliate against people whom they think have been rude to them or whatever; beggars aren't always necessarily harmless homeless people who know their place when people decline their request for help. Please be careful; if someone's trying to gain your trust off the bat and they don't respect your decision not to help them that's a huge warning sign, as well as if they're super aggressive off the bat.

As to answer the rest of your question, I have to agree that she was on drugs and someone did indeed strand her and she needed a phone to use. Most drug users rarely have cell phones or even spare change to make a call on a public phone. This situation happens frequently from what I've witnessed. She approached you since you had a phone and you looked like a "nice" person who would help her out.

Please don't feel you have to help people out however, especially in the situation of being outside at dark in (possibly?) a sketchy area. She was asking if you had a male friend or relative to drive her because she didn't want to put a woman in a potentially dangerous and scary situation.
posted by wiretap at 3:03 PM on November 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Talk to your parents to a) get it off your chest [you are shaken and it helps to vent] and b) have parents know there are sketchy folks in that park, they might have seen other stuff and want to talk to neighbors or the local police about the situ.
Her actions and paranoia were probably spurred by drugs, but I fully understand that you're creeped out especially since she demonstrated back-patting on you [physical contact between strangers? NOT OK unless you're high-fiving each other at a ballgame when your team scores]

Always use the "not allowed to let other people use my phone but I can phone a taxi or the police for you" line. If they insist they need to call boyfriends, tell them there's a payphone at the corner of X and X [even if there isn't one].
posted by dabitch at 4:54 AM on November 10, 2009

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