I'd like to help anonymous people stuck at the train station, but avoid being scammed in the process
December 13, 2009 6:27 AM   Subscribe

Earlier on AskMeta there was a question on being conned. I gave 50€ to a pregnant couple at a train-station - both couple and money I never saw again. I'd like to keep helping - but avoid being scammed in the process. How do you differentiate between "fishy" and "worth my help". Have you stopped looking at these cases altogether?

A few weeks later I was on the train. My credit card didn't work and I didn't have enough cash on me to pay the conductor.

A woman (that I hadn't talked to before) gave me 15€ on the spot. She later explained that she had been stuck at a gas station with a similar problem where someone had lent her and even higher amount (100€).

I'd like the world to stay such a good place (ahh, warm feelings). Tell me some stories: when were you faced with a similar dilemma and decided to help/not to help? What are your decision strategies in such situations?
posted by mathiu to Society & Culture (51 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
" What are your decision strategies in such situations?"

I do not hand out cash to anyone for any reason. If a hungry guy asks me for money for food, I might buy him a sandwich. If the guy who hangs out on the corner looks cold, I'll get him a cup of coffee. I donate to charities that provide food and clothing, and to an awesome local outfit that provides food boxes, rides to work or medical appointments, and referral to services.

But I don't give out cash to strangers who just ask for it.
posted by majick at 6:31 AM on December 13, 2009 [6 favorites]

I look at it as a gift -- therefore it is not my concern what someone does with what they give them.
posted by runningwithscissors at 6:34 AM on December 13, 2009 [19 favorites]

Ultimately I don't think there's any definitive way to know whether someone's conning you or not; the best con stories sound completely understandable.

My advice is that if you feel the need to give money directly to beggars (instead of, say, giving to charity), just set out in advance a certain amount per week that you feel comfortable letting go of. If that number is 50€, then you could give ten people 5€ a week or five people 10€ a week or 50 people 1€ a week.

Trying to worry out who's telling the truth and who's feeding you lines is just going to add unnecessary stress to your life, in my opinion.
posted by Target Practice at 6:35 AM on December 13, 2009

Not an answer to your question, but by you giving a pregnant couple fifty euros you are making the world a better place as I would like to think someday they'd pay it forward, by giving someone else cash if they were asked and had some to spare.

I grew up dirt poor and in my experience the less well off folks are the most generous. I've seen evidence of this all over the world.

But curious - did you have any reason to expect to see the couple or your money again? Of course if they agreed to repay that would be different, but if you freely gave don't expect them to repay.

In terms of such situations I take them on a case by case basis, and typically will divide by two or four or some other number the amount requested, if I give them money at all. And if they protest they I don't give the anything as they ain't for real.

Don't stop giving folks cash; after all, its only money.
posted by Mutant at 6:38 AM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's a fairly common scam around here for people to work the gas stations at the highway rest stops late at night. Tell everyone who comes to get gas a sob story and don't ask for too much and you'll get enough hits to make it quite lucrative. Basically what is described here. That's the kind of thing that makes you just cut everyone off after the first word with "sorry I can't help you".

Besides that, I think you're better off if you assume that that strangers aren't going to give you money back. So give $10 that you can lose, not $50 that you can't.
posted by smackfu at 6:41 AM on December 13, 2009

Treat money you give out on the street as you would a book lent to a casual friend.
Never expect to see it back again. (This is not necessarily a bad thing.)
posted by HFSH at 6:48 AM on December 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

I object to that analogy on the basis that if I lend somebody I know a book, they damned well better give it back to me.

Whereas if I give some random stranger on the street a couple bucks I have no reason to expect them to repay me or even to have a way to if they were able to.
posted by Target Practice at 6:52 AM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't ever give money to people on the street. When I think back to situations in which I did, in my early 20s, I'm sure that every single one of those cases involved someone who was misrepresenting their situation.

But then, I live in New York. You see so many people aggressively asking for money on such a regular basis, that if you pay attention to even a fraction of them, you lose a lot of time as well as money.

But I've also traveled a lot... in Amsterdam, I ran into a guy who gave me the exact same story that he had in Utrecht. I told him that I remembered him, and had in fact given him money (which was true). He denied ever having been to Utrecht, and then, as I walked away, screamed insults at me, as if trying to draw sympathy from passers-by who would assume that I had somehow abused this homeless-looking man.

How do you differentiate between "fishy" and "worth my help"

If the situation involves being approached by a stranger in a public place, then it's fishy.
posted by bingo at 7:03 AM on December 13, 2009 [4 favorites]

I do the same thing as majick - if someone's begging for cash for something specific and I feel compelled to help, I will get them that thing instead. If the sandwich or bus ticket was what they really wanted, then great, but if not, at least I'm not inadvertently feeding someone's addiction.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:05 AM on December 13, 2009

The world doesn't work in the manner you seem to want it to work. If you feel a Ned to give money to strangers you meet on the street, assume it is a gift to that person and don't ponder whether you have been scammed. That way lies madness.
posted by dfriedman at 7:09 AM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

for me, the big 'tell' for fishy situations is whether they're willing to talk to police or other authorities. the harder they resist interacting with the authorities (or some other appropriate aid group), the more likely i think that they're trying to scam people.
posted by rmd1023 at 7:09 AM on December 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

The less well off are more generous and that is why they are less well off.
posted by Postroad at 7:20 AM on December 13, 2009

One of the world's great religions would have you turn the other cheek, that is, just keep giving anyway, and don't worry about whether your feelings are hurt. Sure, you can try to give in a way that does the most good, but don't get bitter about it because people don't behave perfectly.
posted by amtho at 7:27 AM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

How much would you pay for personal theatre? A good con is a work of art and deserves your support. Real people in need (not counting those who have made need a part of their identity) and artists will come across as real.
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:40 AM on December 13, 2009

The hardship con is fairly common, one I had fallen for twice, for the same reasons as others have. It's why, like the first answerer, I don't give money to people I encounter on the street any longer. However, on occasion if I can, I will buy and bring them a meal. When I was working, I donated to my local food bank, which advertised it could make four meals out of a dollar (and their CharityNavigator stats back that up pretty well), so that's where I would give a small amount monthly, so that I knew it'd be directly translated into food. Perhaps a solution for you to this quandary might be to use CharityNavigator to find a good food charity near you that has low administrative overhead.
posted by MikeHarris at 7:51 AM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

The side of this coin that hasn't been examined is that, often, giving cash only enables the problem (drugs, drinking, etc) that are the cause of the homelessness/poverty/etc.

Please give your money to reputable organizations that provide direct services, it is a much better use of your limited ability to be generous and will have a larger impact on the lives of those that are served.
posted by HuronBob at 7:53 AM on December 13, 2009

Twenty-five years ago I was flying back from NYC after the holidays when for some reason the plane was rerouted from SF to LA. I was desperate to get to San Francisco as any newly fallen in love twenty-two-year old might be. My erstwhile lover, now my husband, had begun the cross-country drive with some friends days earlier, and for reasons I will not elaborate upon I felt the future hinged upon my immediate arrival. I had little cash and no credit card and was standing around LAX looking, probably, like some combination of a deer caught in the headlights and a reasonably groomed wild child, when a couple who had been on the plane from NY approached me and said, "We're buying tickets for the next plane to San Francisco. It leaves in ten minutes. Would you like us to buy you one?" (Our airline had promised to get us there the next day, I should add.) Long story short (if already long), I went with them, got home in a daze of euphoria and disbelief but still managed not to lose their name and address and sent them a check for $80 or whatever it was that day. I never heard from them again--why would I?

As far as helping others, yes I would and I do and I will. As for scams, it's kind of a gut thing. Also I think I tend to offer before being asked, if that makes any sense. And although I am an atheist, I do believe in mitzvot, and I try not to tell anyone about my own good deeds such as they are. Happy Chanukah!
posted by emhutchinson at 7:57 AM on December 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

I once gave a few bucks to a guy who told me (unconvincingly) that he needed to call a tow truck for his broke-down van, which was full of melting ice-cream.
posted by ovvl at 8:00 AM on December 13, 2009 [4 favorites]

How much would you pay for personal theatre? A good con is a work of art and deserves your support.

This almost goes to an extreme in my case. I'm going to share this for the "turn the other cheek" crowd. A guy once walked up to me on an empty street in DC at night and asked for directions. I consider myself a pretty smart guy and tried to walk away, but he seemed honestly desperate and told me he only wanted a minute to talk. Now the next 30 minutes passes by in a blur. I swear I was only talking to him, but by the time my consciousness and skepticism returns to me I'm standing in an ATM in order to help him, and he's asking me for $80. I realize we're alone and he possibly has a knife. So I pay him off, run back to my apartment and realize that he just told me that he only needed directions to a charity office so that he could get on the bus, that he had no money because he had just come out of the hospital, that he went to the hospital for a black widow bite (which he proved by showing me his leg), that he would repay me in full for my trouble within a day or two if I could just get him to the charity (which he proved by giving me someone else's business card and claiming it was a reference), that he was a good Christian like me (I'm not), and finally that he needed $8 or possibly $22 in bus tickets to see his dying grandma in West Virginia (I can't even remember how that became $80). Even days later, I idiotically waited for him to send me some kind of compensation.

This story was obvious crap, and he definitely spent that money on heroin, but he was talking so quickly, and making such humble appeals to my conscience, that I simply had no chance to think about what he was saying. That guy is an expert con man-- he's practically a hypnotist-- and will never have to live as anything other than a con man. Now, thinking back on it, I feel like it was worth it to be humbled like that, so I will go with Obscure Reference's opinion this one time. But in the future I will never humor a person who asks for more than a dollar.
posted by shii at 8:10 AM on December 13, 2009 [4 favorites]

I have given cash to random strangers a couple of times and I don't really care if I was being scammed but I have noticed that the scenarios under which I gave the money shared two things in common:

1. The amount was not a lot. $20 is the most I've given out I think.
2. The person didn't ASK for it. Meaning it was someone who was just in a bind and I was able to help out.

I am fully aware that this doesn't mean I'm immune to being conned but I don't really care, it isn't an amount of money I'm going to miss.

Once I was in a restaurant with two friends once and the woman bussing tables was very VERY pregnant, after the meal we went to a grocery store nearby and one of my friends grabbed a $25 gift certificate to Babies R Us, on the way back to the car he went in and asked the manager to give it to her saying that she deserved a tip just for being a wonderful mom who was going to work to raise money for her kids. When you hang out with people like that it is hard to pass up opportunities for random acts of kindness.
posted by magnetsphere at 8:10 AM on December 13, 2009

ovvl, I think "What are your decision-making strategies" is an answerable question.

I give money to people on the street who ask for it straightforwardly: "Can you help me out with some change?" for instance. I don't care what they look like or what I think they'll spend it on. If I have it, I try to give folding money. Once in awhile I will offer money to a person I see going through trash cans for returnables, or to grubby young people sitting on the sidewalk next to their backpacks, just to be helpful.

I live in a place where this is not very common, and I suppose if I were encountering such people multiple times a week, my rubric might change.

If they've got a story about how they're stuck and just need cab fare or some such, it sets off my scam-meter.

On the other hand, I would give money to someone I saw having trouble. For instance, if the person in front of me in line was trying to buy a train ticket or a few groceries and their card was denied, and I had the money to help, I would. Once I was in line at the grocery store and an older couple in front of me was handing things back to the clerk, one thing at a time, for him to un-scan until their total came down to the amount of cash they had with them--I've always regretted not just handing the clerk my debit card and saying, "This one's on me." Next time, I will.
posted by not that girl at 8:11 AM on December 13, 2009 [8 favorites]

I was once in a similar situation as emhutchinson, though a bit less dramatic - in college I ended up at an airport with no money and the airline wanted money to check a bag for me, and a middle-aged couple behind me offered to pay for me when they saw I was stuck. I declined and called my parents instead, but man, it really made my day that random strangers would be so generous and kind.

I think you're basically asking about that sort of situation, and I think the key is offering to help when you see someone in trouble rather than responding to people who come up and ask for money.
posted by you're a kitty! at 8:17 AM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

The less well off are more generous and that is why they are less well off.

I think the less well off are more generous because they know first hand that such generosity can mean the difference between eating or not eating.
posted by 6550 at 8:20 AM on December 13, 2009 [11 favorites]

Response by poster: But curious - did you have any reason to expect to see the couple or your money again? Of course if they agreed to repay that would be different, but if you freely gave don't expect them to repay.

I gave them my phone number/address and they wanted to get in touch with me to transfer me the money. While talking to them I was thinking wether or not it was a scam. Then I heard how the pregnant woman was actually mad at her partner (and even lashed out to me) which led my gut to believe their story.

Two explanations: either they were a scam - and a really good one. The reverse psychology of the pissed woman that just wants to get home was extremely well executed (and she happened to be pregnant at the time). Or they were genuinly poor and couldn't pay back the debt/decided not to/lost the contact info.

I think Obscure Reference points to a valid perspective, that both good con artists and those truly in need are convincing (and don't set off your gut). Looking back at the train station I thought of one approach to differentiate the acting and the needy: next time I'd ask the couple to individually write down their home address and contact data/some other identifying information. If they manage to provide matching data on the fly - kudos to their preparation. I believe Fixedgear will appreciate this and similar non-chatty approaches.

There have already been some really good points as to only giving away disposable amounts. I guess that is where my train station donation got me. I was just getting back from a backpacking trip with a 10 €/day budget. I still like to think they were truly in need of the money and that they'll return the favor to somebody else another day.
posted by mathiu at 8:33 AM on December 13, 2009

You are not being scammed or conned in this situation, ever. A con or a scam takes advantage of your greed, and you rightly feel shamed when you later realise what has happened.

In this instance, and those like it, however, if the sob story is not legitimate (and my thinking generally goes that if I'm being approached, something's afoot) you are being taken advantage of, which is worlds different. If you have the money to share, no shame accrues because you were over-generous. The world is short of over-generous people as it is.

Give the money, and feel good about it, and only fret if you think it might leave you short of €50s to give to more deserving people. In that case, get some discretion.
posted by bonaldi at 8:34 AM on December 13, 2009 [11 favorites]

For me, there's a certain amount of intuition. Sometimes it just feels like the thing to do. Unless there are certain red flags (e.g. overly complex stories, lame stories, aggression) it can be hard to tell whether these stories are true or not. So I view it this way, if I'm approached 30 times a month (to pick a random number), there might be 2 occasions where I actually give someone money because for some reason it seemed like the thing to do. This could be because of their story, the particular circumstance we were in, how I was feeling or whether I had any money on me. But whatever the reason was, the bar is somewhat high, I'm not going to give money for every sad story, and to get me to give more than a couple of bucks, you're going to need a really good story. Now, the story may or may not be true, but if it's false and someone's scammed me, I feel that's on them. I acted in good faith, did a random act of charity with the best of intentions and earned what ever karma/brownie points/good deed credits the Universe keeps track of.

But having said that, I don't make it a habit to give money to strangers just because they ask me and I try to address bigger picture issues by giving the bulk of my charitable contributions to organizations that do work I believe in.

I may have some false-positives (giving to people who don't deserve it) and some false-negatives (not giving to people who do) but as long as there's no universal rule (e.g. I always give or I never give) I feel like it generally works out because I assume that false-negatives get picked up by people whose intuition might be better than mine.

On preview: pretty much what bonaldi said
posted by cptspalding at 8:36 AM on December 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

Last winter, I was walking into a Dunkin' Donuts in the loop in Chicago when a man outside asked me for a couple of bucks so he could get a cup of coffee and a donut for breakfast. (He was specific about the purpose of the solicitation.)

I didn't give him any money but when I was inside I bought him a cup of coffee and a donut. I gave it to him on the way out; he looked at me like I was crazy but took it. As I was crossing the street I turned around to see him immediately throwing both in the garbage. I guess having food in hand was bad for business. It was a bummer of a situation all around.
posted by AgentRocket at 8:41 AM on December 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

If someone is at a point where they're simply begging for money (i.e., "Can you spare any change?") I feel sorry for them and sometimes give money--particularly if they are elderly, or if it's an especially cold day, or if some other aspect of the situation tugs at my heart.

I don't give money when someone has a sob story that builds up to the part where they need my money--"I just need gas money/bus fare/train fare." The longer the story, the less likely I am to believe it. My thought is, in the unlikely event that their story is true, they're guaranteed to run into some more trusting person than me pretty soon--if conning people at bus stops and train stations weren't lucrative, scammers would move on.

I certainly never ever ever give money to a stranger and expect to see it again. If I give, I give an amount I'm willing to part with permanently.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:46 AM on December 13, 2009

My perspective is that of someone who has lived in several big cities and takes public transit every day ... tons of experience/observations of this.

I, like Meg_Murry, think that the longer the story is, the more likely that it is false.

I think the more practiced/experienced the person seems at asking strangers for money, the more likely it is that they do it often (duh). A sign of this is how readily the person asks, even if they express embarrassment or reluctance. Think about how long it would take *you* to ASK a stranger for money if you were say, stuck in a faraway train station without money. And all the options you would try first before asking.

I also think if a person directly ASKS you or another bystander for money, then they probably do it all the time. In contrast, if, for example, you just see that they don't have enough money for something when they go to pay for it, then I think it's less likely. Especially the quieter/more subtle they are when this happens. If they're dramatically/loudly displaying that they can't pay, I start thinking scam, again.

Even if someone says they need money for something specific, I have observed that it is still often (not always) a scam. They need a train ticket and you buy them one? I've seen guys with a stash of them saved up which they use and spend their money on other things, or sell to other people.

They ask for a cigarette? I once observed a guy, after asking me and everyone around me for a cigarette and getting one, go around the corner to where most people couldn't see him and pull one out of his own pocket to smoke. He was just saving up.

I don't think it's wrong/unrealistic at all of you to try to figure how if a person is lying to you before giving them your money. We all want to help people who genuinely need help and not just give our money to be squandered.

That said, if you see someone who really could be in a bad/dangerous situation, there's nothing wrong with giving them what they ask for just in case.
posted by Ashley801 at 9:16 AM on December 13, 2009

I grew up dirt poor and in my experience the less well off folks are the most generous. I've seen evidence of this all over the world.

My little brother's sports team had to stand on the street corner and solicit donations from cars stopped at a stop light. He told me that, by a large margin, poor black people driving beat-up clunker cars were the most generous ... often handing over wads of cash.
posted by jayder at 9:24 AM on December 13, 2009

The less well off are more generous and that is why they are less well off.

This is exactly why I want to see the objectivist version of Burning Man. (OK, really I'm just curious what the casualty report would look like.)

Moving back on topic, look for real desperation and offer to buy them what they need rather than just giving them cash. My wife use to manage the kitchen at a restaurant and would pretty much deal with panhandlers every night. What she found was that when she offered someone "who just needed a couple bucks to get something to eat" the other half of the pizza she had for lunch, they almost always declined. Whenever one accepted they always seemed more than just thankful.

You can pretty much weed out people who are flat out lying to you by saying, "I never hand out money but..." and then offering to buy them the thing that will make them not be stranded or otherwise screwed. People who are going to buy heroin will move on. People who don't have a spare tire and really need to get their flat fixed will worship you.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:28 AM on December 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

The reverse psychology of the pissed woman that just wants to get home was extremely well executed (and she happened to be pregnant at the time). Or they were genuinly poor and couldn't pay back the debt/decided not to/lost the contact info.

Listen, they may very well --- at the time --- have had EVERY INTENTION of paying you back, but once the immediate emergency has passed, the prospect of sending you fifty euros does not make financial sense since, they know, they will never see you again and that fifty euros, for people of limited means, makes more sense being spent on themselves.

I experience this all the time in my criminal defense practice. I will often, for various reasons, resolve someone's case when they still owe me a significant balance on their fee. I'll always tell them, "I'm not waiving your fee, I expect you to come into my office and pay the balance or mail me the balance." And they are always convincing in their earnest promises to do so. Guess how many times, in a number of years, when someone has actually kept that promise --- once. And that person was borderline mentally ill.

When you're dealing with people who are struggling, there is ALWAYS a pressing need that takes precedence over a well-meant promise to pay someone back.
posted by jayder at 9:33 AM on December 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

Easy, a few dishonest ones are so much more skilled at appearing honest that you'll always be giving money to dishonest ones.

I knew several kinda serious Ayn Rand fans in university, well one local guy had taken half their "objectivists club" for varying amounts.

I gave a guy singing on the Paris subway a 1$ bill once, he seemed amused.. he was good too.. and played a long time.. but I've felt wrong giving a 1€ coin in Paris. :)
posted by jeffburdges at 9:42 AM on December 13, 2009

Never at all, and I loathe the day tourists who frequent my neighborhood and feel that *this* is the time to instill christian charity / white man's burden on their kids. As a result, people take the train in to beg around my neighborhood.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 9:54 AM on December 13, 2009

I'm with Kid Charlamagne. An old friend of mine used to work at a homeless shelter. She would always say that if you want to help someone offer to buy for them whatever they are asking but DON'T give them money. I started doing this and was surprised by the number of people who said they were hungry but when I offered to buy them food, they turned it down and asked for money instead.
posted by crios at 9:56 AM on December 13, 2009

I'm a New Yorker and always getting hit up for money. I don't give anything, but I do try and volunteer at organizations that help those who are genuinely in need.
posted by cmgonzalez at 9:57 AM on December 13, 2009

There's really just no way to know. If you feel the need to give, offer to buy the thing that they claim the money is for, keeping in mind that they may throw it away or try to resell it. I also like the idea of keeping a running tally of people who ask you for money, then donating x dollars per person to homeless or drug treatment services.

People with flat tires, dead batteries and the like, you can offer to call AAA and wait with them until they show up. AAA covers any car you're riding in, not just cars you own.
posted by electroboy at 10:15 AM on December 13, 2009

I don't give money on the street. If I have food with me, and the person is asking for money for food, I give food. I've had people spit at me for this and I've watched a woman and her children devour food faster than I've ever seen anyone eat.

Recently I gave a guy on the subway an orange and he spent about three minutes looking at the orange and then looking at me and chuckling to himself. Then he went between the cars of the train and threw it out. Later in the day I sure wished I had that orange.

My favorite scam artist was the guy who would walk through the NJT commuter trains telling how he'd been mugged and needed a specific dollar amount so he could get to a specific station. He was always dressed in a white men's collared shirt and black pants and looked the part. People who weren't regular commuters gave him money frequently. Most of the regulars let the tourists get scammed - I generally told them not to give him cash. But it always made me wonder what I'd do if I really lost my wallet.

Give to organizations.
posted by sciencegeek at 10:26 AM on December 13, 2009

I have lived in three big cities and live in somewhat of a touristy district now, so I am constantly approached for money. I don't even make eye contact or stop my stride -- I just say "No" very forcefully and keep moving.

I've been approached by the same people selling candy bars for football teams in the park for years.....the bus ticket story is a familiar one...and I generally see the same folks approaching tourists on a daily basis.

If you want to donate your money, find an organization in your area that specifically works with a homeless population or volunteer your time at an organization that helps people fill out forms for food stamps and the like.
posted by melodykramer at 10:28 AM on December 13, 2009

The magazine crews are relentless in my neighborhood. It's always some aggressively pushy high school dropout trying to get me to subscribe to some dead-tree junk for several times the retail price. I posted a No Soliciting sign on my mailbox, which they conveniently ignore.

I feel for these kids, as they're getting abused and exploited by even bigger jerk-offs, but that doesn't give them an excuse to intrude on my privacy. Anyone foolish enough to give them cash is going to get shafted. I have to threaten to call the police on their lack of a vending permit to get them off my porch. The last batch of useless meatheads arrived before Thanksgiving and one of them was drinking Sparks or Tilt or some other bullshit caffeinated alcohol drink from a paper bag (!)
posted by porn in the woods at 11:00 AM on December 13, 2009

The side of this coin that hasn't been examined is that, often, giving cash only enables the problem (drugs, drinking, etc) that are the cause of the homelessness/poverty/etc..

Not completely analogous to the sob-story, but I had a prof who did work with street kids before and after they made "sgueegeeing" illegal in Toronto. When the kids were earning cash from, basically, begging, they were eating regularly and sleeping in safe places. When the law forbad them from earning money by squeegeeing passing cars, they began to eat less regularly, sleep less securely (more outside places, fewer rental places) and engage in more dangerous criminal behaviour to earn money (such as prostitution and drug dealing).

Over 90% of the girls and 80% of the boys had experienced severe sexual and physical abuse at home, which they gave as their reason for running away.

My great-grandfather had a saying. He said he'd rather believe the good of somebody and be wrong than the bad of somebody and be right. Every since learning about the lives of street kids, I have let that saying direct my choices in giving people what they ask for: cash if its cash, food if its food, no judgements either way.
posted by carmen at 11:31 AM on December 13, 2009 [4 favorites]

Over-explanation is generally a warning sign for me, if someone's in real trouble they're not telling you the dozens of things that led up to the moment, and they're not trying to convince you quite so much with words. I'm suspicious of anything that feels like a sale or campaign.

I think I'm more likely to help when not asked, actually, when it looks like someone is having trouble of some sort.

I give money if I have extra (like a few dollars or coins, whatever) when asked. I don't care whether they're going to drink it; I feel bad for people who ask others for change for whatever reason and want to ease their suffering a little. I don't care what they do with it.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 11:37 AM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I always give even if I think it's a scam. And I don't care if it is. Tithing is tithing.
posted by Zambrano at 12:25 PM on December 13, 2009 [4 favorites]

It may seem a little ridiculous, but I actually carry those rip-one-off good for $1 burger at McD's/Wendy's/Jack-in-the-Box coupon books in my pocketbook. I usually stock up around holidays when they're running a deal where the coupon book is $5 for 15 coupons, and hand out one or two of the coupons when I see people begging for money for food. I explain that it is a gift certificate good for one hamburger and more often than not, the person takes it. I've been spit on, as well as watching people rip them up in my face, but I just chalk it up to the fact that everyone has a reason for what they do.
posted by banannafish at 1:34 PM on December 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

Once I saw a scrawny, shabbily-dressed woman standing stock still on the sidewalk bawling her eyes out. When I asked her what was wrong, she said she had a horrible earache, no insurance, and her drug-addict son stole the last of the money she was going to use to fill her prescription. Since it was late Friday afternoon, for some reason she'd have to live with the earache till Monday.

So we walked to the drugstore and I bought her the damn medicine. She swore she'd pay me back, but I gave her a fake phone number since I didn't really feel like being a free therapist or having anything to do with her.

Haven't you ever been in a crappy situation where you felt desperate, miserable, and like you didn't have a friend in the world? Show some empathy and do something nice for someone already.
posted by aquafortis at 2:27 PM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just last week I gave somebody $5 because I happened to have it on hand and somebody asked for it. It's $5 to me, but to the person who needs some gas to get home, it's a much bigger deal. And if they didn't use it on gas? Why should I care? It's not my problem if they waste my charity.

Given that they were coming from the direction of the gas station and didn't get too elaborate about it, I'm inclined to believe the person really did just want to buy some gas, although who knows where they were really trying to go. (And they equally may have been looking to buy a joint after spending all their money on gas, but again, not my problem)

Basically my policy is that if I have it, the sum requested is reasonable, and I haven't already given a bunch of money to people asking for it, I'll happily share it. My not giving the heroin addict $5 "for a sandwich" will have absolutely zero impact on said addict's chances of kicking the habit. I can comfort myself in the knowledge that at least tonight they won't have to pimp themselves out for their fix.

So yeah, when I give people money I don't expect to see it again and I don't care what they do with it. I'd probably have a different view if I lived in a place where there were scores of beggars on every block constantly hassling me.
posted by wierdo at 2:43 PM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Haven't you ever been in a crappy situation where you felt desperate, miserable, and like you didn't have a friend in the world? Show some empathy and do something nice for someone already.

When you come down off that high you got from helping that woman, would you mind telling us who are you addressing? Has anyone in this thread argued against doing something nice for someone?
posted by jayder at 4:08 PM on December 13, 2009

1.) I'd rather believe that people are sincere and honest, rather than feel cynical and untrusting of everyone I see:

...If I feel compelled to give to someone on a sob story, I choose to believe that they're telling the truth. I may be wrong sometimes. I'll never know, so I can make up my own reality. I choose to believe they were sincere.

2.) I'd rather live in a world where people give freely and are willing to help a stranger in need:

...So I try to live that ideal when possible by giving when I can.

3.) I'd rather help a lot of people and get scammed a few times in the meantime, than refuse help to everyone in need for fear of being scammed.

That said, I don't give to everyone who asks: I politely excuse myself if I suspect that someone is trying to scam me (unless I feel they are in some sincere need anyway). I only give cash on hand or purchase food/items -- I never give personal information or visit an ATM with/for a stranger (this has been requested of me).

Generally speaking I think it's better to support a local homeless shelter and save the individual handouts for occasions where you perceive a sincere and immediate need for food/shelter/clothing/etc. -- rather than give cash to every sit-and-collect panhandler.
posted by Alabaster at 6:48 PM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

The more ornate the story, the more likely it is to be a con.

That said, I usually help to the extent that it's immediately convenient to do so, barring obvious emergencies, whether or not it's a scam. I'm a soft touch, having been helped more than a few times by kind strangers.
posted by lekvar at 10:08 PM on December 13, 2009

People who look relatively well groomed and well fed who have a story about their car breaking down/losing their wallet/losing their keys: they don't get any money. I assume that, if they really were in trouble, they would be a telephone call away from help from their friends and family.

People who look like Sir Digby Chicken Caesar with the same sob story: they get money. Because, even if it isn't a true story, it isn't as if going out and making an honest living is a viable alternative right at the moment.
posted by Wavelet at 10:35 PM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I once gave a woman in the grocery store $20 to cover the Medicaid fee on the prescription for her antidepressants -- or anyway, she had a prescription for Wellbutrin in her hand. She offered her EBT card to pay for my groceries, but that's welfare fraud and besides it's kind of icky. I bought her some ice cream, besides. In this instance, I actually don't care if she was lying to me; I went through a period where I only had my crazy pills due to the generosity of friends, and I'm more interested in probably paying that forward than I am in being sure I'm not being taken for a ride.

However, the guy who approached me in the parking lot of the same grocery store saying he needed money for gas because he had to go pick up his daughter from daycare? Ha, not so much. Because 1) I had my daughter with me, and any sensible con artist will pick up on that, 2) it was a quarter of nine at night, and a daycare that's open that late is as rare as hen's teeth. Also, the "No" of "No, sorry" was barely out of my mouth before he'd flipped me off and turned to the next mark.
posted by KathrynT at 10:02 AM on December 14, 2009

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