I'm stepping out of Starbucks with coffee in one hand and newly bought Christmas present in the other. I hear, "Miss, miss!" Already I begin to suspect what is about to happen. An ernest-looking man approaches me with a sense of desperation and urgency. He claims to have his child waiting in the car around the corner and needs 22 dollars to buy a tire.

Now this is the second time in two weeks that I have been hit up for cash by a desperate "parent" with a kid in the car with car trouble. The first time was a woman at my car door on the passenger side. When I offered to call the police for help for her, she showed me she already had a phone in her hand. (She was ready for that response apparently.) I said firmly, "I am calling the police right now." And I started to dial. She immediately disappeared into the night.

Both of these incidents left me in a bad mood. Even though I knew I was being conned in both cases, I was a witness to my own cynicism and lack of helpfulness. I also was angry that the con artist tried that stunt on me. Con artists know that when we are Christmas shopping, we like to see ourselves as generous. Anybody carrying a Christmas present is an easy target. The con artist knows that people don't like to look like hyocrites; and if we could afford to buy a present we could afford to spare 22 bucks.

So here's what I recommend you do when someone posing as a desperate parent hits you up for money:

You say, "Oh my gosh! A child is involved?! That really is a bad situation! I am calling the police to help right this minute, and I won't hear another word!" Start to dial the police.

This way, you will be able to tell for sure if you are dealing with a con because someone who is really in need of help will welcome the police. A con, however, will slink away to his or her next victim. This way you can protect yourself if indeed it is a con, and can really help if it is not a con. Whatever you do, don't go to check for yourself to see if there really is a child in the car. Just stay where you are, and call the police with your cell phone.


What Psychologists Know that You Don’t
Anita E. Kelly Ph.D.

Anita E. Kelly, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame. She is author of The Clever Student and The Psychology of Secrets.

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