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.

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