Beware of Impostors
I am hoping you can address an unfortunate occurrence that happened to me recently on the Upper East Side of Manhattan on an erev Shabbos afternoon. I was talking on my cell phone when a seemingly frum yarmulke-clad man approached me. He told me that his car was towed and that he was short the $80 fee he would need in order to reclaim his car from the pound.
Though he was a total stranger, I felt bad that he was in trouble and foolishly agreed to lend him the money. As he followed me to the bank, he went so far as to explain that if this wasn’t my bank and it would charge an extra “ribbis” (fee/interest), he would repay that too.
Before I even had the chance to withdraw the money, the man told me that there would most probably be a tax on the tow fine and asked for another $40. Unfortunately, I did not ask him for identification or collateral. I was so caught up in fulfilling the mitzvah that I did not think I was being scammed. In my naïveté I told him that I would lend him the money on condition that he would provide me with his contact information and repay me after Shabbos.
Sad to say, the information he gave me was bogus and his supposed phone number a non-working one. This man was a very good actor, and as a young student who was never tricked like this before, I fell into his trap and was royally duped.
In hindsight, there were many parts of this man’s story that seemed odd. What I learned from this experience is that frum people must be wary of these tricksters who use religion as a means to steal money and that one should be careful before lending any money out. Without serious legal protection, I.O.U. or collateral, the money is as good as stolen. This “borrower” took advantage of my youth and inexperience in these matters, and of the fact that I love doing chesed.
I believe the $140 I lost can teach the orthodox Jewish community a valuable lesson. As for myself, I will make sure that I will not be bamboozled like this again. Rachel, your advice is always wise and truthful. Please write about this issue so that frum people will be warned to be careful when dealing with frum-looking strangers who appear out of nowhere and ask for loans. You would be doing our community a great service.
Victimized…but learned a valuable lesson
Your letter awoke a memory… I too fell victim to this sort of scam, almost a decade ago. The scene unfolded on a Manhattan street where a gent sporting a kippa on his head stopped to ask me about a “Jewish” bus schedule and then for monetary assistance to help him make his fare to New Jersey, for he had just left all of his belongings in a cab.
Short story, I actually insisted he take more than the $20 he asked for, since it wouldn’t be wise for him to be stranded penniless. In fact, I voluntarily handed him two 20s, and – like you, my dear friend – I reveled in having the mitzvah come my way. This superb actor took off with a “zei gezunt” greeting and a promise to return the loan within a day or so. (I had given him my work address.)
My daughter, bless her heart, later told me she’d have done the same, while my more seasoned spouse was incredulous – “I can’t believe you fell for his lines…” – and was unmoved by my insistence on the man’s total sincerity.
Later, as word got around among some friends and co-workers, I heard an earful. While I was still hoping to prove the skeptics wrong, one fellow-worker’s comment jolted me: “I have good news and bad news for you. The bad news is that you’re not getting your money back. The good news is that you gave him only $40. I gave him $70.”
Since then several other such incidents have come to light. Albeit the ruse varies – sometimes the expert scammer needs to get to Pennsylvania on an erev Shabbos and other times to the Catskills – the modus operandi is the same. And readers beware: it can happen anywhere.
I know a young lady who, on a casual stroll in Miami, was approached by a supposedly frum Jewish man who implored her to help him fund an airline ticket to Israel since he’d been robbed of all his cash and credit cards and needed desperately to get back “home.” He seemed so genuinely stressed out that the only thing to save this woman from laying out hundreds of dollars was her true inability to do so.
Oftentimes, these slick scammers hang around hotels and hospitals waiting to spot their next victim. And their acting could land them an academy award (years of practice, no doubt). Whether the fraudsters are impersonators or authentically Jewish, they sure seem to know that the Jewish heart cannot endure the tzar of a fellow Jew, particularly on erev Shabbos.
Dispensing advice is usually easier than heeding it… so how does one fight the urge to part with his/her money when faced with a conniving thief feigning helplessness? I posed the question to a close acquaintance who happened to have encountered just such an incident the other day in a hospital corridor where he had gone to visit a sick friend.
When the “destitute” man told him he needed a loan because he had left his jacket with all his money behind in a cab, my acquaintance referred him to the hospital rabbi/chaplain. The man claimed he’d already done that unsuccessfully, to which my better half (yeah, the seasoned one…and ‘better’ as in less naïve) shrugged his shoulders, patted his pockets and said, “Sorry… am not in the habit of carrying cash with me…” as he walked away.
Readers who have had the misfortune of being victimized should take a cue from our writer above and consider their experience a valuable lesson in life — as well as to bear in mind that up in Shamayim there is a cheshbon; nothing happens for naught.
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