Artists often know what it’s like to struggle to make ends meet. This leads many of us to want to help others as often as we can.
Many scammers play on this tendency to help others by pretending to be, or represent, someone in need. I call these types of scammers “heartstrings scammers,” because they tug on the heartstrings to complete their cons. The most widely publicized instances of this type of scam are the ones in which the scammer fakes a serious medical condition or emergency situation.
In 2016, news media outlets around the country reported on the case of Brandi Lee Weaver-Gates, a student and beauty pageant winner who pocketed around $30,000 by pretending to have cancer. In 2018, the story of a couple stealing money they raised for a man with no place to live after the man gave the woman his last $20 was later revealed to be a money making scam created by the three of them.
These cases are the ones that shock, but the same scam can be run on a much smaller scale using local groups on social networking sites.
One common scam typically begins with a post on “helping hands” or “pay it forward” groups. Members are shown a picture of a cute baby, dog, cat, or family. The accompanying post explains that the entire family, or someone in the family, needs something important. Claiming to be out of formula for a baby with no funds available to purchase more is common. Others say they cannot feed their family if they lose their job, and the employer is asking them to purchase clothing, tools, or other equipment they cannot afford.
The story they use to get the help is invented or greatly exaggerated. Nobody is in need. Once the scammer has the items, they quickly join a classifieds or other buy and sell group and sell whatever they received from the helping hands group for cash.
Heartstrings scams designed to earn the scammer items to flip for cash are effective because the situations they use are so serious. Most of us would rather be scammed out of the cost of a few cans of baby formula than think there might be a starving baby we could have helped, or lose the money we spent buying a tool or item of clothing than think someone lost the job he or she needed to feed their family.
This scam is usually discovered when someone recognizes an item they gave thinking they were helping someone on a sale page. But at that point, there is nothing they can do. You can’t prove that the five cans of formula or work boots you met someone in a parking lot and handed to them are the exact same items listed on the page.
Keep an eye on related groups or comments on a page
Preventing these scams can be a challenge. The first time the person posts online looking for help, you will just have to risk the scam if you feel called to help. Honestly, I am one of those people who would rather be scammed out of some money than see someone starve or go dirty or without heat or other basic necessities.
One way to prevent falling for this scam further is to keep an eye on related groups. If you’re in Utica, New York and you think someone is on a pay it forward type group running this scam, keep an eye on yard sale and other classifieds groups for the Utica area as well. If you think the scam is being run on a helping hands group in Las Vegas, join the Las Vegas classifieds or yard sale groups too. If you think someone is scamming people into sending them egift cards, watch the gift card exchange groups that pop up in your suggestions. If the plea is posted on a site without groups, keep an eye on the comment section. While you can’t automatically believe every comment you see posted online, watch out if there is a pattern of people who do not know each other reporting that they helped the person, then saw the stuff for sale.
Look for repeated posts seeking pricey items
The first time I rang up baby formula as a cashier at Walmart, I went over my transaction twice, thinking I had accidentally hit a button twice and doubled the customer’s total. I hadn’t. The price of baby formula is startlingly high, and both easy to obtain by claiming to have a baby in need, and easy to sell at a lower price. Cell phones and purses are other items people often flip for cash.
There are those who are in legitimate need of these items. Never decline to help someone in need. But if you see the same people posting that they need a phone or a purse for work or more baby formula than they could ever use to feed the number of children they have, they are probably selling the items for cash.
Be wary of the person who offers a long, complicated story when it’s time to meet to get the item.
A few years ago, when I lived in a small town on the other side of the country, I watched one of these heartstrings scams fall apart online. A young couple who I will call Allie and Bo were known for seeking help from people around town. They would often post in “pay it forward” groups that they were in need, or walk into stores and claim they were down to the last of the funds they needed to feed their children. Items donated to help the family were predictably seen on sale pages soon after they received them, but there was little anyone could do once they handed something over.
The scam fell apart when they decided to borrow a tactic from romance scammers and catfish anyone who responded to their request for help. Posts appeared claiming that a woman was a single mother, new to town, and in need of formula and other supplies for her baby. The “single mother” only responded to people who had not previously helped the couple. When “she” did, she told the person who agreed to meet her in public to help her a long, detailed story describing her inability to show up to pick up the items, but promising that her “brother” would be there and would take them to her. It didn’t take long to figure out that Allie had written the ad, with Bo showing up to play the part of the “brother” of the fictional woman.
Insisting upon meeting in public is just common sense, and people do have children and jobs and other obligations, but if the person has asked people to meet them in order to bring them something they cannot survive without, and then refuses to meet people…..ask yourself why.
Don’t be afraid to ask around
Self-appointed keyboard warriors who publicly declare every fundraiser, crowd funding, or investment opportunity they see a scam only help themselves to more attention. But there is nothing wrong with privately and politely asking friends, family members, and others about a campaign or cause they support.