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How To Not Get Ripped Off

Growing up in a major city puts a person in contact with all types of people.  You see thousands of people in any given day.  You see these people in cars, in lines at stores, in fast food restaurants, in schools and in the neighborhood.  When you live in a highly populated area you cannot help but to be in close quarters with LOTS of people.  One of the things that occurs to a person living in and amongst LOTS of people is that you begin to develop a sixth sense about people and their behaviors.  

Malcom Gladwell would call this a "blink" moment.  In an instant you are able to discern if the person you're dealing with is a threat or a friend, if they are sincere or lying, if they are hurting or lazy... on and on.  Just because you develop this skill doesn't mean it works 100% but honestly more times than not I've found that my initial sense of a person holds true no matter how long they talk.  

Tonight I had another incident where I was glad I listened to my gut and followed my blink moment.  

I'm in Baltimore City tonight for a quick trip and as I was standing outside of the motel reserved on my behalf a woman pulled up in a compact car.  She started right into a story about how she was distraught and her friend isn't answering the phone and she's pregnant and she lives in Virginia and her car is near empty... She says "I just need some money to fill up my gas tank.  Will you please help me.  You can look at my gas gauge, I'm not lying I need help."  

I happened to be on the phone and I told my friend "I don't know about this.  I don't know if I should help her but I may anyway."  I told the woman that I wasn't going to give her money but if she wanted to follow me over to a gas station I would pay for her gas with my debit card.  She nodded and I told her I would finish my call and be right with her.  As I turned away to finish my call she sped out of the parking lot and drove away.  

This woman wasn't in need.  I had that suspicion.  I wanted to test my suspicion.  My suspicion was right.  

I wish I could tell you that I was shocked by this encounter.  I wish I could tell you that this was the first time.  The reality is that I couldn't put a number on the amount of times I've replayed this scenario in my lifetime.

Here are a few tips for how not to get ripped off:

1.  If the person starts out with a story that would make Steven King squirm... it's probably not true.  This woman told me so many problems that "Dear Abby" would need to print an Sunday Edition paper giving her advice on how to get help.  Con Artists are professional liars.  They've honed their craft.  The problem is that in an effort to quickly gain your trust they pile on problem upon problem.  Yes some people are pregnant in another state abandoned by a friend and in need of gas... but not many.  

2.  Keep a safe distance.  This motel chain was set back off of the road and the parking lot was relatively empty.  Although she was in a car and appeared to be smaller than me I remained about 5 feet back from the car.  For all I know she could have a weapon.  I have a habit of helping people in need but in this case I used caution. 

3.  Don't give out cash.  It's very very rare that I will help anyone by handing them cash.  In the city as a kid I had to walk past pan handlers on a regular basis whenever I visited the Inner Harbor.  Unfortunately I often watched them come back to their bench with a bottle wrapped in a paper bag.  It wasn't Pepto Bismol they were drinking.  You may think that you're helping a person by giving them that $5 they need but you may be poisoning them.  Also by opening your wallet you are advertising how much more money you have for people to steal.  If you decide to help, go buy the food or in my case tonight, offer to buy the person's gas.  She sped away tonight because I wasn't an easy target.  I saw my sister later tonight and told her the story and she laughed and said "She's a bad criminal... she should have let you buy her gas anyway."  My sister is street-smart too!

4.  Get clarity of the situation.  A person in need will have no problem explaining to you what their problem is.  A person trying to rip you off is having to remember a lie.  A person in need will gladly answer all of your questions to get help.  A person trying to rip you off will get frustrated by each question.  The person in need has a lot of time because their problem is worthy of what it takes to be solved.  A thief views that time as a wasted opportunity.  The longer you take to reach into your pocket means more time they could be spending ripping off other people.  The thief is frustrated with your questions while the person in need understands your desire for clarity.  Don't feel pressured to buy someones story.  

5.  Feel the freedom to say no.  If you are hesitant and you don't feel compelled by God to give, don't.  There have been times in my life I have said "Sorry, man" and walked away only to observe that person's reaction and decide to come back to give them a few bucks because I saw their reaction.  Sometimes as a last resort if you're on the fence is to say "no" and observe their reaction.  People truly in need will usually respect you.  People trying to rip you off will typically make a comment under their breath or drive off as in my case today.

Well meaning Christians have a hard time practicing street smarts.  Some Christians are so afraid of everyone that they unintentionally come off as ignorant jerks while other Christians are so loving they are always broke because they get ripped off.  You have to get with God and discern for yourself if you are to meet a perceived need.  I'm just encouraging you to have discernment about situations where your heart says "help" and your brain says "be cautious".  

For a point of clarification I'm not trying to tell everyone to be hard-nosed.  If you were to hang with me in the city for very long you'd see me talking to drunks knowing full-well that they were lying to my face.  In most cases I'll take time and treat them with complete attention.  In other cases I'll soak in the environment and say "We should keep walking."  It just takes time to get a sense for an area, a time of day, an attitude of who is around you.  We all should want to help but we're not called to get ripped off either.  

To sum up my advice I point you to a sentiment found in Matthew 10:16
"Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves."

What do you think?  Do you have difficulty in helping people?  Do you struggle with what to do?  Do you think we should give away money without questioning the motives of people?  

posted by Tally Wilgis @ Thursday, September 11, 2008


At 10:52 AM, Blogger Colleen said...

Everyone I know should read this blog! :) Thanks for writing it! how long are you in Baltimore for?

At 11:59 AM, Blogger Happy Mommy said...

I do not even carry cash, I might get some one a sandwich but I would never give them money! Maybe I am too skeptical but I feel like there are other options, than hanging on a street corner and begging.
I even find it hard at times giving to people in some church situations. It seems like some families keep needing help, they get new cars and food and then just leave. I think they are called church hoppers?
I will buy grocery cards for families who have fallen on hard times and i can cook up an extra meal in no time, gas cards are helpful too.
And for an added note I do not like signs, like hungry need to get home... Or the ones with Bible verses, I feel like they are so trying to make me feel guilty with the word of God and give them money so they can go get a drink.
I hope I don't sound to harsh, you know me, Tally, i love people but I don't like handouts, my husband works to hard for us to be ripped off, and we give when we really know there is a need.


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