Swindler’s List

Certain good deeds are a no-brainer. Letting someone know they dropped a glove? Naturally. Opening the door for an old lady? Don’t even have to think about it. But some situations are trickier, like when doing a good turn could compromise your personal safety. Or when you suspect you’re being conned.

Last summer, a little girl went door-to-door on our street selling “chocolates.” I’m compelled to use the quoties around that word because the chocolate in question probably never existed. Yet the girl couldn’t have been more than eight years old, was precocious as anything – she brightly told me her sister had the same name as me, and chirped about the new school she’d be starting in September – and was cute as a button. She had a receipt book with her, the kind you can pick up at any office supply store. And her mom hovered on the sidewalk at a watchful distance, pushing a baby in a stroller.

The girl asked for four dollars in advance, explaining that she’d make a note of my order and return in two weeks with the chocolate. Of course I was suspicious. Especially after the chatty child told me where she lived – clear on the other side of the city.

But she looked up at me with her darling smile and big eyes. (I know, I know, all part of the con.) And I couldn’t resist shelling over a few bucks that I’d never see again.

The way I figure, if this family was so desperate that they’d travelled all the way to our neighbourhood with a receipt book and a story, only to scoop up a measly four dollars per house, then they needed my two toonies more than I did. We handed over the money. She never came back.

For a while, I kept my carbon copy of the receipt on my desk. I don’t know why. It showed my name and address in the little girl’s careful handwriting. I wondered whether the child was in on the scam. Perhaps she truly believed she was selling chocolates, never imagining that her struggling mom had no plans to fill the orders. I worried about the life lessons she might be learning. I worried more about whether she had enough to eat each day.

What would you do if you knew you were being defrauded, but the con artist needed a hand up all the same? Please comment! Coming on Friday: part two on this topic.

A small price to pay for a family in need?

A small price to pay for a family in need?

15 responses to “Swindler’s List

  1. I think this particular kind of fraud reveals the true character of the person being defrauded. You did what you felt was right despite knowing that there was something odd going on. Kudos!
    There’s no reason for you to worry about how the money was used- it’s the same as giving money to a homeless person. You correctly noted that they probably needed the money pretty desperately.
    As for the life lessons the girl was learning, there isn’t much to be said. The little girl in your story probably knew she was doing something wrong, but followed her mom anyway. While admirable of the kid, she will look back on it and wonder.
    A recently divorced couple I know had a daughter. After the divorce, the father started telling the tween girl mean stories about her mother. Now, as an observer there wasn’t much I could do. However, the girls in both our stories will soon be old enough to form their own opinions and judgements.

    That’s when karma kicks in. Maybe not karma. But you know what I mean.

    All in all, I think you did the right thing. It was a win-win situation for all involved.


  2. Thank you, Peter! Some interesting comparisons there. And I think you’re right. No matter what was going on behind the scenes, and no matter what this child is learning, I’m guessing this family would have worse off if I hadn’t shelled over four bucks.

  3. So I am definitely hoping Part 2 is all about how the chocolates arrived.

    I think this is a great story and kudos for the generous spirit. Beyond the fact that we continue to be a society where someone would feel compelled to use their child this way, the part I struggle with is the abuse of trust. Since you felt it was a con, you did what you felt was right knowing the consequences. I wonder how the people who parted with $4 but expected chocolate feel. Trust is such an important but fragile thing.

    It reminds me of something that happened to me. At the end of the fall , a man I did not know knocked on my door and asked to borrow a rake, he said he was helping down the street. I was suspicious but handed over the rake because who knocks on someone’s door to borrow something if they do not intend to return it? And a rake is not exactly a high value item. I am still waiting for, but not expecting, him to return it.

  4. A woman once came to our door, (we’re just off Islington) desperate for money for a cab. She too, had a story, her’s was with a sick relative, no car, the bus wouldn’t get them to their destination etc. It didn’t make sense. I asked her questions to make sense of it and give myself time to figure out what to do.I gave her the money and sat back down with our extended family who happened to be over. Everyone had an opinion. I simply said, “If she is that desperate for $20 and it won’t change my life then I’m happy to give it her and if her story was true, then I helped her get to her destination.” I was OK with it and so then was the family.

  5. These are great stories, and they’re all linked. It’s funny how we’re willing to help someone even when our warning bells are going off. Human nature? (And sorry, Richard, but the chocolate is still AWOL!)

  6. These are stories of desperate people taking advantage of generous souls. The massive difference is that in your story Lisa, a mother was using a child to swindle and cheat a stranger in her own home. I would have given her the money too, but I am so disturbed by what my imagination is creating as this child’s backstory. What else is going on in this child’s life that would pose a significant risk to her mental, emotional, moral and even physical health and development? I work with single mothers who are struggling to survive on what little money social assistance provides. Many of them work under the table and all of them do without. However, not one of them would have used their child in such a damaging and dishonest way. This is a relatively sophisticated and devious scam which is completely illegal in a way that panhandling is not. That this child was so competent and charming is incredibly disturbing and scary. At what point does this mother decide the child is accomplished enough to be sent out on her own? Is it really food this money is buying? We should be ashamed of the number of children and families living in poverty in our rich city, however, this story is terrifying and shocking. This woman wasn’t knocking on your door trying scam you out of a few dollars. She was using her little girl to do it for her.

    This was an incredibly depressing and worrisome story.

  7. Thank you for joining the conversation, Chloethedog. I agree with what you’re saying… there’s a lot to worry about here, and a lot is left to the imagination. There’s even the remote possibility that this family was honest and fully intended to deliver the chocolate, but got sideswiped by an emergency. I can’t say that never crossed my mind.

    • I think your last point (no matter how remote that possibility is) is what keeps us giving or lending a bit of a helping hand even when the red flags are waving. Without that glimmer of hopefulness and optimism, then we are really just left with cynicism. I agree that it is always worth the risk to keep that alive. I kept thinking about the divorce analogy. The hope is always that there is an adult in every child’s life that offers a positive model for a successful life (sometimes a counter point to their own parent). Perhaps at the very least that child at your door could see your generosity as something heartening and worth imitating as she grows up, and she has the power and opportunity to abandon the other, sadder, lessons learned. And as Richard said, our trust is what often takes the hit in these situations, so all we can do is fight that chipping away of our faith in others and probably get taken in a few times. Maybe that’s the small price we pay. Thanks for your take on the story.


  8. So very well said, Carolyn / Chloe.

  9. Boy Lisa, that’s a tough one.
    I’d probably have done exactly what you did, hoping that I was helping. BUT at the same time I think I’d fear that I was also supporting the scam, giving the scammers no reason to find another way of coping.
    Now it’s easy to say I’d do the same when it hasn’t actually happened to me.
    I’d like to think the child has no clue about the scam or that if she does that she feels she has no other choice that it’s her way of helping her Mother. It’s all very sad. Neither of their shoes would I ever want to be in nor do I wish it on anyone else. Sometimes life choices are extremely tough.

  10. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Jody. What I nevertheless find encouraging is that at the end of the day, no matter what we suspect, we’d all feel compassion for the girl – and we’d all buy the fake chocolate.

  11. Linda Ruth Ciglen

    A few years ago I had a man on the street stop me and give me a very long, very convoluted story about an emergency, with a promise to return money he was asking to “borrow”. I was positive it was a scam. However, I decided to give him $20 anyway, telling him it was a gift that he needn’t repay, and asking him to consider helping someone else if he had the opportunity. I know many here may find this difficult to believe, but I actually felt prompted by God to give him the money.

    A sad sidebar to your story, Lisa, is how common it is in other parts of the world for adults to use children to gain income, whether via scams, begging or outright trafficking.

    Let’s keep working towards a more just world.

  12. Thanks for speaking up, Linda Ruth. I’ve heard of that scam many times before; in fact my hubby and I have experienced it firsthand. I love that you asked him to pay it forward… who knows what you might have inspired.

  13. Pingback: Swindler’s List, Part Two | 50 Good Deeds

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