Scams and their Bitter Taste

While the vast majority of my vacation memories of this summer will be positive and full of happy thoughts, I have to admit that a few moments have left me uncomfortable.  I’ve felt perfectly safe the entire time we were here but seeing the beggars in Harvard Square was awkward.  The contrast between the bastion of higher learning and the homeless men near its metro stop, for example, is unsettling.  That said, it was watching my friend be scammed that upset me the most.  Scams are hardly unique to any one country and the feeling of being had or betrayed that they create are also universal.

If you go to Paris, for instance, you might experience what I’ll call “the lost ring scam” like my Mom’s friend C. or have a waiter try to convince you to tip 15-20% of your bill in a touristy restaurant (a friend who flew to France for our wedding).  Tipping in France, if done at all–as a general rule service is included, involves rounding up your bill to the nearest Euro or leaving a few small coins on the table at a cafe.  As for the ring, the old motto “if it’s too good to be true, it’s not” remains valid and while my Mom’s friend didn’t fall for it, a quick google search was enough to show that both French people and tourists have been targeted with variations of the ring scam.

While walking in the heart of Paris, C. was approached by a young woman holding a ‘gold’ ring and asking if she had dropped it.  When C. replied that the ring wasn’t hers, the other woman then offered to sell it to her for an inflated price. When my friend replied that she still wasn’t interested, the other woman dropped her price.  She added that she would be happy with whatever C. would be willing to give her and that it would help her make ends meet as a student.  C. simply said no again and walked away.  The ring, of course, was not pure gold.  It’s a scam but there was no emotional pull involved–no “sick” or begging children here, no one at risk of going hungry or sleeping outside.  (I put “sick” in quotations for the simple reason that I have become cynical when I see such children in Europe.  On more than one occasion, I have seen them miraculously get up and sprint at the sight of police officers approaching.)

Getting back to my friend’s story, however, we were going to the grocery store last week when a woman rolled up next to us in her wheelchair and asked my friend for money.  My friend wasn’t a tourist, the woman in the wheelchair couldn’t have know that we were; her scam wasn’t about taking advantage of tourists.  She explained that she needed help to pay for her prescription medication.  Most people are aware of the health care debate going on in the United States now and of the sometimes prohibitive cost of health care here especially for the uninsured.  The woman’s story seemed genuine.  My friend, broke one of her cardinal rules and gave the woman money.  When I asked her why, she looked at me and said “Because I believed her.”  Four words which equate to simple human trust.  The story could have ended there, it should have.  Unfortunately for me, it didn’t.  Elise decided to show her two-year old attitude inside the store and I took her outside for a cooling-off period leaving my friend to finish shopping.  While we were sitting outside, police officers showed up to deal with a disturbance in the store and I heard them discussing the woman in the wheelchair.  She was a fraud.  I didn’t tell my friend.  I didn’t want to ruin her generosity but it’s made me angry in ways that other purely monetary scams like the ring can’t.  Emotional blackmail is never pleasant.

It didn’t ruin my vacation but it did ruin my day.  It has made it significantly more unlikely for me to help someone on the street in the future and that’s even sadder.

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