Conned: Why I’m Glad To Be An Occasional Sucker

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It was a beautiful morning…

I’d stumbled out of a friends apartment, walking slowly toward the corner, when a young couple aproached me on the street. They were well dressed and about my age. And, that was no accident.

The man began to share his story.

“Excuse me,” he said, “this is so awkward. But we were with friends until late last night and, after they already headed home to Connecticut, we found out our car was towed. My wallet was actually in the car and the lot is across town. I know you don’t know us, but, well, is there any way you might consider lending us $20, so that we could go pick up our car. I’ll write down our address and telephone number and take yours and, as soon as we get home to Connecticut today, we’ll mail you back a check for $20.”

It was early, and they seemed genuine enough, so I said, “sure, no problem,” and handed over a 20.

They thanked me and made like they were walking to the corner at the other end of the block to grab a cab.

I felt great about helping out perfect strangers.

A bit later, I shared the morning’s events with a friend, who’s response was…

“Dude, you’re an idiot.

You just got conned out of $20.”

“No way,” I said, “these people seemed really nice.” But, I wondered if he was right. So, after hanging up with him, I picked up the phone and dialed the number they’d given me.

It was fake. I looked up the address they’d shared. That was fake, too.

I was fuming.

Partly at them, for making me feel like a fool. And partly at myself, for falling for the con. I was a NYer, I am supposed to be immune to this type of thing. How could I fall for something so blatant? Why didn’t I call the number on the paper from my cell phone, BEFORE handing over the money?

Getting burned stayed with me for some time. I wouldn’t look at people approaching on the street (though, that’s the rule in NYC, anyway). I stopped giving change to homeless people holding out cups. I wouldn’t even share directions when asked on the street. And, I felt really bad about it. So, after some time passed, I made a decision.

I’d rather believe in the innate goodness of people and occasionally get taken, than believe in the pervasive badness of people and spend my days scrambling to keep what I have.

Time passed and I found myself in another situation with an opportunity to give. But, this time the potential “con-artist” was a young kid, maybe 8 years old, dressed in a blazer, selling chocolate on the steps of the local post office. I didn’t know if it was really to support his school, or if he was just scamming me. But, I decided…it really didn’t matter.

And, what unfolded moments later was pure magic.

I shared this story on this blog just about a a year ago in my first real post, called “A kid, A Tie And a Chocolate Smile.” Here’s the short version:

As I looked up at this young man, he smiled insecurely. Feeling like my karma needed a bit of zip and wanting to do something nice, I offered a dollar for a bar and a thank you. I was feeling pretty good about my deed and began to make my way down the short flight of stairs and through the glass doors ahead.

It only takes a moment to change a day.

As I approached, I noticed an older gentleman, gray hair and glasses, leaning on a cane and smiling at me. I thought this odd. People don’t make eye contact on the street in Manhattan, even old people. But, he looked so kind, I could not resist smiling back.

As I began to move toward him, thinking that would be the end of it, his smile widened to a grin and he began to gently raise his hand, pointing to the young man inside on the steps. “That’s my grandson,” he said, “thank you.” He stood positively glowing with pride at his grandson’s success. I nearly cried. Karma repaid so instantly. So small an act, so great an impact upon both giver and receiver in so short a period of time. In a smile, my day was transformed.

So, I’m curious, what’s your take?

Let’s discuss…

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36 responses

36 responses to “Conned: Why I’m Glad To Be An Occasional Sucker”

  1. JustSomeBrazilian says:

    Incredible. It almost made me cry now by reading the post.

    I come from a country in which there are a lot of poor people. This kind of “cons” are often made and I share the same life perspective as you do.

    My wife she is European and she always asked me if “giving money to the street people is the right thing to do”.

    “How do you know that she is going to buy food ?”
    Well I dont. But when I was a kid I used to live in a very big house, thank God we have always had more than the average, and this old lady always came to ask for money in our door. She smelled bad, very badly dressed… Someone that people would try to look away on the street. But one time I was alone and I gave her the money that I was keeping to buy me a G.I. Joe. She thanked me in a normal way and few days later my grandmother told me that on that day she didnt have food at home and came to our place to ask money from grandma and just me was there, what Im trying to say is that I gave her what to eat that day and this changed me since then.

    If you came till this point of my stupid-small-life-changing-fact… Just one more thing: Dont assume always the worst of people cos you dont know what is going on in their lifes.

    Sorry for the long text but yours was brilliant.

    Thank you for sharing

  2. mark_hayward says:

    Hey Jonathan – sorry about the $20.00. Although, I think it’s a small price to pay to maintain *your* sense of who you are. If you feel the need to be charitable, or to help people in certain circumstances, then you can’t second guess yourself for the rest of your life. 🙂

    If you are genuine and are inclined to help people then I think occasionally you’ll get burned, but in the long run, hopefully, it doesn’t happen to often you’ll be able to sleep better at night. Otherwise you become a cynic.

  3. chrislrob says:

    I feel the same way, Jonathan.

    As a general rule, I rarely give people money on the street anymore. While a buck or two won’t kill me, I like *knowing* that I’m helping someone that needs it so I prefer giving my few dollars to charities.

    But I live in Chicago and sometimes shake my head at how sheepish and even downright embarrassed people look as they give a few coins to a person that presumably needs it.

    They actually seem to feel bad that they’ve tried to help!

    And that’s a real shame.

    Chris

    P.S. I wouldn’t give ANYONE $20.00, though! LOL! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

  4. Lynn Crymble says:

    Jonathan, I’m with you 100%.
    I’d rather believe that more often than not, people are not trying to scam because it just feels better. Giving others the benefit of the doubt is what helps us be compassionate and understanding.

    Of course, we’ll get burned sometimes but that doesn’t mean we have to ‘give up’ on all people.

    There are so many things in life that we keep doing even when it doesn’t make sense. Like playing the lottery – the chances are slimmer than slim of winning but “someone has to win” sometime right?

    So, if we apply our slight hope of winning to the idea of trusting in the good in people – the odds are much higher that you’ll get a return on your investment!

    Thanks so much for sharing your story.

  5. This story reminds me of something similar that happened to me in London a while back.

    I still give money on the street at times, although not very often. The thing is that even though in these stories the money didn’t go to very trustworthy people, the choice to not become a total cynic (as noted earlier by Mark) is hopefully worth a lot more than £20 or $20.

    But yeah… it’s a bad feeling when you realize someone has taken advantage of your trust.

  6. I totally agree: I’d rather be conned every once in a while. Basically I don’t think it’s my duty to judge people. I mean: obviously I don’t want to be conned, and blatant stuff will be filtered by my radar, but sometimes stuff doesn’t. So what? Let them have their fun, if there is any fun in conning people.

  7. Heather says:

    Thank you. I’ve given just-bought bottles of water to the folks standing on the corners holding signs, I’ve shared my drive thru meals, I’ve given rides (when I trusted my gut), and I’ve given the 20 bucks to someone who said they needed it, too.

    I want to believe that people really are good.

    I work for the Better Business Bureau, where I hear the complaints and scams all day long, and it’s disheartening, but the one phone call when I can find a good answer for an elderly lady or help someone resolve their issue – those make it worth it.

  8. I say lead with a spirit of giving when you feel led to give and let Karma deal with the person (s) & their intent of receiving.

    What goes around comes around!

  9. Hey Jonathan,
    Similar story to yours, except I was with my husband and he gave the woman the money she asked for, which meant less for us at the ballgame that day. I said, “Couldn’t you smell the booze on her breath? You’ve been taken!” He responded, “You never really know.”

    Later, I remembered, “Be not forgetful
    to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Who is to say, really?

  10. riva says:

    Yesterday morning, walking to work I noticed a woman from the Soho partnership tapping a guy who was sleeping in a vestibule to give him a donut. When I asked her, she said she buys him breakfast every morning. And she had such a big smile on her face. It was a beautiful thing to behold.
    We’re all bound to get scammed once in a while. I’ll bet the odds are still in our favor for making a difference with our spare change and well intentioned dollars.

  11. Pete says:

    What’s my take? My take is that you need to reread your posts before posting them, especially since you’re trying to present yourself as a professional writer.

    “I’d stumbled out of a friends apartment, walking slowly toward the corner, when a young couple aproached me on the street.”

    Should be…

    “I’d stumbled out of a friend’s apartment, walking slowly toward the corner, when a young couple approached me on the street.”

    There are numerous other mistakes in the post as well but I don’t have time to correct them all at the moment.

  12. We’ve been taken. Sometimes, for much more than $20.00.

    I congratulate you for your giving. That energy goes out into the Universe. It benefits everyone.

  13. Sometimes they need that 20.00 more than you do at the moment. For whatever reason. Whether as a withdrawal from the Karma Bank ( on their part) or a deposit ( on yours).

    Humanity in flow. Not always graceful, but always an opportunity to have some.

  14. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ JustSomeBrazilian – Thanks so much for sharing that story from when you were a kid, it seems so many of us have had similar experiences.

    @ Mark_Hayward – agreed, it is a small price to pay

    @ chrislrob – yeah, it’s funny how giving someone money on the street can actually lead to a feelin of self consciousness or embarassment, almost like others are judging you for doing it. I wonder where that comes from

    @ Lynn – no doubt, giving often involves a feeling we want to create in ourselves as much as a desire to help others. Interesting lottery analogy

    @ Thanks for sharing that link, yeah, it does feel bad when you get taken, but that goes away a lot faster than bad feelings when you pull back from giving

    @ Katinka – it’s a really interesting question about judgment, I honestly don’t know what the money I give is being used for. Sometimes, I’ll give food or something else if that just feels like the “righter” thing to do.

    @ Heather – thanks for sharing your experience at the BBB, agreed, it’s that one person you genuinely help that helps make it worthwhile

    @ Matthew – no doubt, what comes around, goes around

    @ riva – love the story about the donut, I think part of the joy of regular giving like that is that it also tends to remind you to be grateful for what you’ve got

    @ Corinne – hehehe, funny, I actually read your comment as “I congratulate you for being taken,” then doubled back to re-read what you actually said. 🙂 Thanks for your thoughts…and the unintended giggle

    @ Janice – I like that analogy with the Karma Bank and “humanity in flow.” Nice visual, thanks!

  15. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Betsy – “You never really know.” So true. Who knows what led someone to become a con or led them to need to ask for money on the street? And, hey, at least I hope your team won! 😉

  16. There’s more happiness in giving !

  17. Avani-Mehta says:

    If getting conned once in a while means being able to help as well, I wouldn’t mind a few off times.

    However, I do try to ensure that money is not going in wrong hands. For e.g. – If someone is asking for money to buy food, I usually buy food and give.

  18. I believe people are basically good, and if you act any other way you will drive yourself insane. The occasional “twenty dollar incident” is the price of doing business. I think it’s a small price to pay.

  19. I don’t like to feel like a sucker either, but when I reached a certain level of success years ago I decided that wasn’t the issue.

    The issue (at least for me) is whether I can afford to help someone who is obviously trying hard. Maybe they are conning me but even if that’s true they obviously need that $20 in a big way.

    Like you, I’d rather try to help someone in need and let the hereafter sort out the details of their ethics.

  20. Dan says:

    Jonathan,

    This reminds me of some similar experiences I had while living in NYC a few years ago. Similarly, the scheme was a “businessman” who boarded the same Metro North train claiming he was mugged, and could someone spot him $20. He wasn’t as convincing as you described your couple to be.

    But I am lifted by the sentiment of trusting Karma, and doing what one thinks is the right thing anyway.

    I’m sure where all conned some of the time, but my bet is the lion share of our good deeds do go well-received.

  21. Glee Girl says:

    Good on you for not letting those con artists affect your belief in the goodness of people.

    I never used to give money to beggars on the street, partly because of the possibility they would use it to buy alcohol or cigarettes, rather than food or accomodation at a shelter.

    But, after learning more about the plight of homeless people in my country and city, I’ve softened and I will usually hand over a few dollars (unless it’s obviously a scam). Even if they don’t use it for food or accomodation, is it really my business? If I give money to someone for a birthday, do I expect to be able to have a say in how they spend it? No.

    I also choose to believe that most people are genuine and most of the money I give away is put to good use. It feels good to give – to know that I might have helped a homeless man get a warm bed for a night.

  22. I was just in Paris this past weekend and some guy wanted to give me an 18k gold ring that he’d found on the street. I thought “okay, whatever” meaning to toss it because I was certain it wasn’t, when he came back and asked for some food or money in exchange for the ring. I handed the ring back and said “no.”

    My boyfriend told me that I was too good of a person and would get robbed for it someday, but since I’m very careful with my money and my bag, I don’t worry about that and I’d rather keep my sense of goodness and openness than be forever wary of anyone approaching me.

  23. neil says:

    Its an obvious choice to me.

    You can either accept it as part of life and maybe sympathise with the guys who feel like they have to con people to make a living…

    ..or….

    … get all uptight about it, fear strangers, always think people are out to rip you off and generally stop trusting the human race.

    $20 isnt so much to pay for a reminder like that is it?…coaches can cost 10 times that.

    And, thats without counting all the good that the money you have given also does for people who arent on the con.

    Interesting post 🙂

  24. Kristin says:

    Yup, made me cry.
    This post really resonates with me. As an aspiring yogi and a New Yorker, I am continually challenged with balancing the openness I take off the mat, and the “street sense” necessary to protect myself in the city.
    I do believe in the innate goodness of people, but I know that there are also people out there with bad intentions. Being open to help a fellow human and connect with people is so important, but using your common sense and intuition as to when this is safe is also very important. Losing a few dollars is not a big deal, losing something more precious is.
    Be open to goodness and positivity, but also use common sense.

  25. Lin says:

    Hi Jonathan, there will always be more happiness in giving than in receiving, just like there will likely always be people wishing to con others out of their hard-earned money in one way or another.

    Being kind-hearted, considerate and giving is a choice. People often refer to such giving as “paying it forward”, and the benefits of such unselfish giving should never be discounted or stopped because the occasional twit takes advantage of people with good character.

    @Pete, get a grip.

  26. Margaret says:

    If it felt good to give, then it felt good to give!
    Their intentions and what they did with the money is their problem, not yours.
    So keep the good feeling, it felt right and you did it.

  27. Writer Dad says:

    That’s a really good story, and I loved how you told it. The ending caught me by surprise, in my throat. The other day, my family was eating in this charming/trashy diner by our house. This woman burst inside, sauntered up to our table, and started spinning this yarn about her sick baby outside in the car. I’m usually generous, but something about this lady smelled like salmon. Sure enough, I see her five minutes later, cross the street (no car) and proceed to have a loud argument with a man who I can only guess was her pimp. Your story is way better.

  28. Bryan Eye says:

    “I’d rather believe in the innate goodness of people and occasionally get taken, than believe in the pervasive badness of people and spend my days scrambling to keep what I have.”

    What an awesome passage … one that is immediately going into the WealthQuotes database!

  29. Jonathan,

    Great stories. The truth is you will never be able to tell if you are being conned 100% of the time.

    The only strategy to employ is generosity. It is not for us to decide the legitimacy of the need but to trust the legitimacy of the desire to help others.

    I must admit I struggle and do not always give to those who request help because of my suspicion of their need or even the responsibility for the situation they are in.

    I am only human, but I try to remember, I don’t know how my gift will make a difference in somebodies life. It is not always apparent.

    In the end you might find the gift or lesson is actually for the giver and not the receiver.

    Brian

  30. Troy says:

    Jonathan,

    I think it’s a basic tenet of humanity that we want to see the best in others. When we stop giving the “benefit of the doubt” to others, humanity starts to break down.

  31. sharon says:

    $40 to a woman who knocked on my apartment door one night with a sad story. She even showed her ID which looked faked but I gave her the money anyway.

    $20 to an elderly woman a couple of months earlier.

    $8 to a young lady at Penn Station. She approached me a couple of weeks later with the same story. I told her I recognize her from weeks ago and she quickly walked away.

    $5 to a woman on the train…

    $4 to a young man at Penn Station…

    ..and it just goes on…

    I just hoped that one of them was truly is need.

  32. Jonathan Fields says:

    Hey gang, loving all the stories! I guess what it comes down to for most of us is that, sure, nobody likes to be taken. Nobody likes to feel like a sucker. It’s a blow not just to our egos, but to our sense of morality and our beliefs and hopes about the essence of human nature.

    But, at the same time, the emotional and psychological impact of shutting down your kindness reflex seems an order of magnitude worse than the shorter term unease of being taken.

    Of course, we’re talking about small potatoes cons here, too. I wonder if we’d all still feel similarly were the stakes significantly higher, like being conned out of a large amount of money or a giant asset.

    When I was an enforcement attorney for the SEC many moons ago, we stumbled onto a scam where elderly people living just above the poverty line were being prayed upon and induced to literally take cash advances on their credit cards that they’d never be able to repay on the promise that they would receive a huge windfall.

    I wonder, if that was me, if that was us, would we still feel the same? What do you think?

  33. Justin says:

    I got conned the exact same way! This random stranger flagged me down and asked for money so he could go to his wife, who was having a baby. Like in your situation, he did seem genuinely sincere, but I could tell he was lying. I gave him the money anyway, because he had a crazy look to him and I was afraid if I didn’t comply he would do something drastic. I’ve already been robbed once and after that you just become a little protective of yourself.

  34. Jonathan,

    I strongly believe that we have hold on to our belief in the goodness of mankind, even though it means we’ll get taken sometimes.

    Mother Teresa said something like “When we are kind, some people will take advantage of us; be kind anyway.”

    Once I was in a fast food drive-through with my grandkids in tow. When I rolled up to pay for my food and get my purchase, the clerk handed me my bags of food and said, “Your food has already been paid for by a car behind you.” It was the first time I can remember being the recipient of a random act of kindness.

    I don’t know what motivated this person to pay for our meal, but I graciously waved a thank you.

    Since then, I’ve on occasion done the same for others.

    I have been on both sides of kindness and it feels good both ways.

  35. Hi Jonathan,

    Oops!I need to correct my random kindness story. It was the car in front of me that paid for my meal.

  36. […] am coloryou Life choices, random acts of kindness, saying thank you In a recent post on his blog, Awake @ the Wheel, Jonathan Fields shared an experience where he believed he was conned out of $20 by a well-dressed […]