Roadside scammers

I’ve seen them a few times over the past couple of months. White men of about 35 standing in busy intersections and running from car to car, looking desperate and asking a couple of questions, sometimes jotting something down on a piece of paper, before the traffic light turns green and they go back to the head of the queue.

“Self,” I’d say to myself. “I wonder what those guys are after.”

Today,  I found out.

I was driving back to the office from a lunchtime run to the post office. I was stopped at an intersection and a guy came up to me, holding a cellphone nervously in his hand. He looked like he was in his mid-thirties, dressed reasonably neatly.

“Excuse me ma ám,” he said. “Can you help me please?”

I turned off my radio and wound down my window.

“Sure, what’s the problem?” I asked.

His answer came in a rushed torrent of words, he seemed very sincere.

“I’m on my way to write Accounting and my accelerator cable snapped,” he said. “I’m trying to raise R29…” big eyes gazed imploringly at me.

“Well, I don’t have any cash on me,” I replied. “But if you need me to, I can give you a lift to your exam centre.”

This is a very dangerous offer to make to a random guy on the highway in South Africa. But something about this guy just triggered my skepticism alarm. I’ve seen guys in intersections behaving much like this chap on quite a few occasions. He just didn’t look like a student to me, he seemed too old somehow. And, I couldn’t see a broken-down car anywhere near the intersection.

“Um… I… Er…” the man stammered. “That’s ok… I…”

And the light went green and people behind me started hooting. Well, I’d called him on his lie and he was clearly embarrassed. As I drove off I checked my rear-view mirror. He’d gone back to the head of the queue and was looking for someone else to rip-off.

I think he’d chosen that particular lie (student, going to exam, terrible trouble with car) because almost everyone can identify with the anxiety that this kind of situation might cause. The price point he chose (R29) is cheap, in a wealthy suburb like Marlboro (a stones throw from the financial capital of Johannesburg – Sandton) I think that just about every passing motorist would have a couple of twenty rand notes in their wallet.

If he’d genuinely been desperate to get to an exam he would have taken me up on my offer and I would have delivered on it.

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6 responses to “Roadside scammers

  1. I was approached while filling my car at a petrol station near to my office. The guy looked so desperate and sincere, I’m sorry to say I fell for it – I told the attendant to put R50 petrol in his car and add it to my bill. I guess that way at least the “money” couldn’t be used for booze or drugs…..

    • I guess that is a reasonable compromise. I hope he was really in need and not trying to scam you.

  2. Same thing down in CT, although a slightly different MO. Often in busy parking lots, someone would approach and say then need money for petrol and that they could even show you their car. If you walked to ‘their’ car, 2 associates would be standing nearby looking astounded at a puddle of ‘petrol’ spilled next to the gas tank. They would even ask you to smell it to prove that the petrol had leaked out!

    Anyway, it happens everywhere.

    http://www.strangerlandkanada.wordpress.com

  3. I come from the South of Joburg, and we have the same sort of thing, I’m sure most of the scammers got their training here, for instance, the most used and common scam, is (normally a white guy in the 25 to 35 range) will approach a house, or vehicle at a robot/stop street, or in a busy shopping mall. He will seem desperate, and like you say ‘those pleading eyes’ and state that his car has broken down, just around the corner, and that his wife and three month old baby are in the car, and he needs 30 bucks to get home to Meyerton. You obviously say no, and the guy moves on.

    Next week you see the same guy trying to get to Meyerton.

    Another one, and this one is unfathomable. The guy doesn’t want money, or food, he just wants a lift. We used to call that hitch hiking when it was safe. Down the road is 1.2km. Three hours later his still there. So why doesn’t he walk.

    Correct me if I’m wrong Ive heard that these guys make as much as 15k standing on corners tax free. Even the Anglican church has tried to find honest work for these guys. Well, do you want to work your butt off for a measly salary, or do you want to beg on a street corner, get a lovely tan and coin it. No effort, just look sad and some sucker will give you some coins, and paper too.

    • That sums it up pretty well. Unfortunately, charitable people very quickly get tired of being scammed and the only people who lose out then are the people who really need help.

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