Is it better to know you've been scammed or not know?

By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 9:37 PM

If you've been scammed, is it better to know or to live in blissful ignorance? Does knowing harden your heart? Does not knowing keep you open to future acts of kindness?

I pondered this after asking readers to share their scammer stories. Most stories lack a denouement, but some have a satisfying conclusion - although it usually costs a few bucks to discover that.

Ten years ago, Oakton's Lisa Pianta was approached in McPherson Square by a well-dressed man in a trench coat who spun a story about needing cash to get his car out of the parking garage. "He had just gotten back into town, his luggage was lost, he had no money . . . blah blah blah," Lisa wrote. She gave him $5.

Several months later, Lisa and her husband were waiting at a light on Constitution Avenue. "A man in a trench coat approached my window, and I rolled it down slightly to see what he wanted. It was the same guy, with the same sad story! My husband swears I tried to grab his coat collar through the window as I screamed profanities, demanding my money back, but I'm denying that."

Heading home to Alexandria one night after work, Paul Kondis had stopped at the light at 14th and C streets, waiting to make the left over the 14th Street Bridge. A car pulled up next to him, and the driver explained that he worked at the fish market, someone had stolen his wallet, he lived way out in Virginia and was low on gas. "I gave him $5. the light turned green. I went home," Paul wrote.

The next day, Paul was walking down L'Enfant Plaza when a car pulled up, and the driver started telling him his story.

"It was the same guy. So I said, 'You told me the same thing last night.' He said 'So, is that a 'No?'

"He may be a slimy weasel, but at least he has a good work ethic."

The District's Vance Garnett was approached on the street by a guy in a jogging suit who asked for $3 for the Metro home, explaining that he had stopped Vance because he recognized him. "I jog past your place every morning," the man said. "I'll drop the money off tomorrow."

Vance gave him the three bucks, pretty sure he had been conned.

A week later in another part of town, the same guy in the same outfit stopped Vance and again asked for $3 to get home by Metro.

Wrote Vance: "That's when I had the pleasure of telling the guy: 'I don't have any cash on me now, but I'll give it to you tomorrow morning when you jog past my house.'

"His expression epitomized the word 'nonplussed.' "

A few years ago, David Bancroft was at a gas station in Olney around midnight when a man approached and said he was almost out of gas and was trying to get back to Virginia with his two young kids. Could he have $10 for gas?

"He did have two young kids in the car and Virginia tags," David wrote. "I didn't happen to have $10 at the time with me, so I offered to buy his gas and put it on my credit card. He declined. I realized it was a scam. If he really needed gas why wouldn't he accept the offer? I can't think of any reason why not."

But sometimes people are in need, aren't they? Alexandria's Mark Gibson recalled a horrible day when he was struck by a vicious stomach flu at work. He left his office mid-day, hopped on the Blue Line at Farragut West and got off at the Pentagon to catch a bus home, "grimacing at every delay."

"Getting off the Metro at the Pentagon, in my haste I neglected to remember that I had no money whatsoever to pay for the bus - not even an ATM card, as I had recently misplaced it." Mark thought he'd have to backtrack to his office to borrow some money.

"At this point, hanging my greenish, sweaty face in misery, an older woman approached me and asked if I was all right, noting that I looked ill. I explained my predicament and she immediately handed me several dollars to pay my bus fare and hoped I'd get home and feel better soon! I'm sure I thanked her, but I wish I could have followed up with a sincere and mighty thanks. She was a timely savior indeed."

Of course, in Mark's case he hadn't approached the woman. She had approached him. Maybe she would have stiffened if he'd walked up to her and said, "I don't have any money, I lost my ATM card and I need to take the bus."

Are we more likely to give if we're treated to a hard-luck story, the more convoluted the better? Or would we prefer people just to be honest, the way panhandlers are: I'm homeless. Give me money.

Maybe everyone should always carry an extra $20 bill, folded into a tiny bundle and kept inside a necklace worn around the neck. That way we'd never need $3 for the Metro or $10 for gas.

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