I picked up the phone, and it was a guy who needed help paying for a plane ticket down to Phoenix. His mother was dying.
I tried to beg off early in the conversation; we don't have the money for such an expense. Our program is set up to give vouchers for lodging for a night, or food, or maybe some gasoline--not money for plane tickets, regardless of circumstances. But he--call him Jeffrey--said, "Please, could you just let me talk, even if you can't help me? I've been calling around all morning to agencies and churches, and people won't even let me explain what's happening."
So of course I listened. He and his sister both wanted to go to their mother, but they couldn't afford that, so they had drawn straws. His sister won, and he would stay home with her children. They'd gotten together nearly enough for a flight leaving that night--they were just $31 dollars shy of the total. "I'm not saying no one is willing to help us," he said, "it's just that they need 3 or 4 days to do it. And I'm afraid that my mom won't last that long."
Thirty-one dollars. But here's the thing that everyone in my position knows: scammers always have a story filled with enough details to make it real; and it helps if they are also charming--after I'd given him my first name, Jeffrey called me "Miss Pat" in his soft Southern accent. One more thing about scammers? They invariably need the money in cash. "Okay," I said, "How can I write a check or call the airlines with a credit card for $31 of the bill?" Jeffrey wasn't sure; he'd check and would get back to me within a half-hour.
I hung up the phone, then told the story to Barb, the office volunteer. Between us, we ponied up the $31. When the phone rang a little while later, I predicted, "It's Jeffrey again, and I bet he asks for cash." He did. The airline would not accept divided payment, he said, and if he brought a check for the entire amount, the check-writer needed to be there with i.d.
All right, all right. When you try to help people in need, you get scammed a certain amount of the time, you just do. Aware that this could be one of those times, I reluctantly decided to err on the side of a dying mother. Both Jeffrey and his sister were at their jobs in Portland; I'd be leaving work before the sister could arrive, so described how I would leave the cash in a hiding place for her to pick up.
An hour later, when the phone rang and I heard that soft Southern voice again, I steeled myself. Here it comes: the reason why he needs more cash.
"Miss Pat," he said, "I just have to call again to thank you. You listened to me, and you're willing to help me out, and I just want to say again how grateful I am." Yeah, and..., I thought, waiting for it. "And that's why I just had to call to let you know that while I was on the phone this morning calling everybody I could think of, my boss went around--we have about 300 workers--and he collected enough money to pay for a ticket for me and for my sister's kids and we are all gonna go down and see my mother." Now he was crying, and apologizing for crying, and I had goosebumps. "And I'm just so grateful and I want to say again how much I appreciate your help," he finished.
Calling back to share a heartwarming turn of events? That's one thing scammers don't do.
(Want to read more of these stories? Click on the "Search this Blog" box to the right and enter the words Human Nature.)