Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Why can't we believe that old people can be scammers?

Couple of days ago I came across an interesting Facebook post (link here).  Sorry it is not in English, the story is actually from Croatia but here it goes.
A nice lady saw an old grandma begging in front of the supermarket and was so taken by that harrowing image that she gave her some money and asked the old woman how she found herself in such a situation. 
The old woman told her she has no family, as her daughter died from cancer recently, and only receives a minuscule pension.  The nice lady could not leave it at that, touched by the fact that this elderly lady has been reduced to begging in order to survive and she took some covert photographs of her and made a Facebook appeal asking people to help.  The post is full of emotion and it is obvious by the comments below it that people are good and kind and that this has touched them deeply as many have started to share the post and enquire if anyone knows the old lady and how they could get involved to send money and food.  Some even offered their home in case the old lady had nowhere to go.  People were keen to find out who and where she is in order to help.  Many blamed the government for her demise and soon the daily paper published the story too. 

But with the shares and comments, different reports emerged.  Many people reported they saw the same lady in their areas too (some quite a distance apart) and stories of others having similar encounters with the same old grandma surfaced.  People had conflicting stories told by the old woman, about where she lives.  Some even tried to find her and went to addresses she gave them, only to find out that she lied.  At this point few people started to wonder if the grandma is genuine, some pointed out this could be a scam but were torn apart by others who could not believe that someone 'this old' would ever put themselves through such an undignified ordeal, if they were not truly in need.  This is where things get interesting as people debate the facts in the thread.  At this point, these are the facts; it is clear that the old woman is at different locations daily and at each location, she tells people she is living locally and that she is ill, which turns out to be a lie.  This should be enough to arouse suspicion that this is a scam but people in the thread are having a very hard time believing that someone 'old' would stoop so low, at the end of their life.  That they would have the stamina to sit on a small bucket all day and beg.  Those that are clearly suspicious are accused of not respecting the elderly.  The crowd now gets an idea that if the old woman is actually committing fraud, there must be a reason behind it.  People suggest that she's a victim of human trafficking, that there is a gang behind this and she is being used for begging.  Those who have given her the money are now glad that they have because the gang would surely harm her if she does not earn the usual amount.  Concern is still there, people are now angry and many discuss reporting this to social services and the police, in order to save the old grandma from the life of hardship at the hand of a criminal gang that is forcing an elderly person to beg all day.  There are many comments shooting back and forth and only a very few sceptics who still believe this is a good business and people have been taken in by a good story.

Finally the same daily paper publishes a message from the police (here).  The woman is not as old as she says she is (late forties and not seventy) and she is a professional scammer, known to the police and arrested several times.  The scam is perpetrated by her and her partner, who takes her from supermarket to supermarket to beg and it is clear she is purposely making herself look like a simple, old woman in order to deceive the public and elicits sympathy.

Interesting story of deception so far but what I found interesting were the comments as the story unfolded.  So what makes this scam so believable, that people cannot entertain the idea that it could be a scam despite clear warning signs?  First of all, the fact that many people associate elderly people with trustworthiness and wholesome values of yesteryears.  They remind us of our grandparents, even when realistically, they may not even be that similar to our grandparents, we often just feel more sympathy towards elderly people.  Second factor is the vulnerability (i.e. physical disability or illness) and dignity.  Seeing someone vulnerable in an undignified situation makes us uncomfortable and more likely to help.  Overriding this seems impossible, even when we are faced with evidence of the contrary.   This was also evident in the comments, with many people arguing they are glad they offered help as they could not live with themselves if it turned out the story was genuine and they did nothing to help. But it is clear that scammers are using this against us.  This is nothing new.  In fact, a great example comes from the story of Pinocchio.  In an original story from 1800s , which is somewhat darker than the Disney version, there are scammers that do just that, pretend to be blind and lame in order to deceive and Pinocchio takes pity on them despite being scammed by them already.  

We are wired to feel sympathy and often believe that people experiencing real hardship would not lie to us.   The kindness we feel, the empathy for others, this is precisely what scammers are targeting and it is good to be aware of just how far they can take that deception.