How rest area tricksters fool their victims: Internet Scambusters #497
They're supposed to be there to give you respite from the road, but rest area stops are also a magnet for con artists.
From panhandlers and phony auto mechanics to card sharks, they lurk in these "captive" parking lots ready to jump weary travelers and other unsuspecting victims.
This week, we outline the three top rest area scams to be on the lookout for, with some simple but sound advice on how to steer clear of them.
Let's check out today's...
Don't Get Hijacked by These Rest Area Scams
When you pull into a rest area, it's usually for a well-earned moment of relaxation -- or an urgent restroom break.
Either way, the last thing you want is an interruption from someone who's after your money.
But, increasingly that's the risk we face at rest areas, despite efforts by law enforcement or security guards to stop the scammers.
And, with the vacation season in full swing, the crooks are out in full force on the lookout for likely victims.
Whatever your reason for traveling, here are the main scams to look out for when you're visiting a rest area.
Rest Area Panhandlers
They come in all sorts of guises, from the familiar guy (or gal) with a cardboard sign pleading for money to scammers claiming they ran out of fuel or their car broke down and they need money urgently to buy fuel or a ticket home.
They might have a "prop," like a fuel can, or have the hood of their car raised to make the story seem more plausible, but you can be 99% sure it's a trick.
For one thing, people with signs just asking outright for money almost certainly would have had to reach the rest area by car.
You will usually see a vehicle right at the end, in the final slot of the parking area. Often, there'll be another person in the car, since panhandlers like this are well organized and work in shifts.
And if you offer to buy something for them from a vending machine, they will usually shun the offer, saying they prefer cash.
Action: Although there may be an outside chance that someone's need is genuine, realize that this is very, very unlikely.
Keep your hands and your wallet in your pocket.
Rest Area Auto Repair Scam
This is a common trick in all kinds of parking situations, and we've written about it before in our article, Parking Lot Scam Alert! Crooks on Patrol for Victims.
What makes it particularly effective in a rest area is that, if you're on a freeway, you're almost a "captive." You can't just walk away and up the street to get help.
The scammers normally make up a story about seeing smoke or oil leaking from your car, but they have been known to slash tires while the driver visits a restroom.
Whatever the story, they usually claim either to be an auto engineer who just happens to be passing through, or a "good Samaritan" who will help change your wheel -- for a fee.
Sometimes, they pose as body repair specialists, offering to fix dents and scratches while you take a break.
They may want payment upfront, in which case don't expect them to be there when you return to your vehicle.
Or they might just be rank amateurs, do a botched job and then threaten you when you refuse to pay.
On other occasions, they may simply wash your car windshield while you're in the restroom and demand payment when you return.
- Park your auto in a busy area, around other cars.
- Refuse any offers to do work of any sort on your vehicle.
- If the car is disabled in some way, phone for assistance; don't accept proffered help.
- If you are physically threatened, look for security help in the rest area. Otherwise, pay up and then report the incident to the police, with a good description of the scammer.
The Rest Area "Three-Card Monte"
It's remarkable that this ancient card-switching scam shows up so often in a rest area or truck stop, where you probably wouldn't expect to see it.
Victims are shown three cards, one of which is the target card -- for example, the Queen of Spades.
The cards are placed face down on a table and moved around, while the victim is supposed to keep track of the target card. If they correctly identify it when the shuffle is complete, they win.
But, of course, that never happens because the scammer is a crook, using sleight of hand to deceive observers.
The most common ploy to lure victims into the game is a claim that someone has won a lot of money, usually on a lottery, is now drunk, and is virtually giving money away to anyone who will play cards with them.
These scammers work in gangs of four or more -- one being the card-switching expert and the others hustlers who both recruit players and pose as lucky winners themselves.
Sometimes, they pretend to be janitors or security officials at the rest area, to make their story seem more credible. Or they may claim to be truckers, celebrating their pal's good fortune.
Whatever the tale, victims are first treated to watching others (really accomplices) win large sums of money; then they're invited to play, maybe winning at first but always doubling up until they lose a lot of money.
Action: Card playing in rest areas and parking lots is for mugs. Don't do it -- no matter how plausible the story and how excited everyone else seems to be about it.
A Likely Hoax
An email story has been doing the rounds for the last couple of years, claiming that a woman carrying a baby has been scamming rest area drivers.
According to this story, she rushes up to solo victims, apparently distraught, and asks them to hold her baby for a second.
Then, while the victim's hands are thus occupied, she proceeds to empty their pockets and runs off, leaving the victim literally holding the baby.
Police are called, the baby is collected and somehow returned to its mother, without her being arrested, and the whole cycle begins again.
This is a highly implausible story and there's no evidence anything like it has ever happened.
Better keep your guard up for the more likely kind of rest area scams we've warned you about in this report!
That's all for today -- we'll see you next week.