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VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES | Essay

Con Artists Love the Holidays Too

November 25, 2000|CHRISTOPHER NYERGES | Christopher Nyerges is an author and community college teacher

The holidays--and a time of increased charitable giving--are upon us. Unfortunately, it is also a time when con men get serious about their work.

Panhandlers and homeless people tend to get more donations during the holidays, whether they are truly homeless or helpless.

For many years, I avoided making eye contact with anyone requesting money or food. But then something happened that changed my perspective. I was in downtown L.A. with a friend, leaving a restaurant, when a man standing by the door asked my friend for some change. I assumed my friend would just keep walking but instead he asked the man his name, and questioned why he was asking for money. The beggar offered his full name, where he was born, where he went to school, when his mother died, when he lost his job, when he lost his home, and that he wanted a ham sandwich. My friend took him back inside and purchased him a ham sandwich and coffee.

I never forgot that experience, and I since have provided food for many individuals following my friend's example. It takes more time to actually go and buy someone a meal then to just hand over some money. And along the way, I have ferreted out many con men who prey upon the guilty well-to-do in our society.

A man at the post office last year asked me for a dollar so he could fix his tires. He said someone slashed them. I asked him to show me his car. He told me it was two blocks away in a supermarket lot. I wondered why he was in the post office parking lot if his car was at the market. A month later, the same man approached me in the same post office parking lot. He told me his tires were slashed, and that his car was in the market's parking lot. I told him he should remember faces, and that I was willing to walk to Von's with him to see whether he was lying to me. He quickly disappeared.

The world is full of genuine misery, and countless people who are so far down they cannot help themselves. There are countless people who desperately need our care and generosity. The question is, how do we get what's needed to those in need?

One answer is to support organizations that provide job training, meals and housing for those in need. And if you want to directly help someone, ask questions and persist until you get appropriate answers.

If you just mindlessly give, you'll likely be lining the pockets of the city's many con artists, and won't be truly helping anyone in real need.

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