In a sympathy scam, a con artist plays on the victims’ emotions in order to extract money from them. Typically, you see a lot of these scams stemming from a tragedy that is highly publicized.
The first time I saw a sympathy scam in action was when I was young. My school passed out plastic banks that looked like loaves of bread, and students were supposed to take them trick-or-treating and ask for loose change. The money was to go to starving kids in Ethiopia. Let’s just say not all of the money made it to Africa.
Recently, however, I have been seeing a variation of the sympathy scam that is not only playing on the victim’s feelings of guilt and compassion, but also giving them a belief that they will become rich as well. The scammer tells them that the more charitable they are, the more money they will make.
The con starts out by asking the victim what good works they would do if they were rich. Upon learning about these pure desires, the scammer will deem the victim worthy enough to be let into this secret and exclusive opportunity to make so much money that they can finance their charitable goals, and in fact, they themselves could become wealthy.
Victims are asked to draft a proposal that explains in detail what their charity would actually look like. Some victims have reported going to print shops and advertising agencies to create professional looking presentations. I have heard about victims designing schools for disabled children, planning hula programs for the deaf and designing free hospitals. So excited and distracted about these charitable acts that they are going to perform with their riches, the victims don’t think twice about the “investing” portion of the process and give money to seed the venture and help grow that money tree.
If the victim questions the economics of the process (like, “How does helping more people make you more rich” or “Why haven’t I gotten any money back yet?”), they are either told confusing economic mumbo jumbo and assured this is how big charities work and why celebrities support them, or are questioned about their sincerity of wanting to help others.
Guilt and compassion are the con artist’s favorite emotions. Never make financial decisions based on feelings.
If you suspect elder abuse, call these numbers:
Police: 911 | Adult Protective Services: 808-832-5115
Elder Abuse Unit: 808-768-7536
For questions, email ElderAbuse@honolulu.gov