Sunday, November 01, 2009


America is aging, they tell us, and apparently so are its con artists.

That's the word from a reader living outside Columbus, Ohio, who plaintively writes, "I was robbed by Grandma."

My reader and his wife held their first-ever yard sale in early September. The grandmother in question appeared as a customer, accompanied by her daughter and her grandson, who called himself "Blaze." Because the grandmother had selected several items for purchase, my reader gave her a discount on her purchases.

"I even threw in a couple of odd ball boxes to go with the items she was purchasing," he writes.

When the items were all gathered, the grandmother asked if she could pay with a check. My reader hesitated for a moment, but she assured him that she was local and so was her bank.

"So I trusted Grandma," he writes.

He helped Blaze, his mom and his grandmother load their items into their car, and they sped away.

Traffic was slow at the yard sale, so my reader decided to drive into town and cash Grandma's check, leaving his wife in charge at home. He pulled up to the bank's drive-through window, handed the endorsed check to the teller and, instead of the cash he expected, got a shock.

"Sorry," the teller told him. "There are no funds available for this account."

"You can imagine how I felt," he writes. "Talk about shock and awe. I just got hoodwinked by a grandma at our yard sale."

The teller gave back the check, and my reader noticed that there was a telephone number printed on it. When he called the number, however, he didn't get Grandma. The person who answered told him that the number had long since been reassigned, and added that she had received at least six calls that afternoon from people who had received bad checks.

When he returned home, red-faced, my reader got a scolding from his wife, who said that the experience was his own fault for accepting a personal check.

"Well, excuse me for trusting people," he writes. "Especially a grandma. I mean, she was with her daughter and grandson! What kind of example are you trying to set here, Grandma?"

Every day since the yard sale, my reader has called the bank to see if funds have been deposited to cover the check. Nothing.

He can't help wondering if his wife is right, that it's foolish to trust people, especially when it comes to taking personal checks.

"I mean, when you can't trust a grandma, whom can you trust?" he writes.

My reader's central issue here is not an ethical one. It may or may not be foolish to be scammed by a silver-haired grifter, but it's not unethical. She was the only unethical one in this story and, if she were to write for advice, I could certainly offer her a few pointers.

As far as my reader is concerned, his only ethical obligation is to report the incident to his local police. There's clearly the potential for widespread check kiting here, and other area residents should be alerted.

Personally, I don't think my reader's experience with this grandmother - if she really is one - should tarnish his trust in people. That one person took advantage of him does not mean that he should expect the same from all people or even most people. Every day millions of personal checks are cashed and clear.

That said, his wife has a point that accepting personal checks at yard sales from people he doesn't know is a risky business. Adopting a general policy of not accepting checks wouldn't be a declaration of distrust in humanity, merely a prudent precaution against the occasional bad apple.

Or he could continue to accept checks, realizing that now and then he'll probably get stung. There's no ethical mandate either way.

I myself would favor a no-checks policy, which doesn't have to be unduly harsh. The next time a grandma says that she doesn't have the cash for her purchases, he should offer to set aside her items for an hour or two while she goes home for the money or visits a bank.

And if he never sees her again, I doubt that would bother him much.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

A person's age is not an indicator of honesty. While I also would trust an older person more, this comes from upbringing. A no check policy would eliminate the concern and possibly is the answer. If this person passed 6 bad checks, someone should report it to the police as it is clearly theft. And the discontinued phone number is further proof of that.

Jerry Lanson said...

Great post, Jeff. I agree that a person who fundamentally has faith in humanity still might institute a policy of not accepting checks at yard sales. I believe most people are honest. But i don't answer the grifters on the Internet writing to me from Outer Oceana and asking me to invest funds in their business designed to lower sea levels. Of course, a nice grandma smiling in your driveway is harder to turn down. But I nonetheless would do so. Checks are not a good thing to accept from strangers.

Jerry Lanson