From the Berkhamsted 'psychotherapist' to the beggar who goes home at night to his flat, appearances can be deceptive.
It's 10 on a wet winter's evening in Central London. A group of us are huddling under a bus shelter when he approaches.
"I need a couple of pounds to get home," he says. He's thirtysomething, his clothes and hair are dishevelled and smelly and there's booze on his breath. Everyone gives him a wide berth, so he takes his story down to the next stop. He's clearly not that desperate, or perhaps the alcohol is dulling the reality of the long walk he potentially faces. Or else he's a chancer, a scammer on the scrounge for the money to buy his next... who knows?
A well respected scam
Now imagine you're standing outside an underground station in North London and a fairly well-dressed fiftysomething man approaches you. "I'm a psychotherapist and I was visiting a client but I've had my wallet stolen," he says. "Could I borrow £15 so I can get back to Berkhamsted?" Faint alarm bells are going off but he looks so respectable. He looks and talks like you imagine a psychotherapist should.
You never see the money again.
Would you believe him? Judging by this forum post, this blog and Twitter, it appears plenty have, including several financial journalists. The venue may change along with some of the pitch, although it appears he's always a psychotherapist looking to get back to somewhere in Hertfordshire, but the underlying hustle is the same. And it's continued over several years.
Some people have even claimed the man has approached them with a cut nose, adding further credibility to his story. Which seems a little extreme for the sake of £15, but maybe this isn't just about the money?
So how do you tell if someone's genuine? Is it in their demeanour or their dress? Is it the level of desperation in their voice? Or is it impossible to tell? If it's the latter, should you just refuse to help anyone?
There have been several stories of street beggars who have picked up their stuff at night and returned to their comfortable family home. Last summer, Simon Wright, who had previously been banned from begging anywhere in London after it emerged he actually went home at night to a £300,000 flat, was arrested again.
Made aware of the truth by the Evening Standard newspaper, people who had regularly given him money said they felt "duped and annoyed" and "conned". Wright's annual earnings from his begging were estimated at up to £50,000 a year.
But who was to know?
Just say no?
So what's the solution? Identity tags, with the words "My story is genuine", and signed by the authorities?
A colleague tells a story of a man who brandished his police charge sheet as proof he genuinely needed some money to get home. He'd spent the previous night at Her Majesty's Pleasure for being drunk and disorderly, prior to which he'd lost his wallet and phone.
Is the simpler answer just to say no to everyone, no matter how genuinely desperate they might be? This could become the sad reality if the scammers continue to take advantage of people's good nature.
Oh, and watch out for our psychotherapist friend. He's still out there in North London somewhere...
What do you think? Do you always refuse to give money to strangers? Let us know your thoughts in the Comments box below.