Edit: Here's the relevant clip on YouTube.
So, I went off to work this morning, then on to college in the afternoon, for the last class of the year. Except that when I turned up at Barnet, the classroom was locked, and nobody was inside. Granted, I was 45 mins late (had some stuff to finish up at work first), so the teacher may have been and gone if nobody else turned up on time either, but that was a bit odd. Still, we've finished the course, so it would only have been going through revision, e.g. practice exam questions, and I can do that on my own. I did think about going back to the office for the afternoon, but I decided to head for home instead - without the motorbike, I lose half the day travelling otherwise.
Anyway, I came back home via Tottenham Court Road station, where I have to change from Northern->Central Line. That's a good opportunity to stop off and pick up my weekly comics, since the shop is nearby, and it's not far out of my way. So, I went round towards Gosh! On the way, I got stopped by a girl who was asking for money (fairly common in London). I said "no sorry", but she kept asking, so I decided to make an exception to my general rule. In particular, she was asking for money for food, and she said "Can you just buy me a sandwich?"
This seemed fairly harmless, and I figured that giving food was better than giving money, so I agreed. For one thing, I figured that saying "No, I don't want to give money to a stranger, I need it to buy comics, so that I can read about heros helping strangers" would be rather hypocritical, or something like that. So, off we went to Sainsbury's. On the way, she mentioned her family situation - sounds like there's two unemployed parents, with 4 children, including a 5 month old baby. Anyway, she then asked me whether I'd mind buying some baby food too. This sounded like a reasonable request, so I agreed. Again, I figured that it wouldn't be much use to anyone unless they actually *had* a baby, in which case they'd have a genuine need for it. When we got to the supermarket, I took a basket, then she took a trolley, which probably should have struck me as ominous. So, we went around, and she got some things. As well as the baby food, she also got some standard groceries, e.g. bread, milk. I figured this was fair enough - it's all sensible stuff, rather than drugs or whatever. She asked me how much I was willing to spend, and I muttered something vague. My normal weekly shopping is about 20-25 quid, so I figured I didn't mind spending a similar amount on her behalf. When we got to the checkout, it would up costing about 95 quid, which was a bit of a shock! I guess it was mainly the meat in there; since I'm veggie, I don't buy that, so I don't know how much it costs.
As the trolley filled up, I did ask her whether she'd be ok to carry it home - she said yes, as her sister was around and about outside. When we got outside, she thanked me profusely, and then saw her sister nearby, so called her over. She also asked me for another favour - she needed taxi fare to get home, since she lived in Finchley or somewhere miles away, and it was a lot to carry. This was a bit annoying, and I was reluctant. She said "come on, you've spent this much, what's a bit more", and I figured that if she couldn't get the food home then it would all go to waste, so I agreed. She was a bit vague about the costs involved, but I wound up giving her 40 quid from the cashpoint. That does sound about right for a taxi across London, particularly at that time of day (4 pm).
After that, she asked me for one more favour, and promised that it would be absolutely positively the last time she'd ask me for anything. She was after a pair of shoes. I was a bit reluctant, but again, it seemed like a reasonable "basic expense" - if someone can't afford food to eat, or shoes to wear, then I ought to share the wealth a bit, since I've had my share of poverty in the past. So, she left her sister with the trolley, while we went to a shoe shop. I asked what type of shoes she needed, and she said she needed a pair of trainers for PE class at school (I'd guess that she was about 16-17). I know some trainers (mainly fashion oriented ones) can be ridiculously expensive, but I thought that a pair of basic ones should be ok. We went inside, and looked at the selection on offer. Ye gods, some of those things are pricey! The last time I bought trainers was in Durham, and they cost me about 35 quid for Nike Air things (pretty good quality). Anyway, some of the shoes in that shop were costing about 100 normally, although they were reduced down to 50. She started by trying on the 50 quid pair, then tried on a 35 quid pair instead, which I approved of :) She then went over to the junior section - I've heard of women with small feet doing that before, since there's no tax on children's shoes or something, so that seemed reasonable. She also browsed a couple of tops they had there. I hadn't agreed to that, but at the same time I hadn't put a price limit on the shoes, so it seemed a bit silly to say "I'll spend 50 quid on shoes, but I won't spend 35 quid on shoes and 10 quid on a top". At the same time, I wasn't really looking to play dad, and say "Your allowance is X".
In the end, she went to the checkout with a few pieces of clothing, but no shoes. That wasn't what we'd gone in for, but it probably worked out about the same, so I didn't quibble. Also, by this point, I was leaning towards "I just want to get rid of her and move on". I then learnt something about the way these shops work. All the shoes were actually behind the till, where the sales assistants had put them. There were some for her, and also some for her siblings (in smaller sizes) - she kept emphasising how grateful she was, and how much it would mean to her parents. The total came to 292 quid, which was a lot more than I'd intended to spend. However, by that point all the purchases had been rung through the till, so while I didn't like it, I felt that I'd already tacitly agreed to buy the things by that point, so I didn't feel comfortable about going back on my word either. The sales assistant had to get authorisation from Visa, since the amount was >200, and she also asked whether I wanted a store card; actually, she was mainly talking to the girl I was with, for some reason. I wasn't fussed - I've never been there before, and doubt that I'll go again, so a card wouldn't be much use to me. I could have got some vouchers, but I'd also have to hang around and fill out forms, which would be a hassle. The girl I was with said "no, no, we don't want that", on the grounds that she was in a hurry to get back to her sister - I imagine that the meat etc. would do a lot better in a fridge than standing in a trolley on a hot day like today. So I paid for them, and the sales assistant gave the receipt to the girl after I'd signed it (slightly odd, admittedly). As we moved away from the till, I asked her for it, since I always hang on to receipts to check against my bank statement. She said she'd like to keep it, in case she got stopped by the police, and they thought she'd stolen the shoes etc., which sounded reasonable, so I let her keep it.
On the way out of the sports shop, I commented that this would have to be the world's most expensive sandwich. She then asked "You couldn't help us out with the rent, could you?" I assumed at first that she was joking, but she was actually serious. That was where I drew the line, and refused. I also said that despite how much she kept thanking me for my help, she was coming across as ungrateful, considering how much I'd done for her already (I'd spent more on her behalf than I do on my own rent each month). I also reminded her that she'd said the shoes would be the last request, but she just gave a vague reply ("Yes, well"). She tried asking a couple more times, but accepted that I wasn't going to help, so scurried off to meet her sister. I then carried on down Oxford Street in the same direction, since I was heading back to the comic shop. I decided to take the scenic route via the supermarket, acting on a vague suspicion. When I got there, I found that the trolley was still there, full of all the bags. I wandered further up the road, to where I'd last seen them, then came back to the supermarket, at which point the trolley had gone.
At this point, it belatedly occurred to me that I had probably been manipulated all the way from the start. It seems possible that she had no intention of using the food, and just wanted to gauge how much I could be taken for. I don't know what happened to the trolley - maybe someone from the shop rescued it, maybe they took it back for a refund, or maybe someone else walked off with it ("free food, yay!"). I asked inside the shop, but the girl on the checkout didn't know anything; I guess that's inconclusive, since she was fairly busy, so may not have noticed it coming in. I was thinking that since the shoes were in different sizes, that suggested she was telling the truth about her family, even if she was exploiting me. However, with the receipt, she could take them back and convert them to cash (plus what I gave her from the cashpoint, if there was no taxi). That would also explain why she was quite anti the idea of a store card, since the amount would just be credited to that. Ho hum.
I told Lorna and Michelle this story, and I think they have a bit more common sense than I do. (Lorna's comment when I refused to help with rent was "And that's the right answer!") They immediately twigged that the receipts could be used to get a refund, and Lorna also commented that if she could get my card number, then I could be in worse trouble. I couldn't find a number for the sports shop in Yellow Pages, so I don't know whether they put the full card number on receipts - I know Sainsbury's don't. Anyway, I'll keep an eye on my bank account online, and I may wind up cancelling the card to be on the safe side (just pull out some cash to tide me over the bank holidays first).
This is one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time (trying to do something nice), but wound up backfiring horribly. I guess it is vaguely possible that she was on the level, but it seems less and less likely, the more I think about it. There have been times in the past when I've been helped out by strangers, so I like to pass on the favour by helping other people - all good karma or something. It just has a tendency to go wrong - this isn't the first time that I've been taken in by a confidence trickster (the infamous "70 pound story" from Durham springs to mind).
So, while this is all pretty embarrassing, I figure it's better to be upfront about my mistake, rather than being ashamed to admit to it. This way, I'll hopefully learn not to be such an idiot in the future... Also:
a) It might help other people to be more cautious, if they're in similar situation
b) It may provide some entertainment value (like many of my anecdotes)
I guess the moral of this story is "don't skive off work".
So, this is your host, John Kirk, signing off, to go and shoot things. Hopefully some Starcraft will make me feel better.