A man came up to me on the street. He asked for help. I attempted to help him. But I soon found that I fallen to victim to the Cape Town version of a “coming out” scam…or something like that.
“Coming Out” Scam In Cape Town
It was about 9:00pm and I had just finished dinner (at Nando’s) and was walking down Long Street in the CBD back to my hotel in Cape Town.
A man came up to me in a purple sweatshirt and jeans. 5’3″, skinny, and white. By the poor condition of his skin, I would say he was in his 40s, but looked much younger from a few feet away. He asked me if I had a moment then told me the following story.
“I just came out to my parents and they threw me out. My dad took my phone. I have nowhere to go and I’m hungry. Would you buy me some food?”
When I am in a position to do so, I do try to help people in need. I liked that he asked for food, so I agreed to buy him some groceries. The guy looked far too old to be “coming out” to his parents for the first time, but I understand that can be a traumatic experience and I will never turn down a request for food (versus “food” money).
There was a little grocery store a block away and we went in. He took a basket and begin filling it up with groceries. Milk. Cereal. Bread. Meat. Cheese. Then has asked, “Do you mind if I get some toiletries as well?”
So he added a toothbrush, toothpaste, razor, shaving cream.
Finally, he took his basket, now filled, to the front of the store. And then reality set in.
Behind the counter were electronic items.
He pointed to a some fancy headphones and looked back at me with puppy eyes.
“Do you think I could have these for my phone?”
I responded, “For what? You said your dad took your mobile phone and you have no phone.”
His response was classic.
I said “oh” as well and headed right out the door, leaving him at the counter with a basket full of groceries.
He ran out and apologized.
“I’m so sorry. How about if I just take the headphones and no groceries?”
And then things turned even weirder.
While he was selecting his groceries we had engaged in small talk. I told him I was an American (the accent was obvious enough) and visiting from Los Angeles.
He then asked to come back to my hotel with me.
I shook my head, wished him a good evening, and began walking briskly toward my hotel.
He followed me, kept up with me, and continued to engage in talk.
His tone sank into desperation and he made all sorts of sexual propositions.
I showed him my wedding ring, told him I prefer women, and tried to keep walking while ignoring him.
He made more comments, many of them obscene.
It’s not that I was afraid of him. After all, he was nearly a foot shorter than me and did not appear to weigh more than 110 pounds. But it was extremely uncomfortable.
Finally, we reached my hotel. He was continuing to follow me and as I entered, I told two guards at the front door that this man was harassing me. I did not even look back to see what happened, but I was thankful to be back in the lobby.
I wish I was more generous, but I will help you if you tell me you are hungry and need food. This guy could have scored a basket full of groceries for free, but had to be greedy enough for the headphones. It seems that is all he wanted in the first place. On a more serious note, this is a horrible scam because this sort of banishment does happen to young people who come out. To misappropriate that for some headphones or groceries is truly despicable.
Have you ever fallen prey to a similar scam?
This story is part of my An African Adventure As The World Shut Down trip report.
I’m sorry but this is highly irresponsible. As a tourist waking around the CBD late at night is madness … to engage with a complete stranger even more so.
This story could have ended very differently. Your comment that you are a foot taller than him demonstrates your naïveté – what exactly would you have done when he pulled a gun or knife on you ?
Please be more responsible so you do not become yet another crime statistic. South Africa is a beautiful country – but leaving your common sense behind is asking for trouble.
And take that from a local!
Is it really that bad? (serious question)
I just wanted some dinner and walked up from the Westin to Nando’s about five minutes away.
Had he pulled a knife, he could have taken my cash…
Nice post but you might want to change “experience” in the title to “experienced”!
It was deliberately present tense, but past tense may have been better indeed.
In Turkey I once met a guy who seemed very friendly, recommended a restaurant, and even paid for dinner. He then took me to a hostess bar where We met a couple of overweight Ukrainian women, who explained to me that I’m supposed to buy them drinks while they talk to me. The scam is that they run up a huge bar tab, in the thousands, that the hapless foreigner has to pay for. I said I had to use the restroom before sprinting past the bouncer at the door and into the crowd outside.
Not the same as the “coming out” scam, but I’ve never been offered gay sex in the street before either.
Same happened to me in Istanbul. I convinced the thuggish manager to charge it all on my Sapphire (at first he demanded cash) and I promptly disputed/canceled the card.
Same happened to me in Istanbul, it seems to be a common scam. Looked it up online afterwards, plenty of people have fallen for it
@ Matthew — You are nicer than I. Our rule is to NEVER allow a stranger to divert us from our plan when venturing out. If that means not helping anyone, so be it.
I operate under Gene’s rule. Anything but a strong no is viewed as an opportunity for advancing the situation. My son got to see me in action in NYC last year fending off very aggressive scammers. When he pointed out I was rude (I wasn’t, just direct and forceful), it was an opportunity for a teaching moment.
However, I am compassionate and do support organizations that help the underpriviledged.
I know you meant well by your comment and so I’m not here to be mean but I would like to point out that you should stop using the world underprivileged.
It is often used as an undertone way of speaking about black or dark skinned people and the best way to give an example is to ask this simple question.
By definition everything has an opposite. So explain to me or at least think about for yourself when you’ve said or heard the world overprivileged in your whole life and if you had who were they referring to?
I would welcome guidance on a current and correct term.
There is a very simple rule, one that your mother told you “NEVER talk to strangers”. Almost anyone that asks for your help in a foreign country is out for your money in one way or another. It could be just they want you to buy something or they want you to go to their restaurant, but in the end they don’t care about you – only your money. Best to just ignore them and they will soon get the drift and turn their attention elsewhere.
What in the world? Are you kidding? You’ve traveled everywhere. Bread and milk? Come on man. You’re fortunate it ended without incident.
That was a kind gesture, and I hope the disappointing experience doesn’t dissuade you from helping others in the future.
But seriously, there are far better, safer, ways to help others. Homeless shelters, food banks, etc., are well equipped to receive donations, spend them effectively, and ensure that scammy grifters don’t play them like Stradivariuses.
If you are so inclined, make a donation of which you can be proud and turn down individual entreaties from strangers knowing that you have already done your part.
You’re probably right.
@Matthew, I want to commend you on your generosity to agree to buy him groceries and toiletries. That was very kind and compassionate of you, and I hope that you maintain that character despite the extremely uncomfortable situation this scammer put you in. I also applaud your decision to decline paying for headphones.
Sounds like you were trying to experience some South African strange!
I ran into the same exact scam in Istanbul. Nice guy talks me up, brings me to a club with some Russian women. After some champagne, I was taken to a back room with two huge bouncers standing behind me and presented an $800 bar bill. Had to ditch my handler who tried to follow me out and promptly called the credit card company to dispute the charge as fraud. That was fun and sadly serves to remind you to keep your defenses up. While foreigners can’t tell if you are American or European, sometimes they’ll just treat you like a walking dollar bill.
Yes, I experienced a very similar thing in Cape Town. First in Gardens Center. I thought it was quite cheeky of the chap to keep pushing for more groceries but I felt for him and let that override my suspicions He got a roast chicken and a bread. And then, a few months later, the same guy tried it with me again at Lifestyle on Kloof. I kinda lost it with him. It’s not a great feeling to be taken in that way, but lesson learnt.
Maybe the same guy?!
Approaches of a ‘gay’ nature , including in the street and public places, used to be extremely common in the ‘70s, ‘80s, even ‘90s, almost guaranteed in places like Amsterdam, Sydney, Paris , SFO (although usually not of the scam variety). But I’ve noticed a dramatic decline in the decades since , and now approaching zero. There must be fewer gays out and about these days; I can think of no other plausible explanation….
Oh my!!!!! I really cannot believe you got into something so stupid. When I am in a foreign country and someone approaches me on the street no matter who it is I usually ignore or I tell them I do not understand their language. I come from a developing country and I am basically immune to scams since I have seen moos of them. It may be rough but I don’t trust anyone.
This is why I never talk to anyone in a foreign country who asks for help or seems “nice” to me. It is not worth it. It is almost certainly some form of a scam. And if they are doing it in good spirits, oh well. Let someone else deal with it.
If that makes me wrong, I don’t want to be right.
I can’t believe these people. I’m sure he was into drugs and probably had the HIV. Stay as far away as possible. This is not Somolia where you are stoned for being a homosexual.
Also this story reminded me of the series “The Murder of Gianni Versace” which also involved a gay who preyed on folks in Miami (and ultimately murdered Versace). Worth a watch.
Matthew wrote “It’s not that I was afraid of him. After all, he was nearly a foot shorter than me and did not appear to weigh more than 110 pounds.”
Someone a foot shorter can change the equation with a long knife.
A few years ago, I once was short of money and was going to ask strangers for $5 to get home. Fortunately, it was not necessary as I saw someone that I knew slightly. Not friends but recognized each other. I asked for $10 and paid him back with Paypal nearly on the spot. He trusted me and didn’t wait for immediate payment but he got paid within about 2 minutes.
Don’t walk on Long Street (or pretty much any street in SA) alone in the dark. Don’t talk to strangers. Take a South African along if you must explorer certain areas at certain times of the day. When I lived in South Africa, one of my coworkers engaged with a guy who was asking for money and after my coworker refused the guy pulled a knife. Thankfully, he managed to escape.
In Colombia, where I have a rental apartment, there are scams involving escopolamina, which is a knock out drug that can be administered in a cigarette or drink and is commonly given to a foreigner at a bar by a prostitute and taken back to his hotel and cleaned out. The “clip joints” (where ladies order overpriced drinks on your tab and then thugs will force you to pay) that they have in London have been an institutions for years and for whatever reason the city of London has zero interest in policing this activity. My advice is to run, don’t walk, away from any European bar that ladies solicit drinks or has a hawker on the street. And in third world countries, resist the urge to talk to strangers who approach you. Americans are too polite and need to just ignore those folks and vendors (“I already have a pair of sunglasses”).
At least you got Nandos for dinner … I mean I would travel across the world again for some peri peri chicken!
Nando’s is always amazing!
Hehe, the classic globalist ruining travel for the rest of us. Only someone so blind with virtue signaling could be proud of being such a dunce. But keep telling yourself that you’re being nice.
Danke fuer den ehrlichen Bericht, könnte mir auch passieren.
On the one hand, I have no patience or time to talk to random strangers on the street anymore. On the other hand I wonder what amazing experiences I am missing as a result since I became so jaded.
This makes me think of the quote from one of my favorite writers, Bruce Chatwin, “When people start talking of man’s inhumanity to man it means they haven’t actually walked far enough.”
Keep walking, Matthew. The mistakes are part of the adventure.
What kind of headphones were these (wireless/BT, Bose/Sony, etc) and how much were they?
These were not name brand…they appeared generic equivalents to Beats. Cost was 1,000 Rand, which was highway robbery. I don’t know what you call those little grocery store (they are like bodegas in NYC) but everything was expensive…
I am a magnet for these scams, even though I am very alert and try to spot them from afar and never engage. I have been chased down by men, women, and children in dozens of countries around the world, including several western countries, lol…Relentless.
What a beautiful response Stuart. I will keep this at heart during my travels.
I always say “no” and walk quickly away. Doesn’t matter whether it is in the US (the old my car ran out of gas down the street and could you give me a couple of dollars? scam) or elsewhere.
In the pre-cell phone days I had a guy in a shopping mall not far from the exit asking me to help him to his car because he wasn’t feeling well. He wasn’t that old (under 50) and I offered to walk into the nearby store to call 911 and he said no. So I quickly walked away from a likely mugging scam.
The number of people who truly need help and actually ask for it is very small compared to the scammers. Most people in need are too embarrassed to ask for help and have other options to get help such as churches, charities, etc.
I think you are more foolish than helpful doing something like this. Spend some time at home researching people in need, charities, etc. and offer the honest ones help.
I don’t necessarily disagree with anything you have written, even the final paragraph. But for those truly in need, there is nothing like being confronted with a person looking you in the eye.
I try to help when someone approaches me, but I’m careful not to fall for scams.
Half a year ago I was on the other end of this: I was the one that needed help. I forgot my cell home that morning and went to a gym/dance practice. At the end of the practice I was supposed to be picked up by my 17 years old (coming with the car to go somewhere else).
But he was late. And I started to worry (maybe he’d had some kind of accident?). I needed someone to lend me a phone to make a 30 seconds call.
I’m in my hometown (Seattle), it’s Saturday morning and I tried to approach a number of people walking by. Not one of them stopped for a second! Not one!
Fortunately after ~15 min my son did show up.