India Stories and Tips

The Charity Donation Scam

The Charity Donation scam was one of the first I was ever warned about on my first trip to India. The warning on that occasion related to a particular version of this over-worked technique which was based on the use of small flag pins. The tour guide warned us to be wary of smartly dressed young people trying to pin small paper flags onto us as we walked from the hotel into central Delhi. He explained that they would come up with some nonsense about collecting for an Indian national student support scheme and that if you tried to remove the flag, they’d give you a guilt-trip about ‘disrespecting’ their country’s flag before trying to hook you into giving them money. I had been going to India for more than 15 years before I ever encountered a woman with a flag and she got the wrong people on the wrong day. As she bounded up to us with her flag ready to go, my husband held out his hand and shouted "No!" and she turned tail and ran off. Why was he so firm? Quite simply because the day before he nearly got caught by one of these scammers. I couldn’t be too mad as the same thing had happened to me years before and I knew how easy it was to get lured into a discussion and then fleeced for more than you intended.

We had been in Lodi Gardens, wandering around between the various rather unkempt old tombs. It was our first trip to the gardens and we’d been dropped off by a driver who considered them to be a must-visit location. Considering that Delhi is a bit weak on green space, we were happy to just stroll around, keep an eye on the courting couples, snigger at the heavily sweating joggers and just take some time out from the full on intensity of the city. In one of the tombs we were alone, not something that happens very often in Delhi. A gentleman of around 55 years old came up to us, politely asking where we were from, were we having a nice holiday and all the usual stuff. He then tried to pin an artificial flower onto my husband’s shirt. He told us he worked at an eye hospital for children in the city. He may have done, he may not have done, it’s not easy to say. He had an ‘official’ looking badge and a clipboard. He told us he was collecting for the hospital.

This particular scam relies on three things. Firstly that you will feel he’s given you something – the silly flower or the paper flag – and that you’ll feel you have to give something back. Secondly that the victim will want to get rid of the scammer but with be too polite to tell an older, well-spoken, official-looking gentleman to go away and leave them alone but may well be willing to give a small donation – maybe 50 to 100 rupees - to make him disappear. We fitted the bill on that one. Finally, it relies on people’s willingness to do what other people appear to have done and to not want to be seen to be mean. We failed on that one as we’re really rather bully-proof.

Once the victim has indicated that yes, of course, they’d be happy to give a donation, the clipboard comes into play. The scammer wants your name and address so he can show other people that foreigners like you are interested in his charity. He hands you the board and a pen and you are confronted with a set of handwritten details – people from UK, USA, Australia, Germany, France, wherever. The hand writing is all different – they look to be genuine. You have their names, their addresses (which may or may not be real) and in the final column, the amount they’ve given. You are planning on giving a pound or two – but these people appear to have given £20, £50, £100. If the scam works well, you’ll up your 50-100 rupees ($1-2) to 500 or a 1000 or even 5000 rupees in order to look like you’re just as generous as all those people.
I saw my husband looking at the list and panicking. I took the note Tony planned to give and gave to the man, told him we didn’t want to fill in anything, he could take this note or leave it but we wouldn’t be giving more than that to a person approaching us in the street, he shouldn’t waste any more time on us and would he please just leave us alone. "But look madam, people from California, Great Britain, all supporting my charity". I told him again that we didn’t give that sort of money to charities we didn’t know and he started to bluster and I gave him back his silly flower. I asked if he’d like me to call a policeman (as if) and then told him one last time to leave us alone and then walked off, not even leaving him the money we would have given him just to make him go away.

I cannot rule out that some of these people may be genuine, that they may really be collecting for charities, but I don’t believe for one minute that the names and the numbers on the clipboard are real. I have nothing to prove on charitable support to India, but I give through recognised charities and not to men with clipboards who sidle up to you when there’s nobody around.

The moral of the story is simple. Don’t be ‘embarrassed’ or guilt-tripped into giving money to people whose credentials you can’t check and who want to make you feel bad about not being more generous. The Indian flag version of this works well on British tourists who may well still be feeling a tad uneasy about the excesses of our Empire days and can lead to "My ancestors gave their lives for your country and now you disrespect the flag they fought so hard to win in getting their Independence!" Yeah! Whatever – your ancestors would be SO proud that you’re a scamming little bully.

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