Woman warns about scammers in Smithfield

pseligson@newsobserver.comOctober 25, 2013 

A Smithfield resident is warning others about panhandlers after being approached twice this year.

On Oct. 16, Barb Johnson was at Belk on North Bright Leaf Boulevard when a white woman in her late 20s or early 30s approached her.

“And there was a trembly little voice, lip trembling, ‘My car broke down, and I’ve called everybody, and nobody can come after me,’” Johnson recalled.

The woman then asked Johnson for $14 while another woman waited in the car.

Johnson said three things tipped her off. First, the woman asked for such a specific amount. Second, she tried answer Johnson’s questions before she asked them, and before asking for money, the woman explained she had exhausted other options. And third, a person with a similar request had approached Johnson in July.

So Johnson said she told the woman, “I have no cash on me, I’m sorry, but I will make some calls to see if I can get somebody to help you, like the Salvation Army.”

Instead, Johnson went to her car and called 911. Police arrived and found it was a scam. They also discovered one of the women had an outstanding warrant for her arrest. That woman, Courtney Davis, 27, of 8025 Baybark Circle, Middlesex, was arrested for failure to appear in court on a charge of misdemeanor larceny.

Johnson said she went on to Walmart to warn the staff there about the panhandlers. She said the staff at Walmart told her they had already kicked the two women out of the store.

This wasn’t Johnson’s first run-in with panhandlers. In July, a man approached her in the parking lot at Golden Corral and asked for $22. He said his tire had blown and he needed the money to have it fixed; he couldn’t drive on the highway on his spare tire.

But that story raised raised alarm bells too, since a blown tire can’t be repaired and cars can go on the highway with a doughnut, Johnson said. So she left without giving him any money.

“(The) initial impulse is to help out somebody who is having a hard time, but if you stop and think a minute about the story they’re telling you, it doesn't add together,” she said.

Johnson said she wants people to be aware of the panhandlers; she suspects the two women work with the man she ran into in July.

“They’re only asking for a little bit of money and … you feel so sorry for them,” she said. “But it does not do anybody any good to encourage this kind of behavior.”

Lt. Keith Powell, public information officer for the Smithfield Police Department, said his department rarely receives calls about panhandlers.

“Panhandling is everywhere,” he said. “It’s not just here in Smithfield but anywhere you’ve got shopping outlets.”

Powell said the police can’t do much if a panhandler is in a public place. But if a business owner asks the panhandler to leave and he refuses, then police can arrest the panhandler for trespassing.

Powell said if a panhandler doesn’t take no for an answer, people can “go on into the business where they’re at or get into their car and lock up the door and call us.”

“Dial 911 and tell them that you’re being harassed,” he said.

Seligson: 919-836-5768

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