Recently I was travelling by car to Bristol in the UK on the M5 motorway.
En route, I stopped for refreshments at Taunton Dean service area. Whilst parked, I was approached by a man carrying an empty fuel container who asked if he could have a lift to his car that had run out of fuel further up the motorway? I agreed to take him and as we journeyed he shared his story about how his bank card had not worked, as being a new one he had put in the wrong pin at the petrol pump. He said he was a stone mason from Penzance in Cornwall and his vehicle was loaded with stone.
As we continued on the journey he shared with me a series of things that had gone wrong for him that day, which ranged from the car rescue service not being willing to help him to his family being away and not able to give him help.
When we arrived at Sedgemore service area he asked if I would loan him £50 for the fuel for his vehicle and he would send me a cheque to pay for it as soon as he got home. My intuition was screaming at me that I was being told a series of lies. However, my fears were being overridden by the thought that he might be genuine and that if I were in his position I would hope that someone would help me.
I gave him the money and left him hoping that the following week I would receive his cheque.
Yes, my intuition was right – the cheque didn’t arrive! As days went by I thought I would investigate his story. I contacted a stonemason in Penzance who told me he had received similar calls over the last 10 years from travellers who had been similarly deceived. He said that one motorist had discovered that the man lived in Taunton and had been working the fuel scam between Swindon and Taunton.
I reported my experience to the police and thought I would hear no more about the man. However, I received a phone call to say that the man had been arrested and had admitted to many similar offences which would carry a prison sentence.
I have been reflecting about this experience and have shared it with a number of friends and family. I have been curious about their reactions and also to my own, which have ranged from a feeling of embarrassment about my own apparent naivety; sadness that a man should spend his life robbing kind people; gladness that I acted as I did and would do again in similar circumstances.
The situation I found myself in presented a moral dilemma, which called for a response in the moment – to help or refuse. We can be wise after an event but when we are caught up in one of life’s dramas, I think most people act automatically from the positive values that guide their behaviour. Sadly, that is instinctively what the criminal knew when he approached me in the car park to make me his latest victim.
The dilemma for me remains: do we allow the criminal to determine our behaviour. If we do, we risk becoming insensitive and unkind to the majority of law abiding people, dismissing their needs, interpreting them in a negative and even hostile way.
Yes, I would risk my £50 again – would you?