The Top 5 Most Common Homeless Scams (From an Ex-Homeless Person)

A man holds his change cup out to ask for money.

With homelessness around the world becoming a major problem for most countries, many people are finding themselves living on the streets for the first time. Homeless shelters are becoming packed and more people are resorting to making money in ways they normally wouldn’t even consider.

Unfortunately, there’s always going to be some bad apples in any group and one of the ways that some of these people are making money is by running scams on other people.

As an ex-homeless person, I know as well as anyone that the vast majority of homeless people are not scammers. But I’ve also met my fair share of those who were making their money by taking it from other people using various deceptive methods.

So I’ve put together the following list of the top five most common ways that homeless people pull off scams against others.

However, you should keep in mind that just because some people may seem like the scammers I’ve described here when you meet them, that does not mean you shouldn’t help them when you see them asking for help or should assume that they are in fact scammers.

Sometimes it’s better to lend a helping hand to someone and take the risk that you might be wrong about them if lending a helping hand won’t cost you an arm and a leg. It’s usually best to give them the benefit of the doubt, rather than to assume they’re a scammer and to risk making a serious judgment mistake that could otherwise greatly affect someone’s life if they do actually need help.

The EBT Scam
This particular scam which involves EBT cards and which is also known as the Food Stamp scam, is by far the most common scam that homeless and other supposedly low-income people perpetrate. It’s a pretty simple scam that mainly defrauds tax payers and the government out of millions of tax dollars each year.

The way this scam is pulled off normally starts with a homeless person applying for EBT benefits aka “food stamps” either online or through the local social services department. Many states and countries offer some form of debit card to homeless people that is loaded with cash which can only be used to purchase food and sometimes other approved necessities.

In the United States, this is known as the EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) system. It was formerly referred to as “food stamps”, so many people still nostalgically refer to it as that that.

Well many scammers and drug addicts will apply for EBT cards stating that they need them to buy food, but will then sell the cards to someone else in exchange for cash. They will often find single mothers or other shoppers who simply want to save money on their groceries and will then approach them and ask them if they’d like to team up and make a deal. The homeless person hands their card to the shopper and allows them to use it to buy their groceries.

Then, they will simply ask the shopper to give them half back half of the amount they spent from the card, but in the form of cash. So let’s say the shopper uses $200 worth of EBT funds on the card to buy their groceries. They will then hand the homeless person $100 in cash back.

Everybody in this deal walks away with something. The homeless person now has cash that they can use to purchase drugs or other things they can’t normally use an EBT card for, and the shopper just saved $100 on the same groceries they were planning on buying anyways.

This form of EBT fraud is extremely common and many states and governments are having a hard time putting a stop to it without negatively affecting the people who genuinely need these types of benefits to survive. Many people living on the streets get their food for free at local shelters and food drives, so they don’t actually need the benefits on these cards in some areas. This is how these scammers continue to pull off this scam without starving themselves.

However, it’s hard for the government or state to keep track of who has access to local resources such as food drives and sometimes they may still need their benefit cards to buy food during times when they’re late or can’t access the food given away at these types of places. There are many homeless people who commit this particular type of fraud, but also many low income and even higher income people who simply don’t need the EBT cards to buy their food.

The Panhandling Veteran Scam

This scam is one of the most dastardly and audacious scams that I’ve witnessed homeless people commit on the general public. This particular scam works best when it’s pulled off in certain places or countries where patriotism is strong and emotions are running high.

In most countries, whether it’s the United States, England, China, Brazil, or Norway, people want to support their veterans and honor their troops. The last thing most people want to see is that the same veterans and soldiers that helped to protect their country or serve in their military are now homeless and not being taken care of.

It’s for this reason that many homeless people who did not actually serve in the military choose to identify themselves as veterans when asking or panhandling for money in public.

You’ll find people committing this scam in just about any U.S. city whether it’s Los Angeles, Chicago, NYC or Miami. It’s probably the second most common homeless scam next to the EBT one that was mentioned before.

Panhandling itself is considered a scam in many places where other help or resources are available to people, but purposely pretending that one is a veteran or faking an image of being something that one isn’t? Well, that’s a special type of fraud that really gets under most people’s skin, not to mention the fact that it’s actually illegal in some circumstances.

The act of pretending that you’re a military veteran when you actually aren’t is called “false valor”. There’s entire websites and videos published online by Youtubers who are dedicated to exposing and calling out these types of imposters.

Wearing military uniforms, badges, medals, or other decorations when you are not military or ex-military personnel is actually against the law according to an Act of Congress that was passed in 2005 under George W. Bush, which is appropriately named the “Stolen Valor Act of 2005”.

Despite that fact, many people still do this and will get their military uniforms from army surplus stores or clothing racks in thrift stores for very cheap prices, and will then go stand on a corner and panhandle for a few hours to make back 5 to 10 times the amount of money that they had just invested in the uniform.

I myself personally knew a panhandler who would often panhandle with a change bucket in the same camouflage outfit every day, and he would typically make good money while doing so. While he wasn’t committing any crimes by wearing camouflage, he was still subtly insinuating that he was a veteran.

He had lost his arm in a vehicle accident when he was younger, and seemed to use this disability to his advantage as it helped his image of being a veteran all come together better.

On any given day, he could usually be found standing on a nearby corner or walking in between stopped cars at a local traffic light with a donations request sign in his hands. The money he made from this hustle was in addition to the money he was collecting from disability and the free food he was getting from a nearby shelter.

The Family and Pet Scam

This is yet another scam that involves playing off the emotions of other people and making them feel sorry for you. It’s no secret that humans often feel more sympathy for those that have children or who they feel are more vulnerable and weak.

When we see someone who is struggling, but who also has to provide for others, we feel more of an urge to help them because we know the odds might just be stacked against them more if they have dependents who depend on them. Single parents or families who are homeless seem to illicit more donations and assistance than any other group of people living on the streets, even veterans.

People without homes who have to care for pets can also sometimes get more sympathy from those who want to help. People generally care more about those with dependents, because we all know how expensive and difficult it can be to have children or even a pet and to have to provide for them while also trying to get back on your feet at the same time.

It’s for this reason that many people who actually aren’t homeless will pretend to be and will stand on a corner with their children in order to get more money while panhandling from people or motorists passing by.

They will sometimes do the same with pets as well and will make signs that read something along the lines of “Need money for pet food” in order to get more of a response from people.

However, there’s still many decent and honest people who¬† may genuinely need help for themselves, their children, or their pets. So as I mentioned earlier in this article, it may just be best to err on the side of naivety and to help them out if it’s not going to cost you much.

That’s probably the safer option for those with morals, rather than to assume they’re liars and possibly forsake someone who just might be the genuine article and might actually need your help.

The Check Cashing Scam
This scam is actually one that victimizes homeless people sometimes and involves them in a scam without their full knowledge of what they’re doing. But some of them actually do know what they’re doing and have no problem collaborating with others to commit this type of fraud.

The way the check cashing scam works is a group of scammers will typically go into the business districts of certain cities in the early hours of the day or late at night after the businesses have all closed.

They’ll purposely look for mailboxes outside businesses and shops that may not have been checked yet earlier in the day or the previous day by their owners.

Because many companies deal with other companies in their every day transactions, sometimes there will be checks in the mail outside these companies in unopened envelopes. The scammers will steal these envelopes, take them somewhere to counterfeit the appearance of the checks and the numbers on account and routing numbers on them, and will then go find unsuspecting homeless people to dupe into cashing the checks for them.

Of course, most people would be suspicious if a stranger pulled up in a vehicle and asked if they would cash some checks for them in exchange for a large amount of money, but many homeless people have mental illnesses and may not think about this until after the fact.

Others may be aware that they’re doing something wrong, but the allure of large amounts of money when they’re struggling in abject poverty can sometimes be too strong of a temptation to resist. This type of scam is more common than you’d think and has happened in a number of countries and U.S. states over the years.

Recently, there was a case out of Central Florida where a ring of check scammers were caught involving homeless people in their scam which netted over $650,000 in less than a year. The lead scammer involved would print out the checks counterfeit checks by using a computer program, and would then drive his car to various shelters in order to entice homeless people into cashing the checks for him at a number of different Publix grocery store locations across the state.

Sometimes these scammers even prepare fake identification cards for their accomplices to use, but other times they simply just use homeless people and their actual ID’s.

When the homeless person is caught because of their ID card weeks later, the scammers are sometimes long gone and don’t usually provide enough information about themselves to their unsuspecting accomplices, for obvious reasons. So the homeless person will often get left holding the bag, so to speak, and will have to explain how they ended up getting involved in this type of scam.

The Viral Scam
Lastly, this scam is one that has become all too common in the age of the internet and social networking. With websites like GoFundMe and Facebook now well-known and used by millions of people, scammers are able to step up their game and scam on an unprecedented level that they couldn’t have reached 20 years ago.

These days, just about anybody can create a legitimate-looking Facebook or Instagram page and then start making posts about how desperately they need help. Scammers will often create these pages and then post something about being homeless and needing help in a Facebook group where strangers are more likely to see the post and share it with their friends.

Of course, not everybody who posts about being homeless is a liar or a scammer, and there’s definitely some people out there who actually do reach out for help this way with no intentions on scamming anyone.

However, those who are setting their sights on scamming will normally link their posts on Facebook or other social networks to a GoFundMe or PayPal page. By doing so, they can then receive funds from kind-hearted altruists who just want to help someone out.

Once they get the money in their accounts, they will often delete their accounts and “rinse and repeat”, meaning they’ll do the whole process over again by creating a new account and targeting other strangers that don’t know about the first account.

These are often people who are either homeless but already receiving help in the form of shelters and charities, or people who aren’t even homeless and who are living as well as anybody while preying on others through social networks.

Just recently, there was a lot of controversy over one person who went by the online name of Charlie Hennessy aka “Charlie Bin Bags”. He claimed to be a homeless person in London, England when he first posted on Twitter about his struggles and he quickly gained a following of many people who supported him and who donated money to try to help him to get off the streets. Even one of the co-founders of Twitter shared a post that Charlie Binbags had made and the young man that many believed to be homeless quickly became a viral sensation.

After a few weeks, suspicions started to arise that he was possibly not who he said he was, particularly when someone unearthed photos of a man who shared a striking resemblance to him who appeared to be a normal everyday average Joe living a good life and posting photos of himself on other social network profiles.

It’s never been fully proven if Charlie Binbags was a scammer or not, but one charity group that initially vouched for him in the beginning actually ended up warning others that he was a scammer eventually.

Even if he had turned out to be an authentic and honest homeless person, there’s still plenty of people like him who request money from others online when they don’t truly need it. This is why it’s best to donate directly to charity groups or to contact them on behalf of someone who you know that may be struggling and ask them what help they can offer.