Last weekend, I was driving a car back to Los Angeles. I filled up in Victorville and topped up again near the LAX rental car return. On both occasions, a man approached me asking/begging to put gasoline in his car. They used phrases like "I'm not asking for money, just for gas" and "you can put it in yourself". I did not trust it and refused, as I believe it was a scam.

According to scambusters.org, sobstory panhandlers are a common scam, but in the scambusters example they ask for money, not gas, and scambusters even suggests that offering to buy the gas is a safe response. However, in my case they did not ask for money — just for gas. From scambusters:

Standing around while your gas tank refills makes you a sitting target for panhandlers who hang around the pumps and service areas with a sob story for anyone who will listen.


Action: It can be tough to say “no” but that’s usually the best response. If you really feel you must help, offer to buy the gas or the food rather than handing over cash.

When someone asks me to buy gas for them, is this a scam? How does it work? It's never happened to me before, but in Southern California it happened two times in a row.

  • Happened to me a few times, also, in other areas of the country (midwest, mostly). Not sure if scam or not, though.
    – Joe
    May 29, 2018 at 16:08
  • Doesn't look like the recipe for a scam to me, but of course you don't have to give it to them...
    – xuq01
    May 29, 2018 at 18:06
  • 1
    Someone pretending to have enough money for a car but not enough money for gas is unlikely to be anything other than scam...
    – user45851
    May 30, 2018 at 15:07

5 Answers 5


Two things:

  1. Simple grift. It's easier to get people to pump a gallon or two of gas rather than part with actual cash.
  2. It's a distraction. While you pump the gas, you're not watching your vehicle making it easier for the accomplice to swipe something. Even if you do watch your vehicle, the grifter still gets some gas.
  • Yep, distraction is also a possibility. +1. May 29, 2018 at 21:20

This happened to me last year in the Pacific Northwest region of the US.

A woman had approached me at a gas station, first asking for some money. I told her no, and she started making comments about how her sick grandma was up in a hospital somewhere, could be the last time she sees her, etc; typical sobstory scam lines. I again told her no, and she asked if I could put some gas in her car instead. Again I refused, she called me heartless, walked over to the next pump, and gave that woman the same schpiel (that woman gave her a 20 dollar bill).

Later, that same day, I stopped at a different gas station (+ convenience store) near the first one, because I was thirsty and it was on the way to where I was going. On my way out of the convenience store, I noticed the same woman from earlier giving another woman the same schpiel. I was curious about what would happen, and she didn't seem to notice me, so I hung around in my car for a few minutes to see what happened.

The scammer ended up giving her a nearly verbatim schpiel, except this time it was how her baby-daddy wouldn't let her see her daughter. This woman ended up filling up the tank (~12 gallons if I recall), she said how thankful she was, got in her car, and drove away. Sitting in my car behind this other woman, I noticed that she had a "Baby on board" sticker in her window, which tipped me off that the scammer was likely changing the story based on the audience.

The next time that I was in the area, about a week later, I needed to get some gas again. I pulled in, pumped my gas, and was waiting for the receipt to print when she comes up to me again (probably not recognizing me), giving me the same schpiel, but this time it was her father needing dialysis. I called her out, told her that she'd already asked me when it was her grandma in the hospital, and that I'd seen her ask when it was her baby-daddy not letting her see her daughter.

She told me to mind my own business and to "strongly consider" going to different gas stations in the future before driving away.

The possible benefits that I could think of for this scam were

  • If you (the scammer) ask and the mark gives you cash (perhaps because they're afraid of skimmers), you get free money
  • If you ask and they give you some gas, you can then drain the gas into canisters to resell for 100% profit. On the chance someone buys you a full tank, you have to get rid of the gas somehow before you can execute the scam again
  • If you run into trouble, or the gas station attendant tells you to buzz off, well, there's always more shifts, and more stations to try your luck at

It depends on what you mean by a scam. They aren’t necessarily going to steal from you but note that at current gas prices, a “few gallons” might be US$10-20 and a full tank $40-80.

This might be more than you’d ever give a panhandler in cash. So in that sense, it’s lucrative for them.

As to whether the sob story is real, that’s debatable. Most don’t seem to be.


Gasoline is still something valuable which can be sold back for a lower price, so it is not true that it is not asking for money. But it can be used for a more sinister purpose.

A possible scam is using a car with double tanks (actually they have a valid purpose used e.g. for desert/safari tours to drive much farther as normal as security reserve. My brother and I were using it in Namibia.) and filling them beforehand. So look before that the counter is set to zero (and if someone "coincidentally" stands before the counter, blocking your view. If yes, you know you are set up). Then you fill a small amount of fuel, thinking you only need to pay 5-10$, the beggars are fleeing and the store owner asks for 80$ and because it is visible that you actually filled the tank and said you were paying you need to pay.

This trick is only working if much traffic is in the refuelling station because only then they can find a victim in time to pull it off; they cannot wait for someone for hours after filling the tank.

Even if you are not set up, the beggars have already a foot in the door and it is possible that they try to influence you to give money with a sob story. So the best course of action is never ever respond to begging.

  • 2
    Most American stations now require pre-payment of cash, or insertion of a credit card. I think that makes this scam more difficult. May 29, 2018 at 23:29

I'm going to give a different scam suggestion: the beggars have installed a "skimmer" on the pump credit card reader that will copy your number and PIN. So you pump in $5 of gas on your card, but then they retrieve the data and make large unauthorized withdrawals.

  • 10
    Someone who put a skimmer on the reader would probably not want to stand around, mugging for the security cameras and getting remembered by customers. The whole point of card-dip skimmers is to steal financial information while not being there.
    – Sneftel
    May 30, 2018 at 5:22

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