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While in US, I found the closest gas station and was ready to fill up the gas. The time was pretty late (around 11pm). There was nobody around, just a stranger at another pump. He approached me and politely asked to pay him a gallon or two. He explained that since there is nobody to accept his cash (he claims that he forgot ZIP and could not pay with his credit card at pump). This claim made me cautious.

My question is: Is it safe to pay for a stranger? Can it be dangerous? What would be the best strategy to be helpful while also cautious?

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    Everyone has an anecdote about the lady with the baby standing outside the convenience store who just needs a dollar for milk, or the young student who forgot his wallet and just needs $5 of gas to get back to school, or the homeless electrician whose union rep screwed him out of his disability insurance. It's entirely possible that some of those stories are true. But ask around, and some of those characters are familair to locals, who see them making the rounds at all the gas stations or convenience stores in the area. – choster Aug 7 '15 at 16:36
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    "Mister, can you help me? Me and my husband ran out of gas, and we've no money to buy any — we spent what little we had on formula for the baby. If you could spare a twenty, we could get her home ..." snopes.com/fraud/distress/stranded.asp – Gayot Fow Aug 7 '15 at 16:49
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    @GayotFow I am 10,000 miles away, and I hear the same exact stories! – Nean Der Thal Aug 7 '15 at 16:58
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    When was the last time you forgot your postcode? – Michael Hampton Aug 7 '15 at 17:12
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    Your address is on your driving license, I'd be happy to look up your ZIP code for you.. (even if you don't have a data plan it will tell you something). – Spehro Pefhany Aug 7 '15 at 20:49
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Actually the whole story sounds too far fetched here is why.

Every time the gas station is unmanned the pumps are usually secured otherwise it's extremely easy to damage it, burn down or the like so normally the pumps are inaccessible when noone is on duty.

So the more likely scenario the person just wanted to bump some gas from you for free. Personally I may have given them some gas but then again probably by paying an attendant $20 to allow them to pump.

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A variation of this actually happened to me in real life once. I had just moved to another state and one day went to purchase gas. As it does in the USA, you can use your bank ATM card as a credit card and thus avoid having to enter your ATM pin (the pump will ask for your ZIP to confirm it's you). I do this when possible to secure myself against skimmers.

In my case I had not actually forgotten the ZIP, I had merely forgotten whether I had yet informed my bank about my new ZIP. So I entered my old ZIP and of course it was wrong. Consequently the pump locked itself and displayed a message telling me to see the attendant.

Lazy as I am, I decided to wait for a minute to see if the pump would unlock itself so that I could try again with my new ZIP (it did not). In the end I just had to walk to the cashier and my little issue was resolved.

Now of course the station that I was on actually had a cashier inside. It was also not a particularly small station, which means that I might have been able to solve my issue by trying my card at the next available pump. (On the other hand the OP mentions "a stranger at another pump" but it's not clear if in his case the station only had that one other pump).

Since you do not seem to question the mans claim that there was "nobody to accept his cash" it seems unlikely that there was any other option than paying for his gas with your own card.

(Here in America I have also not seen those pumps they have in Europe where people can pay by inserting cash.)

That being said, it's not dangerous in itself to pay in behalf of a stranger, although sometimes questions like these can be a pretext to get you to take out your wallet or to use your card at a machine equipped with a skimmer.

Probably more likely though he was in need of some monetary assistance and buying him gas for $5 (currently this gives at least 2 gallons / 8 liters of "regular" in most states) would have been sufficient.

  • If "you can use your bank ATM card as a credit card", then in which sense isn't it just a credit card? – Henning Makholm Sep 5 '15 at 2:33
  • Liability and credit. – chx Sep 5 '15 at 4:58
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    @Henning Makholm, Its not a full credit card - any charges you make with it are debited directly from your checking account. There is no credit line on that card (I have a separate credit card from the bank). But when it comes to purchases at point of sale places, like gas stations or grocery stores, you can choose to treat it as a credit card. For you as the buyer it means that (if the purchase is sufficiently large, like over $40 or something) you may need to asked for signature, but you will in any case not be asked for your PIN. – coderworks Sep 5 '15 at 5:12
  • x @coderworks: Okay, then just let's call them "payment cards". It shouldn't matter to the merchant whether the money he receives originate by increasing a debt or by decreasing a balance in your favor anyway -- that's a matter between you and your banker only. (The bit about PINs sounds strange though; my card draws money from a positive bank balance too, and just about every transaction on it is PIN-based, except for a few rare cases where the merchant doesn't have the proper equipment). – Henning Makholm Sep 5 '15 at 11:12
  • @HenningMakholm. It's what in most of the world we refer to as a debit card (which does have different rules and effects on the merchant - notably lower fees and less chance of a charge back.) The system seems relativley unfamiliar in the US however. – CMaster Sep 5 '15 at 11:49
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If the request was for you to use a card and him to give you cash, he may be passing counterfeit. If he wants to give you twenty and get change, even more so. Forgetting zip code? HMM!

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