When I was in 4th grade, I watched Batman on tv with my best friend, also named Melinda, and loved that we could cheer on the good guys and boo the bad guys, and that it was always clear which was which. Unfortunately, in real life, that is not the case. People aren’t always as they seem, and sometimes the person who appears rough around the edges, like my daughter’s music teacher, has a heart of gold, and yet some of the mom volunteers at my kids’ former school, who were pretty and stylish, were not as nice as they seemed, forming invisible cliques that made middle school look like a walk in the park. (Thankfully, I stopped volunteering with the PTO a few years ago.)
I’ve tried to teach my kids the importance of trusting their instincts, something which is so crucial but is not easily taught or even mentioned in school. We are told to be polite and trust others, which is why it is so essential to learn to have a healthy skepticism, whether toward an internet or mail “offer” or a stranger at our door. I just recently received a bill that looked very authentic for a trademark I had registered a few years ago. The bill was for around $900 and I can see how a lot of busy people with inexact records might pay it. The only problem is that it’s a total fake. I already paid for a 10 year license, so I ripped up the bill. My parents and other retired people are often targets for IRS scams, with phone calls threatening them if they don’t pay up. Thankfully, my parents understand that this is a scam, but many people don’t.
When it comes to strangers at our door, most are innocent, whether they are asking for charity money or trying to proselytize, but some are not. I’ll never forget when my husband and I were newly married and living in an apartment on the first floor. One day someone tried to buzz into our apartment even though I wasn’t expecting anyone. A lot of our neighbors would just buzz in the person without checking, since there was no way to verify who it was without going to the door. I felt that this was unsafe, however, so since I was on the first floor, I just went to the door. There behind the glass was a good-looking guy in a flannel shirt. He looked like a graduate student, someone who I should have easily buzzed in. And yet I knew deep down something was wrong. I asked through the glass, “What do you need?” and the man responded, “I’m here to fix your building’s heating problems since you don’t have any heat.” He even had a badge to validate his story. Now in most buildings, that would have been true. But in our building, we had the opposite problem: the heat was always running. I knew in that moment that this guy was a fake and that he was there to do harm. I told him that he was a fraud and I was calling the police and he threatened to break down the door. The only reason he left thankfully is that he heard other neighbors on the first floor, even though I was all alone in the lobby. This was before cell phones, so I didn’t have a way to call 911 from where I was. As soon as he fled, I went to the police and gave the perfect description for the guy they had been looking for: a good-looking graduate student-type who was breaking into buildings and threatening people. I never forgot how important it is to trust my instincts.
More recently, a few years ago after we had just moved in to our new house, a woman showed up at our door acting very strangely, saying that she had lived in the house when it was rented the previous summer– and yes the prior owner did have summer renters. She said she needed to come in to check out if her jewels were still in the house. At first, I didn’t listen to my instincts– I figured she was just sad and spacy and honestly wanted to get her jewelry back. I told her that nothing was there– the house was empty when we moved in. But she kept still trying to peer around our door, and given that my husband was not home, I was starting to feel very creepy about her. I suggested that she talk with the seller’s realtor in case the seller had seen anything, and then when I had time to think, I realized how strange her story was. I said she had to leave, and thankfully she did. I reported her to the police and they said that this is a common trick that bad guys do; they find a recently sold house that had been rented out and try to clean the new owners out. They also choose a “front man” who appears innocent, and the guys in charge often hide in the bushes for back up. The problem is that this woman seemed like she was either high or crazy or both. Thankfully, I was smart enough not to let her in, and I was just about to call out for my pretend cop husband if necessary to scare her off.
To find your world stage, watch out for bad guys. Things are not always as they appear. Sometimes a graduate student-type might be trying to harm you, and a nice woman who lost her jewelry might be trying to steal from you. It’s up to you to listen to your instincts to protect yourself, whether it is someone in person, over the phone or by computer or mail. Most people really are good, but just remember that life is not always as simple as Batman. It’s up to you to recognize who the bad guys are.