Cell Phone Scam Alert: Be Wary of Strangers Wanting to Borrow Your Phone


Creative commons photo by Marco Verch.

By Yvonne Vávra

Good Upper West Siders as we are, we wouldn’t leave a fellow New Yorker in distress stranded, would we? Especially when they are suffering one of the worst luxury problems of our time: single-digit low battery. Or, dare we even think it, dead phone.

But alas, lending your phone out could lead to dead bank account.

A few weeks ago, a young woman approached me at the 72nd Street entrance of Central Park. She told me she was trying to meet her friend, but couldn’t find him. Could she use my phone to call him, because hers had run out of juice? Why, of course. What am I, a monster?!

I unlocked my precious phone and handed it over to her. She spoke into it about streets and entrances and Central Park’s original gates for an awkward length of time — long enough for me to reminisce that not ten years before with a mere flip phone and no money on it I was able to reach any of life’s destinations.

Meanwhile, her life kept getting more complicated. She added me to the conversation, consulting me for directions, pointing around. I was getting dizzy, and my dog was now fast asleep on the sidewalk. Then finally it was over, and I moved on, proud of being a contributing member of society…

… until two weeks later, when that same lovely girl asked me for help to find her friend. Her phone had run out of battery, again. Lady, juice up! Better yet, get lost, because something doesn’t smell right. I called her out, and she ran away.

With both my phone and my mind full of energy, I did some research: “Police departments across the country are warning of the sneaky new Venmo scam that can drain your bank account in seconds,” reported ABC’s Indianapolis affiliate.

Apparently, some scammers cash in on people using mobile payment apps like Venmo, Cash App, PayPal, or Apple Pay. Often the default setting of these apps allows transferring money quickly without having to enter identification. The scammers press a few buttons, and in a matter of seconds, your money is making its way to their bank accounts. In some cases they delete the app on your phone, thus preventing any notifications of the transaction.

Although there haven’t been recent reports of the scam in the 20th precinct, “it is not an uncommon scam and I have seen it before,” Deputy Inspector Timothy Malin, commanding officer of the 20th, told WSR. “Running a story on it would be a good thing if it increases awareness.”

Fortunately, I’m too paranoid to have money apps on my phone.

Every generation gets the scammers they deserve, and while we don’t need to miss out on convenient apps, we are definitely able to get over that extra second it takes to enter a PIN. It’s easy to change a security setting and activate the authentication feature all apps offer. Information security experts also advise avoiding automatic login for any apps using sensitive information.

No need to mistrust every poor soul dancing on the edge of a one percent battery. But better to be extra helpful by dialing for them and making sure your phone stays on their ear.

NEWS | 42 comments | permalink
    1. This is why I don’t do ANY financial transactions on my phone or iPad. I don’t keep banking or credit card apps on my phone, and I use a password manager as well.

    2. Donna says:

      Someone asked to borrow my phone at the bus stop at 72nd and Broadway earlier today . A story about leaving a phone in a hospital ensued. It didn’t feel right. I felt a twinge of guilt, but boarded the bus which arrived as if on Cue. Now I read this ….

    3. katherine says:

      Very good to know! Thank you!

    4. Kelly says:

      Thank you for this story!

    5. Linda says:

      I had some guy approach me on W110 and ask for my phone since his was running out of juice. I told him I don’t have a phone as I hid it with my hand. I’ve been a New Yorker for a long time and smelled scam a mile away. He was way too persistent.

    6. Wijmlet says:

      “with a mere flip phone and no money on it I [am still] able to reach any of life’s destinations.

    7. Bruce E. Bernstein says:

      i have never used VenMo but i can’t claim any cyber-security insights provoked it. I just couldn’t stomach that stupid ad campaign on the subways a few years ago. “Lucas Uses Venmo.” Remember that? pictures of some clueless 20-something with captions of all the wonderful mundane things he did. “Lucas Pays Rent”, etc. i promised myself never, ever to use Venmo and i have kept that promise.

      • RD says:

        why do you hate Lucas so much?

        • Bruce E. Bernstein says:

          does Lucas have fans here?

          i don’t really have anything against Lucas, per se. I just thought it was a truly idiotic pitch. Why should anyone reading those ads give a damn what Lucas does in his daily life? Were they trying to make him into some sort of celebrity?

        • Bruce E. Bernstein says:

          you know what? i thought about it and i think RD has a point. I actually MISS Lucas. I wonder how he’s doing. i hope he’s risen up the ranks of VenMo (yes, he is a real person).

      • goodforyou says:

        Personal choice is swell.

    8. Marie says:

      Thank you so much for posting this. Depending on the circumstance, my first instinct would be to lend the phone to the person asking for it.

    9. Bob Lamm says:

      Thanks for writing this piece. It’s always valuable to alert people to scams. An older student of mine at NYU was conned by a phony phone call from “Microsoft” about a terrible virus on her computer that they could fix remotely. She believed them, let them connect to her computer to “fix” the problem, and she lost a few hundred dollars, and then needed to hire someone legitimate to clean out her computer. Lots of con games and scams out there.

    10. Mike says:

      Venmo scams. Fake news. Deepfakes. Twitter bots. Continual unrepentant Facebook data outrages.

      The lesson for today’s generation is to trust nothing: not your eyes, not your ears, not your apps.

    11. MB/UWSer says:

      I spy the LINKNYC kiosks! Can charge a phone AND make a call….besides being very interesting to read.

      Yes, it can be difficult to say NO when hearing of someone’s distress. REMEMBER the LINKNYC Kiosks – that’s what they’re for. There are at least 6 in the W. 110th Street area.

      Prepare to direct anyone asking to use your phone by knowing where they are – can’t miss ’em.

      • Chris w says:

        I think a scammer would say he/she has no charging cord. Btw when you hand over your phone, assuming it’s an iPhone etc, you are also handing over a $700+ piece of equipment to a total stranger. That alone should give people pause.

    12. NMI says:

      Don’t hand a stranger your phone. If you think they’re legit, tell them you’ll dial for them and put it on speaker.

    13. BlingBling says:

      this should be your response always if you find someone asking to “call someone”

      “Yes, of course, tell me the number and I’ll make the call.”

      never give up your phone.

    14. Ben B says:

      I was approached by an African American man, about 5 feet 6 inches tall, 40-45 years old, portly, near NYU early one morning. He told me his car had been towed and he asked to use my phone. He showed me that his flip phone was dead and asked to use mine. The explanation sounded off, so I began telling him to he should go to NYU security (because they have a phone) when he became irate with me. My partner encountered the same man, with the same flip phone and story on the Upper East Side a year later. Now this scam makes sense. Beware.

      • AA says:

        I just encountered that guy in my office building. He told me he worked in maintenance in the building – when I suggested he use their office phone he started yelling at me. Charming!

      • AV says:

        Your partner recognized this man one year later?

        • Ben B says:

          A.V.,

          I recognized it was the same person from my partner’s description. I had not mentioned the previous incident to him, from one year prior.

          A.A.,

          Yes – Similarly, the man pointed to Hebrew Union College (near NYU, and across the street from where I was standing) and said that he worked there which added to the oddity of his story. Yes, how very charming. Ha!

    15. Chris says:

      If someone asks to borrow your phone because theirs is dead, just say you have 2% battery life yourself. Simple, right to the point, respectful, and doesnt make you the bad person.

      • geoff says:

        another response would be to tell the truth, whatever that is for you. what’s the big deal in telling th truth? you would rather lie?

    16. Deri says:

      A year or so, running in CP in a light drizzle, a teenager asked me if he could use my phone because he was supposed to meet his dad and he hadn’t shown up. My mom mode kicks in. Long story short, he couldn’t get a hold of either of his parents. I made sure he had a metrocard and could get home. His dad called a little later and I assured him that Mikey was on his way home. End of story.

    17. Elly says:

      Thanks for this article. I’ve updated my Venmo settings to ask me for a PIN now.

      Years ago, when I was living on the UES, I was walking back from a volunteering gig in the 90s and two teens approached me asking for the time. There was no one else on the street. I was wearing a watch, so I looked at it and told them. They followed me a for a few blocks and then asked to borrow my phone because they were trying to meet up with their mother, or something. I said no and kept walking. They kept following me. Finally I was able to dash across Park Ave and lose them. It was quite unsettling — it was broad daylight out but was on the verge of raining, so no one was around.

    18. NoLendingTheCell says:

      I would never lend out my cellphone – neither would I ask to borrow one.

    19. steve says:

      what new yorker in their right mind hands a stranger their cell phone on the street?

      PT Barnum proved right yet again

    20. Yvonne says:

      Don’t even call for them, because the person on the other end will then have your phone number. that can also be a scam.And you could end up giving your number to a drug dealer or criminal.

      • NYYgirl says:

        Thank you for this! Raised here in “the bad old days” & still was thinking it’d be ok as long as I was doing the dialing 😱 Thx for the reminder that it’s not!! Will pass this article and its comments on to others.

        • Sarah says:

          Um, the whole point of a phone number is for other people to have it. You’re not going to die from one unauthorized person having it, especially if it’s not connected to your identity in any way.

    21. JC says:

      don’t give up your phone, offer to text the other person with the “lost” scammers location

    22. Gary Xue says:

      You CAN be a good Samaritan and protect yourself at the same time – at least if you use an Android phone. With most Android you can switch your phone to Guest user in a matter of seconds before handing your phone to a stranger. They will be able to make phone calls as a guest but won’t have access to your account in your other apps. Google “Android guest user” to see how you can set this up on your phone.

    23. Carol says:

      Take a photo of them then say darn my phone just died. Send picture to WSR

    24. Fin says:

      No one uses my phone. That’s like asking to borrow my underwear!

    25. Christina says:

      I would never hand over my phone to someone. I have been in a situation a couple of times where someone wanted to borrow my phone for some reason or another, so I said sure and asked them tell me the number they are trying to reach, and I made the call for them, then put the person on speakerphone while I was holding my own phone. One time someone passed on my offer to call for her. The other 2 were fine with it! I don’t think that putting someone on speakerphone is a violation on their privacy as a person said to me because 1. It’s my phone, my prerogative. 2. To ask someone to use their phone, should be used for an emergency or a meeting place and such not for private conversations.
      This is my opinion and one that has served me well. I don’t find it rude not to hand over my phone, it’s street smarts and precaution!

    26. Patti Knight says:

      Good Story. I lent the phone to a stranger who said he wanted to call a car service for a return trip and it turned out he put the app on my phone after taking about 20 minutes. I was upset.

    27. AM says:

      Thank you! I just added a pin to my Venmo app. It’s incredible how many scams there are out there and how convincing some can sound. Like the one where someone calls you pretending to be an IRS agent or from the Social Security office. Neither of these offices will ever call you. I work in Corporate Tax; the IRS does NOT call people. But I can see how someone would be scared to ignore it.

    28. JL says:

      I wouldn’t hand my phone to my best friend, let alone a complete stranger at 72nd and Broadway. Anybody I meet who needs help, I’ll dial all numbers, starting with 911.

    29. Seasoned NYer says:

      Next time somebody asks you for your phone, very nicely tell them you are in a rush and point them to one of the numerous WiFi posts that lets them make free phone calls. Both problems solved.