The Grocery Store Scam

Grocery Scam
Be careful of whose company you're in when you check out at the grocery store!. Noel Hendrickson/Blend Images/Getty Images

As told by a reader...

This friend of my cousin is in the grocery store, shopping. An older woman keeps following her around and staring at her. It started to creep her out, because everywhere she went the old woman kept following her and staring at her until she could no longer stand it. She stops her cart in the middle of the aisle and asks the old lady, "Why do you keep staring at me?"

The old lady apologizes and says, "You look so much like my daughter who died just a few months ago that I couldn't help staring at you. I loved her so much and I never had a chance to say goodbye before she passed away. That's the biggest regret of my life. I didn't make it to the hospital in time to say goodbye."

At this point, my cousin's friend starts to feel sorry for the weeping old lady and apologizes for being harsh and confronting her like that. The old lady says it's okay and asks her to continue shopping with her, just like she used to do with her own daughter.

When they get to the cashier, the old lady goes in line first and tells my cousin's friend to do her a big favor that would ease her grieving. The favor is to say, "Goodbye, Mom. I love you," when she leaves.

Well, the cashier rings all of the old lady's purchases, then she leans in and says something to the cashier that my cousin's friend didn't hear. The old lady then turns around, waves and says goodbye, to which my cousin's friend replies, helpfully, "Goodbye, Mom. I love you." The old lady sweetly smiles and walks away.

Then, when my cousin's friend got to the cashier, her purchases were added up and the amount given to her was way higher than expected. When she questioned the cashier about the discrepancy, she was told that her "mother" (the old lady) told the cashier that "her daughter" standing behind her was paying for all her purchases. By the time she had explained what happened and they went into the parking lot, the old lady was already pulling away in her car, laughing.

Analysis: While this tale may or may not depict an actual scam commonly perpetrated by con artists, we know for certain it has a pedigree as an urban legend. Folks have been telling versions of the same story for at least 20 years on three different continents. The basic premise — i.e., a con man or woman creates a ruse to stick someone else with the tab for groceries or a meal at a restaurant — is even older, and has shown up in many comedy routines, TV shows and film scripts over the years.

Like other scam stories people tell, the ruse is a trifle more complicated than the methods criminals more typically use to separate victims from their cash or possessions. But that doesn't mean it's never happened. A police lieutenant who commented on the set-up in a letter to folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand suggested that the scam actually makes more sense if the two parties — the young person and the older person — are in cahoots from the start. It may indeed be more plausible, but it takes most of the air out of the narrative, which, at least in the version above, builds to and culminates in the younger person's realization that she's be had.

Further reading:

Two Versions of 'The Grocery Scam'
Deseret News, 10 March 1989

Last updated 11/03/15