or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 4/19/15

   April 25th, 2015

IRS scam alertWorking at a Reference Desk isn't all about funny misunderstandings. Sometimes it's very serious, as this week's question shows. However, two things about this question:

  1. It actually happened last week morning of April 15th
  2. Wednesdays are my late shift, so I only heard about how my coworkers handled this when I came in at 1pm - but they did everything right and I thought it was worth sharing

Apparently, an older female patron came up to the desk and asked for help scanning and emailing something. One of the desk staff showed her how to get started scanning, and went back to the desk. A few minutes later, the patron came back over and asked for help emailing. After a short conversation, when the patron found out the scanner can't email things itself but instead she needs to send it from her own email account - which she didn't have - she put her head down on the table and said,

You just don't understand, you don't understand how serious this is, I'm going to be arrested!

Everyone knows library staff are not supposed to ask why when helping patrons, but they rightly did in this case.

It had been all over news outlets this tax season how there was a new kind of scam: you'd get a phone call and the person would say they were the IRS and you needed to send them money or else you'd be arrested. That was exactly what was happening with this patron - she had just deposited her money in an account in the bank across the street (which was not her bank), and had come to the library to scan and email the deposit slip to "the IRS" so they could withdraw it.

Thank goodness our staff caught on. The patron had a hard time believing she was being scammed, but staff insisted. They brought her into the office so she could sit down relax, and staff called the Police. When the officer arrived, he listened to the situation, and then left with the patron to go over to the bank.

As far as I know, we never heard back about what happened, but it sounds like the situation was derailed in time - at least, I sincerely hope so. And, there are two other comments about this interaction:

  1. My coworker who was helping the woman said the patron's cell phone kept ringing the entire time, and it was the scammer! I guess he knew he was close to getting his money, so he kept calling to find out why she hadn't sent the email yet. Finally my coworker took the woman's phone and told the scammer that they knew what was going on and exactly what she thought of him. I'm sorry I missed that.
  2. Since this was all happening in the public area, and the woman was clearly in distress, of course it caught the attention of all the other patrons in the area. As it unfolded and everyone realized she was being taken by a scammer, other patrons sitting at the computers nearby starting chiming in with their own comments - ranging from advice to criticism on her being dangerously gullible. Now that is almost as pathetic as scamming the elderly out of money.

Anyway, the whole situation seemed to be handled perfectly by the staff, so way to go to them.

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10 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 4/19/15”

  1. Liane Says:

    Kudos to the staff! Boo to scammers.

  2. Hermione Says:

    What a smart staff. Great work. The scammer should be ashamed taking advantage of that poor lady.

  3. Heidi Says:

    Sorry to hear this lady was scammed but I’m so glad she listened to the staff. I had a similar situation but the lady absolutely would not believe she was being taken. Each staffer here tried to explain what was going on but she insisted “he [the fiancee]loved her and something bad happened, that’s why he wasn’t answering his phone after she wired the money.”

  4. Theo Says:

    The rate scammers are growing is scary. Recently a co-worker of mine who works in the library was almost scammed through email. The scam artist contacted him and told him that he had a chance to inherit a lot of money. It is fortunate that we googled her name to check her out and found a group of people who had been scammed by her.As a way of introduction l am also a librarian who would love it if you wrote a guest post on her blog.

  5. Cari Says:

    Wow! I’m so glad they caught on and saved her. We really want to do more scam/privacy awareness here, but there isn’t any demand for the classes we offer. I don’t think people understand when they’re being scammed, so catching them like this is the best way to go. We have caught one – the one who calls and pretends to be a Microsoft employee, then remotes into the person’s computer. Unfortunately, she had already given him the info, and she got a virus, but our local PC Hero for Hire was able to help her. (Thank goodness we have this guy).

  6. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Liane & @Hermione: thank you – I will pass that along to them!

    @Heidi: that is a tough situation. If people won’t listen, they won’t listen, but it would be hard not to call the police in if you saw something criminal clearly happening. It’s terrible to be emotionally manipulated, but at the very least hopefully she could afford the loss of money.

    @Theo: good catch – it is scary. And thank you for the invitation, but lately I’ve been having trouble just keeping up with this website. WHo knew life could get so busy?

    @Cari: I guess it’s a hard sell because no one thinks it will happen to them. We had a program years ago for parents about teen safety online (so long ago that MySpace was the focus) – no one came. Anyway, great that you were able to help your patron – it’s pretty bad now that you can’t trust anyone who calls you anymore.

  7. Amy Says:

    I’ve had a few conversations this week about the ways in which libraries take care of their communities. Your staff provides another great example, and proves my point…if you want to see the best of a community, visit its library.

  8. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Amy: thank you. I like to think the best of the community can be see all over the community – volunteers maintaining the open spaces, staff at the Senior Center, friendly people at the laundromat, kids playing on the Common, etc – but I know what you mean. Few other places have a sole mission of assisting the public with just about whatever they need, and we work hard to help our patrons.

  9. Jill Says:

    I love this story- way to go to your staff! I do have a question- how is your staff trained in intuiting when it’s ok to get involved with a patron’s personal issue (this question could go beyond this particular example, of course)? I am always on the side of the fence that wants to help the patron resolve the issue (I’m definitely not a point-to-the-stacks reference librarian). But with these kinds of unique interactions, I’m always afraid of going too far in the minds of my managers. For example, you state that your staff member talked to the scammer on the patron’s cell phone. My coworkers and I have been explicitly warned against touching a patron’s electronic devices for liability reasons, and if I had been in that situation, I think I would have been worried about going too far in helping the patron…even though it would have been obvious that she needed it! Coming from someone who wants to go into management someday, how do you train your staff (and coming from a staff member, how do you learn) to intuit where that line is? I hope this all makes sense! Thanks!

  10. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Jill: I’m sorry, I missed your comment. My library doesn’t really have any specific training in this area. When I started I felt there was a clear line between helping/teaching someone, and doing [whatever] for that person, and that line was pretty much drawn at who was touching the device. However, over the years I (and most of the staff here) and moved more towards handling patron devices without too much worry – sometimes, it is just far easier to do something small, or to show them by doing first, and that means touching their device.

    This became even more true with ereaders and tablets – showing something in Microsoft Word on the library’s Dell computer translated pretty well to the patron’s Toshiba laptop, but doing something on the library’s iPad doesn’t necessarily translate at all to the patron’s Kindle (for example). So, with more patrons having mobile devices, we now don’t think twice about doing all the instruction on the patron’s device, either staff or staff instructing patron. In fact, in all of our training sessions now, we encourage people to bring their devices, so we can make sure that their device works, not just that they know how to do it on [their model].

    Of course, we’re always explaining what we’re doing, especially when it gets to the point of changing settings, deleting cookies, and things like that – it’s very important to explain what the ramification will be and let the patron decide if they want us to do it, but that’s more from a good will aspect than a liability concern.

    And there’s also the line of assisting beyond our ability – as in the case with the scammer. It was right for our staff to tell the patron the whole thing sounded suspicious, but they couldn’t really go any farther than that. The Police, however, could, and could also take the patron back to the bank. That sort of thing is always a judgement call – it’s easy to call the Police to help with someone who might be a victim, but it’s a different thing to call the Police is a patron is suspected of being drunk and heading out to their car to drive home, or someone who appears mentally unstable. Yes, it’s certainly the publicly-minded cautious thing to do, but it’s also the Library calling the cops on someone who may not be guilty of whatever the staff suspect him of – and yet now the Police are involved. So, no, I have no cut-and-dried advice for things like that – it really is just using judgement, and trusting staff to use their own judgement – do help the patrons.