The Violin Scam Now Targeting Holiday Shoppers

There she was, an attractive young lady playing away on her electric violin on a hot, late August day, accompanied by a background soundtrack of classical music emanating from the karaoke-style speaker outside of the Market Basket in Fall River, Massachusetts. Next to her was a handwritten sign that read, "Unemployed Musician with two small kids thanks to COVID. Any amount helps".

Phony musician with a phony story

As she fiddled away, she closed her eyes in pseudo ecstasy as she hit the high notes of Bach's Minuet #2. Around her stood a group of elderly women, who clapped in appreciation of the street performer's prowess on the stringed instrument. Each reached into their purse and dropped money into a colorful sand bucket she had set up (maybe belonging to those two hungry kids, what a pity if true or more likely, a nice touch to complete the flimflam) as she began her next number. Cars drove by and occupants gave her food and water, as well as monetary donations, each, I'm sure, feeling as though they have helped this young lady cope during the COVID crisis.

Two weeks later in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, in the parking lot of a Bed, Bath and Beyond store, another "unemployed musician" not only played the violin for adoring customers but, to complete the tear-jerking image, was accompanied by two small children and a woman, one can only assume was supposedly his wife. This musician, however, was allegedly in a much worse predicament than the one in Fall River. His sign said he and his family were "homeless and hungry". Based on my few minutes of watching the impromptu concert, they appeared to be raking in quite a bit of cash.

Then, in early November, I was in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and stopped at a shopping mall to pick up something for a birthday party, when there was yet another "unemployed musician" playing outside of the TJ Maxx store (who knew that southern New England was the home for so many unemployed violinists?). A small crowd surrounded him as he played and the music poured flawlessly from the speakers. This time, I stopped to take a closer look.

The family that scams together stays together?

Now, I'm not a musician, but I know enough that when notes change or there is a shift in the pitch of a musical piece, the fingers on the fingerboard should certainly be moving. But magically, this "unemployed musician" was able to change the pitch without any fingering, and even more miraculous, at times his bow never touched the strings, and yet the sound from the speaker didn't skip a beat!

Despite these obvious faux pas, his plastic bucket overflowed with dollars. I mentioned to a woman standing next to me that this guy was a fraud and she gave me a look as if I had the coronavirus with all its variants simultaneously while venturing maskless, coughing and sneezing, into an AARP convention. So I slowly backed away and kept my thoughts to myself, but it certainly appeared that these fraudulent fiddlers are the music world's equivalent of professional wrestlers.

After that performance and the obvious negative reaction I received when I mentioned the possibility of a phony recital, I figured that PT Barnum was right about suckers being born every minute and went about my life. But now, I am seeing multiple news reports pop up about these buskers perpetuating this fraud, this time targeting Christmas shoppers.

Using children to scam money - disgusting.

The buskers - a person or persons who perform music or other entertainment in the street or another public place for monetary donations - have appeared all over New England and the country. Unfortunately, not only are their musical skills phony but so are the predicaments they claim to be in.

The setup is simple - they are dropped off at the store or mall in a van by the supervisor of this touring troupe of tricksters where they unload their equipment. They then find a hot plug at the location, usually by a lit tree or landscaped hedges, and plug in their tools and they're off and running. By the time the property management contacts the police or security, these swindlers have collected quite a bit of money before being escorted from the location.

This past week, the Montgomery County Police Department (MCPD) in Maryland, issued a tweet that went nationwide to police departments and other interested parties. In a story appearing on the Breitbart News Site, MCPD officials said, “These individuals are pretending to play the violin over a music trac [sic] and claim to be homeless or have a sick relative, which is usually untrue,” the department added.

The Breitbart story also reported that an incident involving this scam occurred in Pinellas Park, Florida in November as told by FOX News 13. Crime and Prevention and Community Policing Corporal James Gatti told the outlet that the scammers usually hold signs asking for help with rent, food, and the care of relatives and sometimes children stand beside a counterfeit performer as they pretend to play.

“The second we pull up, they drop the violin, but the music is still playing through the speaker,” Gatti told Fox 13. Gatti says the con artists are part of an organized group that plays on people’s emotions rather than violin strings. “They are just traveling through the southeastern United States, stopping in different places,” he said.

As early as 2020, a similar scam was occurring in the Texas area. At that time, an actual violinist named Jewel Kirkendoll saw a man with a sign indicating he was an "out-of-work musician" who needed money for his family. Kirkendoll struck up a conversation with the man and then offered to join him.

In an interview with station KETK TV56, Kirkendoll said, “I got my violin out and I asked him if I could play with him, and he was like yeah sure. He didn’t play, so I said is it because you don’t really know how to play, and he was like yeah, I’m so sorry.”

Scammers accept Venmo transfers

So what's the problem with these make-believe music makers? After all, they are not forcing you to give money, and they are not selling you something and not delivering. Seems harmless, right?

"Well, there's a couple of huge issues here," said certified elder law attorney RJ Connelly III. "First, the money that people are giving these grifters is intended for a homeless or needy family based on the signs they have posted. If people want to help others, I would advise them to give money to a charitable organization that actually benefits children, families, or seniors, not to a street corner charlatan looking to obtain money under false pretenses."

"But there is something even more dangerous here," continued Attorney Connelly. "According to the police chief in the Montgomery County story, some people have actually given money using phone apps like Venmo. Thieves who once used stolen paper checks to steal money from your account are now turning to digital fraud schemes. Because it's remote, they can drain your account without ever having to show their faces. So if you still want to give money, despite the warnings about these frauds, never use electronic methods of payment to do so."

So this month, as you are busy shopping for Christmas and you come upon someone claiming to be an "unemployed musician" playing holiday music on their violin to "feed their family" or "buy Christmas gifts for their children", the only thing you should be giving them is a wide berth and not your hard-earned cash.