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Sunday Mornings with Rania: The Wobbly-Wheel Scam

Rania Mankarious
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Sunday Mornings with RaniaYou may have heard of it. Called the wobbly-wheel or wobbly-tire scam, it takes place just as you’d think. Driving down the road, someone pleads for your attention while urging you to pull over. The “Good Samaritan” claims you have a wobbly tire, a situation so dangerous, you need to stop driving to allow this stranger to fix it immediately. You stop, they stop and start working on your car. In the end, they demand cash. If you don’t have it, they force you to take them to your home or an ATM. 

These scams take place everywhere. In fact, it took place last week right outside the city of Bellaire to a Bellaire resident. The victim, an older woman who was merely running errands during the day, urged me to tell her story in hopes of protecting others in a community she loves. 

Here’s what she wants you to know:

  • The scammers talk fast. The suspect in her case got her attention while driving and gestured so dramatically that she felt pressure to pull over. He then pleaded with her, “Please stop driving, you’ll get into a fatal accident. Pull over now, please! Let me help you.”  
  • They try to tell you where to pull over. In her case, he tried to urge her to pull over at a specific McDonald’s parking lot. She refused and looked for a convenience store with people outside. Her goal was to pull over in a populated place and anywhere but the place he suggested. Next time, she would not pull over at all; she would wait for him to realize he needed to move on and then, when it was safe to do so, she would pull into a gas station or heavily populated area to check her tire.  
  • The moment they get you to stop, you’ve walked into the scam. The second she stopped, he jumped into action. He started by trying to be so reassuring, he gave her the keys to his own vehicle while he got into her car and drove it a few feet. While doing so, she said her tire did appear to wobble. He had her get back in her car, move the wheel while he “fixed” the tire. Her tire appeared fixed although she has no idea what he did to the car. Still, she wishes she didn’t stop or that when she stopped, she didn’t open her window and start talking to him. 
  • No matter what, they force you to pay for something, whether it’s parts and/or labor. While she never saw him get parts from his vehicle or use them on her car, he demanded she pay about $175 for parts; he waived labor. 
  • They take cash only. As he demanded cash and learned she didn’t have any, he insisted she take him to an ATM. She was smart and said no. 
  • They try to go to your home to get cash if the bank’s not an option. In this case, she did allow him to follow her home, but she called her husband and eventually the Bellaire Police Department, both of whom ended up meeting with the scammer. She’s urging others never to let them follow you home. 

She did an incredible job managing a terrible situation. Following this case, I had a lengthy conversation with Officer JW Edwards with Bellaire PD Crime Prevention and Community Resource about scams like these. He urges the community to do the following: 

  • If notified about a “wobbly wheel” or some other mechanical issue, look for an auto repair shop nearby or a nearby police or fire department. If not, pick the busiest place; never go where the person tells you. 
  • Avoid getting out of your vehicle, tell the “Good Samaritan” that you have already called your (spouse, police, tow truck, AAA, etc…).  A Good Samaritan will not harass you into getting out of your vehicle or making rash decisions.
  • Scammers often move fast and talk faster. This confuses and rushes people to make hasty decisions.  If you are talking with the person, slow down the conversation, and think about what they are telling you.  If you are still feeling confused, call someone on the phone, or get the attention of someone nearby where you stopped such as a store employee). 
  • Don’t be afraid to say no. The safest place to be during these types of situations while you’re on the road is inside your vehicle with the windows up and doors locked. If you think you might have been a victim to a scam and you are driving to the ATM for money, call the police on the way to the bank. When you arrive at the bank, go inside and tell a teller; do not use the ATM.
  • Call the local police department or call the phone number on the back of your driver’s license if you are stranded or believe you are being scammed.

 And as I sit here and digest all the details, I think of all drivers, especially the teen drivers in your home. The woman in this case used her wits to get herself out of a scary situation. For those of you wondering if the man who stopped her was indeed a Good Samaritan, let me give you the update. When Bellaire police showed up at the home, the man fled, and a chase ensued. The suspect was apprehended, and law enforcement discovered he had a lengthy history of aggravated robbery and a past of targeting older women. As for the McDonald’s parking lot he recommended he randomly urged her to pull into.... turns out, one of his counterparts worked there. Imagine if this Bellaire resident really did go to that location...

And as for the tire - Officer Edwards and I talked at length about the state of her tire. We still don’t know if the scammers had watched the woman park, taking that opportunity to tamper with her tire while they waited for her to get back in her car and pull her over OR if, while the scammer drove her car for a few feet to display the tire’s “wobbliness,” he manipulated the car in such a way to make the tire appear to have a defect. Either way, when she took the car to her trusted mechanic the next day, they said all four of her tires were perfectly normal. 

While the average person is good at heart, there are scammers on every street looking for their next victim. As drivers, think about this - if you’ve been driving your car and it feels fine, it probably is or at least can take you to your local police station or a local mechanic. Also, a Good Samaritan who wants to help you is not going to be so persistent as to make you feel uncomfortable; they’ll let you lead the situation, pull over where you want and dictate next steps. Additionally, all drivers should be aware not just of their surroundings and location (do you know where the closest police station is or gas station or car shop?) but also have their local police station number programmed in their phone in case it’s needed. You don’t want to wait for a difficult situation to start thinking about researching people or places to help you. 

Here are non-emergency numbers to keep on hand (all non-emergency lines can be called 24/7):

  • Bellaire Police Department: 713-668-0487
  • West University Police: 713-668-0330 
  • Southside Police: 713-668-2341
  • Memorial Villages Police Department: 713-365-3700
  • City of Houston: 713-884-3131

More than anything, the woman in this case handled everything right and helped Bellaire Police get a very dangerous person off the road. Take the time to share her story. I’m so thankful to her for sharing it with me and Buzz readers!

Read past Sundays with Rania posts here. Find more information on Crime Stoppers of Houston on their website or follow them on Facebook. Have topics in mind that you’d like Rania to write about? Comment below or email her at rmankarious@crime-stoppers.org. Rania is co-host of a weekly podcast which features interesting local and national guests who used their platforms for the good of the community. Connect with Rania on Instagram and Twitter

Editor's Note: Views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of The Buzz Magazines.

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