The mother of an Ottawa man with autism says a stranger targeted her son with a charity scam and then drained his bank account, leaving his hard-won confidence shaken.

Susan Torrie says her son Robert Jarencsni, 25, was heading to a bus inside Ottawa’s Rideau Centre mall on March 31, when a woman approached him and said she was from a charity.

Robert initially refused to give her money, but she followed him and “implored upon him that there was emergency involving children, that there’s desperate need and she needs some help,” according to Torrie.

“As he describes it, she then pulled him toward the bank machine and got him to enter his PIN number and, as soon as he did, she pushed him or moved him out of the way and emptied his account,” Torrie adds.

“There’s no question in my mind that she immediately saw this as an opportunity to exploit him,” she says.

Torrie and her husband monitor their son’s bank account, so they quickly noticed someone had withdrawn the equivalent of about two weeks of pay that Robert earns for his part-time jobs at a café and restaurant, she says.

Torrie says it has been hard for Robert to even understand what appears to have happened, and that there may be other disabled victims of the apparent scammer who were either too confused or embarrassed to come forward.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations where he just doesn’t understand why someone would do this – and he at least has that support around him,” she adds. “The really big concern for our family is we think this is going on unnoticed a lot of the time.”

Robert has chosen to stop taking the bus route that requires connecting through the Rideau Centre as a result of the incident, according to Torrie. “For someone with autism that type of change is pretty significant,” she says.

‘No one intervened’

Torrie says she believes mall security could have intervened quicker to protect people like Robert. She says security seemed to be aware of the woman’s presence.

“There’s been a long period of time where they’ve just been shooing her off the property,” she says.

Torrie says she hopes that members of the public will intervene if they see possible scams involving disabled people, either by calling mall security or police.

“People had been aware that this … fake, fraudulent charity scheme has been going on for some time and no one intervened,” she says.

Ottawa Police say they are seeking a female “person of interest” in connection with the incident. The suspect is described as Asian, approximately 35 years old with a small build. Security camera footage appears to show she was wearing black pants and a black jacket.

Anyone with information is being asked to call Ottawa police at 613-236-1222, ext. 5166, or anonymously at Crime Stoppers, 1-800-222-8477.

Police also provided tips for taking precautions when approached by someone seeking a charitable donation:

  • Be wary of appeals that tug at your heart strings, especially pleas involving patriotism and current events.
  • Ask for written information about the charity, including name, address and telephone number. A legitimate charity or fund-raiser will give you information about the charity's mission, how your donation will be used and proof that your contribution is tax deductible.
  • Check out the charity's financial information. For many organizations, this information can be found online.
  • Ask for identification. If the solicitor refuses to tell you or does not have some form or verifiable identification, hang up or close the door and report it to law enforcement officials.
  • Call the charity. Find out if the organization is aware of the solicitation and has authorized the use of its name. If not, you may be dealing with a scammer.
  • Watch out for similar sounding names. Some phoney charities use names that closely resemble those of respected, legitimate organizations. If you notice a small difference from the name of the charity you intend to deal with, call the organization you know to check it out.

More tips can be found on the Ottawa Police Service website.