SANTA CLARITA (CBSLA.com) — From the San Fernando Valley to the Santa Clarita Valley, CBS2’s David Goldstein’s undercover cameras captured similar looking groups of panhandlers with children.
Some were holding kids small enough to even be breastfeeding, and all were holding signs claiming to be down and out.
But are they as needy as they seem?
Goldstein watched them outside shopping areas all over town, with similar signs reading “Please help,”, “Lost my job,” “I have 3 kids” and the like.
Residents believe they’re all working together, and they’re fed up.
“It’s a well-organized group, no question about it,” said one local.
Over a series of weeks during the summer, Goldstein’s undercover cameras followed the panhandlers sometimes trying to get people’s attention but mostly getting their sympathy and their money.
Goldstein soon saw a pattern develop, such as one family finishing their panhandling and then getting into a late-model SUV. A young girl with them made sure they didn’t leave their sign behind.
Or another group that panhandled outside the Fallbrook Center, only to later drive to another mall a few miles away.
One of CBS2’s undercover producers approached a woman and daughter who admitted she’s a regular panhandler who’s homeless and looking for cleaning work.
“I’m here three days in the week,” she said.
The woman told Goldstein’s crew she didn’t have a phone to get in touch with her, nor did she own any transportation but relies on the bus to get around.
But a few minutes later, that same woman was spotted walking with a man and got into a car with him, not a bus.
She ended up outside a Ralphs supermarket around the corner, sign in hand, when Goldstein approached her.
“We’ve seen these signs all over town. Are you guys part of some organized ring?” he asked.
“No, no, no” she replied.
“Are you really homeless? Are you really out of work?”
“Yes, I’m homeless,” she said before she hustled away from the scene.
Another panhandling couple – a mother and son – were spotted outside a Walmart, only to get into a car that came back registered to Enterprise Rent-A-Car.
“Is that right, really, to be out there asking for money? And you’re driving a rental car? I mean, you’re driving a 2016 new car and you’re out asking for money,” said Goldstein.
LAPD detective Gil Escontrias, who used to work the Bunco Forgery Division, looked at the undercover photos.
“It’s almost to the point of being called a ‘disorganized organization’, if you will, where they probably sometimes, like any type of organized theft group, will coordinate with each other as to who’s going to take what position and what spot,” said Escontrias.
He says it appears they’re one of a number of groups who travel around the country preying on the heartstrings of people to make money, and he has doubts about their unemployment status.
“For many people, this is their job,” Escontrias said. “They wake up in the morning, this is what they’re going to do, and they have a goal, a certain amount of money to continue with their lifestyle.”
“But in many instances, you found they’re not necessarily out of work,” Goldstein added.
“No, because this is their work,” replied Escontrias. “This is their work.”
Police say the panhandlers aren’t breaking any laws. It’s not illegal to ask people for money. But they say if you’re in the spirit of giving, it might be best to give to a legitimate charity.