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Dear Heidi: Is it ever acceptable to warn someone about an untrustworthy person?

Tread carefully. You must be positively sure about your information before you confidentially tell tales about others.

Telling tales about other people rarely ends well despite our best intentions. Comments are mostly accepted as gossip at best, and borderline libel at worst.  But what do you do if you know firsthand that a friend is about to become involved with an untrustworthy person?

Before you say anything, realize that you cannot take back something after it's spoken or typed. Do you know for sure your information regarding another person is reliable, or is it gossip? It's impolite to gossip, so keep that in mind. How do you know the information is reliable? Did you experience something firsthand? If so, then read on.

I found myself in a situation like this. However, I was the friend who needed a warning. I was a member of a group of long-time volunteers for a local charity. One day, out of the blue, one of the volunteers asked to meet for a coffee. I did not know him well, but he had always been a good and reliable volunteer. I decided to meet him, thinking we could discuss the next volunteer project, but I quickly learned the coffee meeting had nothing to do with charity work — he was asking for a loan. He had a great story, very plausible and seemingly sincere. It would be a very short-term loan; he'd pay me back in two weeks. I told him I would need to think about it, and I'd get back to him.

Meanwhile, I casually mentioned to a very close friend, who was also a member of the volunteer group, that I had met with this person. I said nothing about the conversation. She whisked me to a private area and asked me if he asked for a loan. She then repeated, nearly verbatim what he had said to me. It was like listening to a recording. She confided in me that she met with him and heard the same story; he only needed the money for two weeks. My friend then said, "I loaned him the money—that was three years ago." She kept asking him to pay her back, and it was always the same, "soon."  

Then, another member of the group heard I had met with this man, and he too took me aside and said, "Don't do it. I loaned him a bunch of money several years ago for "two weeks," and he's never paid me back."  

I was a bit confused about why they hadn't pressured this person to get their money back. They both said it was "awkward," they hated to make trouble for his lovely family, and time just slipped away.  

Soon after, we were shocked to hear through the local media that this person was giving the same speech to many people, and finally, someone turned him into the authorities. The police arrested him, the years-long scheme was exposed, and he went to prison. Unfortunately, neither friend received their money; the list of creditors was far too big and long.

In this case, my two friends warned me about a charming yet completely untrustworthy person before I made the same mistake they had made. I admired that neither friend ever spoke of this to anyone else. They only came to me, independently, when they saw I was flying too close to the sun.  

In my case, I was lucky to have friends who helped me. They did this privately and with discretion and only because they had firsthand knowledge of this person's true nature.

My advice is to tread carefully upon these grounds; it's tricky.  You must be positively sure about your information before you confidentially tell tales about others. Otherwise, you could be committing a serious breach of your social codes and potentially cause a great deal of harm.


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