MARTIN COUNTY, Fla. — The Martin County Sheriff's wants the public to be aware that not all panhandlers may have the best intentions.
A post on the agency's Facebook page Wednesday said they recently came across a scam that was attempting to tug on the heartstrings of drivers.
"We are asking everyone to be aware of a different type of scam we are seeing sweep through Martin County and across the State of Florida," the post said.
The agency goes on to say they have spotted people at various intersections throughout Martin County holding signs stating they are "raising money" for a 4-year-old battling cancer, wearing hats and t-shirts that support the child.
In one incident, the sheriff's office said their community policing unit made contact with the individuals at the corner of Southeast Federal Highway and Southeast Indian Street after they received calls that they were walking in the road soliciting funds.
When the policing unit made contact with the individuals they said it was clear they were trying to raise money for what they thought was a young child with cancer.
Deputies said there is in fact a child named Emilia who is battling cancer and has a Facebook page to allow loved ones and friends to follow her battle and recovery.
However, deputies don't know whether Emilia's story is a real one.
"We found a Facebook page for a child named Emilia who purportedly has brain cancer but actually lives in Romania," Sheriff William Snyder said.
The sheriff said the family — a mom and two teen boys from Romania — is likely living in motels and traveling through communities, telling the same story to get people's cash.
"These individuals tried to capitalize on this young girl battling cancer, only to raise money for their own pockets," the post on the sheriff's office Facebook page said. "The posters, hats and t-shirts used in this scam were only made in an effort to solicit more money by tugging on the heartstrings of our compassionate citizens."
The sheriff's office warns the public to be cautious when donating to any persons soliciting along the road.
"If you are looking for legitimate places to donate your money, do research on the organization before donating," the agency said. "You should know where you are donating your money, who you are donating it to, how they use your donation, and how much of your donation actually goes to the people they help."
When deputies confronted the family, Snyder said they confessed they were pocketing the cash, making at least $600 per week.
Even though the sheriff's office called the panhandlers' actions "thoughtless and unethical," they didn't violate any Florida law that would result in arrest but were trespassing in the intersection.
"I think they admitted to the scam because they probably realize there's no law against it," Snyder said. "You can report that you're collecting money for somebody who's in need, and there'd be nobody in need yet you haven't violated any state statute."
Different cities around the state have their own laws partially banning panhandling or soliciting or restricting the times and areas where it can be done. Martin County does not have any local laws to stop it.
"We get questions all the time, 'Why isn't this against the law?' The answer, very simply, is there's no real victim because you're voluntarily giving them money," Snyder said.
The sheriff said he is working with county officials.
"We're trying to draft an ordinance to prevent panhandling," Snyder said.
Deputies were able to issue the family a trespass warning for creating a traffic issue.
"The chances that you'll find somebody on the street corner collecting for a legitimate charity is just about zero," Snyder said.