CINCINNATI -- If you see someone claiming to be a service member in need of help, you might want to think twice about handing them cash.
In the case of at least one man, leaders with the University of Cincinnati Army ROTC program warn he's not who he claims to be.
Michael Bowlin has posed as a member of the military for the past four years, Lt. Col. Jason Bender said.
Bowlin has been spotted near The Banks, in Newport and Covington and in Uptown near the university, ROTC leaders say. But each time, they say, his story is the same: He claims to be an Army staff sergeant with car trouble. Sometimes he'll show a broken cellphone, and he's even left messages with the Army ROTC office to make his story seem more legitimate, leaders say.
"This is Staff Sgt. Bowlin. I need someone to answer the on-call emergency. I've had an accident. I'd appreciate it -- my phone is kind of smashed," one message said.
Three people fell for the story Thursday night, according to the UC Army ROTC Facebook page:
Steve Schwartz said he gave Bowlin $60, supposedly for a cab. Instead, Schwartz said Bowlin took the cash and ran.
Ordinarily, Schwarz said he wouldn't hand out so much money, but Bowlin was polite, patient and courteous.
"I guess you really can't trust anybody, which sounds terrible, but you really just have to say 'sorry' and let them be on their way," Schwartz said.
Bender said Bowlin isn't violating any laws and doesn't ask for money outright.
"He's never in uniform. He never shows any military ID, so when he says he's a staff sergeant assigned to us, unfortunately, that is free speech protected by the Supreme Court -- lying is protected free speech," Bender said.
Ultimately, Bender said he'd like to see Bowlin stop taking advantage of people's good will, but he doubts police will pursue him, since what he's doing isn't technically illegal.
"Honor, integrity, selfless service is something that means a lot to me," Bender said. "The fact that someone is using that to prey on other people’s trust of the military disgusts me."