You can learn a lot from morning TV, even during the commercials. I'm thinking specifically of a promo I saw last Friday for an upcoming news exposé on WFTV Channel 9. Here's the gist: You know those panhandlers we all encounter downtown from time to time, pleading shamelessly for our hard-earned money? Well, brace yourself — some of them might not even be homeless!

It took me a while for the full implications of that Barnum-esque scam to sink in. My mind flashed back to the good old days, when every shiny nickel you surrendered to a Lake Eola vagrant bought the assurance that he would indeed be spending the evening sleeping under the stars, with his own feces as a pillow sham. What simpler, more innocent times those were. Now, it appears, our alleged needy may merely be starving, half-mad, tragically disenfranchised Gulf War veterans who can nonetheless seek regular refuge in some sort of lean-to, or maybe even a garden shed. And I say that stinks. If I'm going to blow my entire lap-dance budget on charity, I'd better know for sure that the recipient will be bedding down in Serta National Park, a sprinkler for his alarm clock.

I knew I had to address this outrageous scandal in print, since: a) even a high-wattage station like WFTV can only get up to so much class-based scare-mongering on its own; and b) I have a moral stake in the issue, given that this newspaper is itself a cherished source of temporary shelter for area unfortunates. To separate the genuine wretches (i.e., my readers) from the freeloading four-flushers, I'm publishing this simple set of tips for the confused pedestrian.

Follow your nose — When attempting to determine if a beggar is for real, ask yourself a question that's become an American catchphrase: "Does it pass the smell test?" Science has learned that the real homeless have a unique odor not shared by their close cousins, like garden-variety alkies and arts administrators. Alcoholics, it's been proven, reek of Night Train and excuses, while arts administrators emit a more particular aroma that is in fact the stale sweat of panic. Keep your nostrils peeled for a precise mixture of rainwater, perspiration and rancid Boar's Head; that, and only that, is the funk you're looking for. (Should your test subject's natural scent be masked by a layer of mold, he is not technically homeless but a resident of MetroWest. Float him the quarter anyway.)

Pop quiz — Most counterfeit itinerants are so married to their "scripts" that they can easily be tripped up with an off-topic question or two. One that always works is a simple, "And what do you do for a living?" The genuine article will shoot you a curious, vaguely contemptuous look and shuffle off to the next pigeon. The fakers usually try to come up with a legitimate answer, with fabulously disastrous results. Personal favorites have included "freelance taxidermy," "some kind of consulting" and "Um, street theater. Is it street theater?" No, it isn't, though I once gave five bills to a guy who assured me he was the bass player for Ratt, figuring that he might have been an emissary from the near future who had fallen into a wormhole located just outside the state fair.

Look for clues — Put on your deerstalker cap and get ready to play sleuth, because spotting a panhandling charlatan is often a simple matter of observation and deduction. I'm thinking of a sad-eyed woman I used to see in New York's Port Authority Bus Terminal, hawking copies of Street News, a publication sold by and for the city's homeless. On one particular day, she had brought her young son with her, for the full, pathetic, Dickensian effect. As I passed them on the way to the escalator, I heard her promise, "Just a little longer, Jimmy, and we can go home." Excuse me — "home"? What happened to "homeless"? Boy, did I feel swindled, and it would have been even worse had I actually bought a copy of the thing. Moral: The devil is in the details. Hang on a bum's every word, no matter how fetid his breath.

ID cards — As a liberal, of course I'm going to end this column by stating that the common man can't fix the faux-homeless problem alone and needs the government to pick up the slack. Following the sterling example our state has set in registering sex offenders, how about we mandate that indigents carry officially issued ID cards on their person at all times? Anybody without one has spent at least six nights in the last year with some sort of roof over his head, and is thus undeserving of our largesse. The application process itself can be Step One in the weeding out: If they even make a move to fill out the "address" field, you've got 'em!

I could go on all day, but I have to get an overnight bag together. There's a big sleepover at Patty Sheehan's house, and I'm bringing a whole mess of friends.

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