The call came just before noon. The upset in my father-in-law’s voice was obvious even before he said, “There may be a crisis.”
That’s exactly the sentence you brace yourself against when the phone rings at an unusual hour, from parents who are in their upper eighties, and live far away. Earlier this summer, wildfires forced David’s folks to evacuate their condo. They hadn’t been home three weeks when his mom was having an emergency appendectomy.
But this bad news was about my son.
“It seems like Sam may have run a red light,” Roger said, choosing his words carefully. “He said something about losing his phone. He was a little hard to understand. He was calling from the hospital.”
Why didn’t he call me? I wondered, wounded. “Is he okay?”
“He says he has a broken nose and two black eyes. And he’s been charged with reckless driving.”
My stomach turned. The scenario was all too plausible. Sam lives a few hundred miles away from us, and has a history of losing stuff – his wallet, his camera, his iPod, a pair of glasses when he jumped into the river for a moonlight swim. Last year I got a call from a woman who’d found his phone on a country road, where it had fallen from the roof of his truck. He has also had his share of medical mishaps – cuts and scrapes from skateboarding, a hurt knee from Frisbee. Last month, he disturbed a wasps’ nest while clearing brush, and landed in the emergency room. But criminal charges? That would be a first.
“Was anyone else involved?” I asked, trying not to imagine what I was imagining.
“There was a car full of people from Honduras,” my father-in-law answered. “They were on their way to the airport to fly home. They were hurt, but they were still able to make it to their plane. I talked to his Legal Aid lawyer, or someone who said that’s what he was, anyway, and he said that they would be willing drop the charges if I wired them $2000 right away.”
Maybe you’ve heard about the “grandparents scam.” Google “grandma scam” (or “grandpa scam”), and you’ll get more than a million hits. According to the AARP, last year 25,500 older Americans fell for it, to the tune of $110 million. There are variations on the theme, but it basically works like this.
The caller identifies himself as the mark’s grandson. He might start by saying, “Grandpa?” and when Grandpa answers, “Is that you, Sam?” the hook is set. Other times, the caller knows the grandson’s name. My father-in-law can’t remember how his call started – only that it was confusing and upsetting, which is why the scam succeeds. When you’re upset, it’s harder to think clearly. And what could be more upsetting than finding out that your beloved grandson is in trouble?
The caller says he’s in a foreign country – usually Mexico, although the calls actually usually originate in Canada. And of course, the actual grandchild is probably at home in the U.S. In our case, the caller didn’t use this ploy. But the part about the airport-bound foreigners seems related. When Roger mentioned those Hondurans to me, I got suspicious. And started feeling a little better.
The caller claims to have an emergency. He’s been arrested. Or robbed. Or gotten hurt. And he needs money. Now. At this point, before Grandpa can start asking a lot of questions, the caller hands the phone over to a third party, someone claiming to be a policeman or a doctor or a lawyer. In our case, this is when my father-in-law started having his doubts.
If Sam really needed a lawyer, wouldn’t he be from the Public Defender’s Office, rather than Legal Aid? And how had a lawyer managed to show up at his bedside so quickly? Roger was still willing to believe that Sam had run a red light. But if this was true, it seemed like some sort of sleaze had interjected himself into the crisis.
When he got his instructions for wiring the money – in this scam, the money always needs to be wired – Roger sensibly asked for the phone number of the Legal Aid office. And when the so-called lawyer couldn’t oblige, my father-in-law ended the call.
“What kind of lawyer doesn’t know the phone number of his own office?” he asked when he told me the story. In the background, I could hear my mother-in-law shouting, “It’s fishy!”
But Roger still wasn’t sure about the whole thing. What if Sam really was in trouble? And what if he’d just made the situation worse? That’s when he called me.
“Did you try calling Sam?” I asked.
Well, no. He said he’d lost his phone.
After we hung up, I dialed Sam’s cell. He answered right away, as buoyant as ever. He was happily eating his lunch. After he’d reached his grandparents and reassured them, he called me back. We laughed about the scam artist’s far-fetched claim. Then we chatted about Sam’s job, his weekend, and the excellent sandwich he’d just enjoyed.
“I’m glad Sam’s not lying in some hospital with a broken nose,” I told my father-in-law when we talked, later.
“I’m glad I didn’t send that $2000,” he said.
It’s hard enough when loved ones live far away, and the specter of the awful phone call looms. It’s worse when you have to wonder whether you’re hearing the truth, and to worry about the danger of being trapped by a lie.