Seven years ago, my husband Robert and I were almost tricked by a scam designed to take advantage of older people. I was embarrassed to write about it, but then thought it might help others to avoid something similar. It also turned into a funny family story. Here’s that column.
The phone rang. “Hello Grandma,” the voice on a scratchy connection said, “this is Nick and I’m in Barcelona, Spain.”
“What are you doing there?” I asked. I had not heard that my 15-year-old grandson was in a foreign country and not at home in Edmonds, Washington.
“My friend Michael won two tickets to Spain and he asked me to come along with him.” He explained that they’d met some young Spanish men who spoke English and had gone for a car ride with them. A policeman had pulled them over because of a damaged tail light, and had found cocaine in the car.
“I’m in the American Embassy and I tested clean for drugs so all they need now is bail money to get me out,” the person I thought was Nick continued. “I don’t want my parents to find out, so could you send me $2,400?”
He gave me a number that he said was the American Embassy and asked me to hurry. “Michael’s money already arrived and he’s gone. As soon as you send money to me, the police will take me to the airport and I can fly home.”
My concern for my grandson was very high. I called the number he had given me, and the woman who answered said I’d reached the American Embassy. She transferred me to a man who assured me that Nick was alright, that he is a fine young man, and didn’t want anything to go on his permanent police record. He said that as soon as I sent the money, they would get Nick released.
He gave me an address and told me to wire the money in cash via Western Union “Do you have western Union in your city?”
I remembered that Hy-Vee in Shenandoah was a Western Union agent. He told me that would be fine, but that I should hurry. I grabbed my coat and told Robert we were driving to Shenandoah right away.
Just then our son Jeff came in the back door. He’s been visiting from Montana and had been running a few errands.
“Where’s everybody going?” he asked.
I told him the whole story. Jeff went online and quickly found a web site explaining The Grandparent Scam. There, almost word for word, was the script that I’d just heard over the telephone. Crooks were finding information online about the grandchildren of elderly people and then calling to impersonate those children and beg their grandparents for bail money.
Jeff called Nick’s parents in Edmonds and asked where Nick was. “In school,” Craig told his brother.
“He’s not in jail in Spain?” Jeff asked.
“No! Where did you get that idea?”
A little later the phone rang again. “Hello Grandma, this is Nick,” the voice said. “Did you send the money?” He asked for the confirmation number so that he could retrieve the cash.
“We know this is a scam,” Jeff told the caller. “Hang up now and don’t ever call this number again.”
By amazing coincidence, the ABC Evening News had a story that night about the Grandparent Scam. Broadcaster Diane Sawyer reported that over 25,000 such scams were perpetrated this past year, and that millions of dollars have been lost. She said that families should have a secret code word so that if there is a call that sounds suspicious, family members can use the code word to identify themselves.
I am so thankful that Jeff happened to be home when all of this happened so that he could prevent us from being taken in. As I think about the experience, I am stunned at how clever the caller was in pushing so many emotional buttons and taking advantage of a grandmother’s love for her grandson.
The next day Craig called and asked to speak to Jeff. “I’m calling on behalf of the Birkby’s dog Sparky,” Craig said in a muffled voice. “He got in with a bunch of bad dogs and is being held at the dog pound. He wants you to send him $2.40 so he can get out, and he’s too embarrassed to tell anybody else.”
We all laughed and realized that we’ll need to tell Sparky the family’s code word, too.
With summer fading, it’s time to enjoy the last garden treats. Here’s a fresh way to serve tomatoes.
Honey Hill Escalloped Tomatoes
Several large, ripe tomatoes, sliced
2 Tablespoons butter
2 Tablespoons honey
1 cup cracker crumbs
Salt and pepper to taste
Cover bottom of greased casserole with a layer of tomatoes. Sprinkle on salt and pepper, dots of butter, and drizzle on the honey. Cover with a layer of cracker crumbs. (Make into more than one layer if desired.) Bake 20 minutes at 375 degrees.