This actually happened to a close family member who I’ll call Natalie Moore. I’m going to give you the blow-by-blow so you can see how this works and what to be on the lookout for. Kids today don’t like to talk on the phone much, but the moral of this story is, if they see their grandparents calling them, make sure they pick up!
Natalie got a call the other day from an attorney who we’ll call Mark Smith (anonymized for a good reason, trust me). Here’s how the conversation went:
Mark Smith: Hello, Mrs. Moore?
Natalie Moore: Yes.
Smith: I’m here with your grandson in court. The court asked me to represent him after he was arrested last night.
Natalie: What? You’re with Nick? Who is this? What’s happening?
Smith: Yes, I’m here in court with your grandson Nick. He was arrested for damaging public property and driving under the influence. I’ve arranged a settlement if he can pay the damages in cash today. Otherwise, the judge says he needs to spend another night in jail. Let me have him speak with you.
Grandson (shaky, hoarse): Hi Grandma, it’s me. I’m in trouble.
Natalie: Nick? Are you ok? Where are you? What’s the matter?
Grandson: Yeah, it’s me, Nick. Grandma, I’m in a lot of trouble. Please don’t call my parents, I don’t want them to know.
Natalie: You sound terrible. What’s wrong? Are you hurt, are you sick?
Grandson: I’m not hurt, I just have a bad sore throat.
Natalie: Did you go to a doctor?
Grandson: Yes, I went. I’m taking medicine for it. Grandma, I’m in a lot of trouble. I’ve got the money, I just can’t get it from here. I’ll pay you back. I need your help. (pause)Mr. Smith wants to talk with you.
Smith then explains that the damages are $2200 and to wire the cash to his secretary. Once the judge sees the transaction number from Western Union, he’ll release Nick. He’ll call her in an hour and asks how he can get in touch with her. She gives him her cell phone number and heads to the local Western Union store. She tries to wire the money but is told the lines are down. That’s when she calls me to ask me to look up other locations (I’m the family’s tech support). I start looking it up, ask her what’s going on because she sounds pretty shaky herself. She tells me the story and tells me she promised to keep it confidential. Something about it just seems a little off, but she said she spoke with Nick directly, so I wrote it off temporarily as one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” things.
Since the Western Union lines were down, I volunteer to drive to the courthouse and hand the cash over. I also start looking up the attorney. I can’t find anything on him, so I call a good friend who’s an attorney and lives close to the court house where Nick is. I ask him how to find a lawyer’s credentials in NY and then explain to him what’s going on. I find the guy’s name listed in the online directory he told me to check while we’re talking. He offers to go to the courthouse himself since he’s right there. We debate, since we’re supposed to be keeping this confidential, but agree that Natalie can decide and we’ll take it from there.
I get Natalie on the phone, we talk about all of this, and she waits for Mr. Smith to call back. He doesn’t give her his cell phone number because “the judge doesn’t allow your phone to be on in the courtroom – not even on silent.” That’s odd, but not unreasonable, like so much of this story is. When he calls, Natalie says an attorney friend is coming with the funds. He says that won’t work, that the judge is looking for the way they usually do it – a Western Union transaction. And he gets angry that she wants to bring in another lawyer. “If you bring in another lawyer now,” he says, “the whole deal will be off the table.”
Now that’s strange and the strangeness is starting to outweigh everything else. My friend heads to the courthouse, I call Natalie and tell her to makes it clear he only wants to see Nick and confirm that he can get home once the money is paid. He’s not appearing as an attorney. He just needs the courtroom number.
When Smith calls back, she asks for the courtroom number and he gets indignant, stating that it’s the criminal courthouse, there’s only one, and it’s easy to find. Well, of course it is, but we need the courtroom number. Finally, Smith tells Natalie the number, she tells me and I tell my friend. This whole thing reeks of scam, but I keep thinking – how would they know she had a grandson named Nick? How would they know her cell phone number? It doesn’t feel right, but the only way it makes sense is if it really is Nick. We keep talking about the fact that it smells fishy, but the only one who has all the details is Smith. My friend and I don’t know it was Natalie who first mentioned Nick’s name and she’s in a panic and didn’t recall that until much later.
My friend gets to the courtroom and finds out it’s just an office in the courthouse. At the same time, Natalie calls Nick’s cell phone number, even though she knows the police would have confiscated it when they arrested him. It rings, and:
Nick answers: Grandma?
Natalie: Where are you? How are you? What’s going on?
Nick: Grandma, are you ok? I’m at work. What’s wrong? I’m fine.
In retrospect, the giveaway should have been that guy pretending to be Nick said he went to the doctor and was taking medicine for a sore throat – the real Nick is just not that kind of guy.
Here’s what they did:
- The set up a scenario in which someone Natalie cared about was in trouble.
- It was urgent.
- It was serious enough that she’d react immediately.
- Access to the victim was restricted – she didn’t call his cell sooner because she has “spoken with” him and he confirmed what was going on.
- They tricked her into getting his name.
- Since it was urgent and confidential, there wasn’t time for her to call someone who might be skeptical.
- The sum they were asking for wasn’t entirely unrealistic – it’s a lot, but not so much a grandparent wouldn’t part with it for the sake of their grandchild.
- There was also the promise of being paid back immediately, thus minimizing the effect of handing the money over now.
- They found a lawyer’s name that checked out as a member of the NY bar. The fact that he was recently deceased didn’t come up in the initial search.
- They used Western Union’s policies to their advantage – all they gave was a name (from a stolen driver’s license) and a city. You don’t need to give a valid street address in order to send or pick up money.
In short, they preyed on her emotions and laid a perfect trap. It was only over time that the nature of the situation came to light. I’ve since learned that this type of scam is a becoming more frequent and the scammers are based in Canada. They actually do their research about you before they call so they know how to get to you. According to the AARP, over $100 million is scammed out of grandparents every year from these Canadian scammers alone.
Natalie could be anyone who has people he or she cares about. She’s highly educated, retired and smart, but smarts shut down sometimes when you’re deeply concerned about your family and feel under the gun.
There are so many little bits of luck here – if the Western Union lines hadn’t been down, she’d have been scammed and that would have been that. If I hadn’t picked up (I was at work) she would have tried some other way. If my friend hadn’t been so persistent about getting right to the courtroom, the guy wouldn’t have gotten so indignant and wouldn’t have triggered Natalie into her own sense of suspicion. And if Nick hadn’t picked up his cell phone, as so many 20-somethings don’t, we wouldn’t have gotten the confirmation that this was all a scam.
From the outside, scams seem obvious. When you’re in one, you’re focusing on other things than your skepticism.
The lesson to learn is this: The adults in your child’s life need to be able to get through to them for reasons you can’t predict. Dads, make sure you tell your kids to answer when you and your own folks call. It won’t always be to prevent a scam, but it is always a good idea.