March 24, 2014
ANATOMY OF A SCAM
MONTPELIER – ”Grampa Will? This is Mack.” My grandson’s voice didn’t sound quite the way I remembered it, but it’s been two years.
“Hey, how are you? What’s happening?”
“Well, I’m in Mexico City, and I’ve got a problem. I was driving, and some guy cut me off. When I swerved to avoid him, I hit a parked car; and now I need fifteen hundred dollars to pay for the damage to my rental car before I can leave the country tomorrow. I can’t get at my own money back home because of the hold on my passport, but if there’s any way you can help me out, I can pay you as soon as I get home. I don’t want my parents to know about this till I get home.”
I suspect you’ve already diagnosed the situation: a scam. But it wasn’t your grandson who was in trouble. And having twice been in the clutches of Central American cops looking for a payday, I’m inclined to believe such things can happen to gringos south of the border.
I’ve long considered Mother and me invulnerable to the multiple opportunities to rake in untold millions from the unclaimed estates of Nigerian millionaires; I’ve sometimes sniggered at the news of poor saps who give out bank account information, or even send checks, to unknown people to pay “handling fees” for the prizes they’ve won; and I reserve my best grumpy German accent for the guys who want to put up a sign on my front lawn (which I don’t have, anyway) for letting them install an “absolutely free” security system in my house.
My credit card company seems pretty good, too. In spite of all the negative press the industry gets, I have to hand it this outfit, at least. They called me once to ask whether I’d approved an $862 charge in Fresno, California, and when I answered, “What!” removed it from my account. The main problem with that was they changed my card number, which meant calling the institutions that receive monthly charitable contributions and giving them the new number when it arrived. So, even though we know the NSA probably can monitor and record every key stroke of our computers, and that our little citadels of secrets are no great impediment to a sophisticated hacker, we feel pretty safe from bad guys who want our money – not least because we don’t have any.
Now here was this call from our grandson Mack to see if we could find some. Mother, who has earned her well-deserved sobriquet the hard way, swung into immediate action. Of course we could, and would, right away. Mack said he’d called the consulate first thing, and they’d assigned him an aide who’d help him through the process. Mack turned me over to him, and he gave me the information I needed to wire the $1500 by Western Union.
It’s easy, looking back, to spot the warning signs: Mack’s slightly unfamiliar voice; the Friday morning timing, which put him under the gun if he wanted to leave Mexico as planned on the weekend; the lousy cell phone connection with the helpful consular aide,“Kevin Reber”; the suspiciously round amount of funds needed; Mac’s anxious request not to tell his parents (I regret most of all my complicity in that); and finally, a college senior without his cell phone. I suspect he’d rather be without his teeth. But never mind all that. Mother found some cash in a credit card account, and shortly she was handing over 15 big ones at the Western Union office downtown.
An hour or so later, another phone call from Mack. “Thanks, guys! I really appreciate it. But now the woman whose car I hit wants $12,000 for the damage to her car, and they can hold me here in Mexico till I pay it. Kevin’s representing me on this for free, and he thinks he can talk her down. I’ll call you back.”
Which he did. Good old Kevin had talked her down to only $4000. Was there any chance we could wire that much, too? Yes, I said. Let me get on it. This payment was going to be on me. I took my credit card to the bank, and just by chance got the head teller this time. When she heard my story and request for $4000, she wrinkled her nose. “I’m pretty sure that’s a scam,” she said, and went for the manager. The manager is from Colombia and experienced at spotting schemes to separate credulous gringos from their cash – especially, she said, grandparents. She assured me this was most likely one of them, and strongly advised me to do further checking.
It was like the curtain being pulled back from the Wizard of Oz. All of a sudden I could see what, in our rush to help our grandson, we’d neglected to do: call his cell phone number and, failing that connection, call his mother to see if he was where he said he was. We did, and of course he wasn’t. He was safely in California, bemused and apologetic about our predicament.
With increasing age and arthritis, it gets harder to kick yourself in the tuchus; nevertheless, that’s what we’ve been doing. We really can’t spare the money, but there doesn’t seem to be any alternative. All we can do is warn other grandparents to remember Ronald Reagan’s long-ago quotation of an old Russian proverb: Trust, but verify.
My only meager satisfaction was telling “Kevin,” the last time he called to tell me where to wire the second payment, that he was a very naughty little man whom I’d be looking for through the policia and the consulate, and whom I hoped to find between my headlights some dark night. That pleasure, I assured him, would be worth being detained for a while in Mexico.