Imagine you are 88 years old and your grandson and his new wife live in Germany. You have not seen him in a couple months and know that he is a good boy, but his idea of fun is vacationing in Iran or Afghanistan.
One morning you receive a call from a man who identifies himself as Sergeant Holt from the United States Embassy in Germany. He says “I’m sorry to report that Matthew and Heidi have been locked up for drug possession. They were pulled over tonight and marijuana was found in the backseat of their car. They are being held in jail here.”
Your heart skips a beat as Sergeant Holt continues, “Bail has been set at $3,000 and they are asking you to help them.”
Now distressed, you ask to speak to your grandson. Sergeant Holt puts him on. A wailing voice comes on and pleads with you to send the money.
“Why not you brother? Why not your parents? Why are you asking me?”
“I am so embarrassed and I don’t want them to know. Please Grandma. I’ll pay you back, but I really need the $3,000. Please.”
Being a good grandmother, you agree and Sergeant Holt comes back on. You ask how you can get the money to your grandson.
He says to go out to Safeway (the grocery store you always shop at, right down the street) and purchase six $500 Visa gift cards and then call back 438.345.0135 for further instructions. You don’t have $3,000 lying around, so you go to your bank and withdraw the cash.
Then you go to Safeway and buy the six $500 gift cards as described. You get home and decide to call your grandson’s father. Perplexed, he tells you that Matthew is not in jail (after calling him) and that this was a scam.
Relieved but still frightened, you call Visa and are successfully able to refund the gift cards – a check will be mailed to you.
* * *
Have you ever received those scam e-mails from a friend who family member begging for money who claims to be robbed and stranded in a foreign country? I get those all the time, but I’ll admit the first time I received one I did think twice – it sounded plausible.
Imagine you are my 88 year-old grandma and someone claiming to be from the government calls up and immediately name-drops her grandson and his wife and correctly identifies what country they are in. Then the con-artists put someone on who sounds like me: I suppose we all sound a bit less like ourselves when crying.
Of course the Montreal telephone number (438.345.0135) and especially the request for gift cards should have been a huge clue this was a scam. But come on, my grandma’s a trusting person. How could she imagine this was an elaborate hoax to defraud her?
To be clear, I was not in das Gefängnis and I’ve never been in jail before.
* * *
My blood is boiling just thinking about what happened yesterday.
After I spoke to my father, I telephoned my grandmother who was audibly distraught. I calmed her down and assured her that Heidi and I were fine and that this was all a hoax.
She was almost shell-shocked and I became angrier and angrier as I listened to her tell me the story, thankful that she loved me enough to send $3,000 to a voice on the phone, and thus all the more livid that someone would take advantage of her in this way.
While I cannot say I regret what happened next, I wish I would have recorded it or perhaps just turned the number over to the police.
As soon as I hung up the phone with my grandmother, I called back 438.345.0135. A woman answered on the first ring, stating, “US Embassy”. Very calmly, I asked to speak to Sergeant Holt. She said, “One moment please,” and either transferred my call or more likely handed the cell phone over to her accomplice.
A man who sounded like a middle-aged white American answered the phone, identifying himself as Sergeant Holt. I first asked him where he was located. He said Germany.
Then, very slowly in my best Dirty Harry impression, I said, “Let me offer you this piece of advice. You better watch your back because one day, when you least expect it, you are going to get a bullet in the back of your head.” You have to imagine how slowly I said this, in a raspy whisper of dejection as if this was a done-deal.
The phone went dead. I redialed and reached voice mail. I robo-called back a thousand times over the next several hours, but I figure the scammers had just pulled the SIM card out of the phone.
I googled 438.345.0135 and found a couple recent reports of similar scam attempts. Not very smart to use the same SIM card for multiple crimes, but perhaps they have permanently discarded the SIM card after my pep talk. I do not speak French, so perhaps one of you can call 438.345.0135 and let me know what the recorded message is.
* * *
My mind immediately wanders to Charles Bronson, star of the 70s Death Wish trilogy. That’s terrible, isn’t it? In the first movie, Paul Kersey took the law into his own hands by avenging the brutal murder of his wife and raping of his daughter by shooting up a handful of thugs in New York City who had eluded law enforcement hands.
A civilized society cannot condone vigilantism, but watch that movie (or think about it in real life) and don’t tell me you fail to struggle with the uneasy fact you are rooting for the vigilante.
As I dreamed of the way I would dismember the two con artists who dared take advantage of my grandmother, I stopped and thought of my post two days ago on the threat of violence in wake of the MH17 crash. Probably best I practice what I preach and pray for their souls instead of plotting their disfiguration.
I do not have a lot of faith in the LAPD to deal with matters like this, and saw little utility in alerting them. What could they do to chase down a cell phone? I doubt they would have dropped everything to run a triangulation. I fear for my grandma, who lives alone in her own house in Los Angeles. There are some nasty people in this world and it makes me want to be less personal, not more personal, in this blog for the safety of those I love. Where else could the scammers have found out that I married Heidi and live in Germany? I haven’t even updaed my Facebook status yet…
And yet life goes on. While my grandmother continues to recover from the trauma of yesterday and I work on my anger management, I would still advise the scammers – if you are reading this now – to be very careful. If and when I find you, you will regret ever being born.
That I shall say good night till it be morrow.