There isn’t a word I can use on this blog that accurately describes what sort of life form pulls a scam on grandmas and grandpas. I will leave it to your imagination.
But if I were forced to choose a word to describe how I felt about what happened to Betty Potts and her husband Buddy, whose combined ages are 163, it would be this one: Fury.
Betty and Buddy have lived in Walkersville, a small town in Frederick County, longer than I have been alive. The other day Betty was out, and the phone rang. Buddy answered. Buddy does not like talking on the phone. If you know Buddy, you know he tries to hang up as soon as possible. If he stays on for more than a couple minutes, it’s a world record.
On the line was their grandson Michael, a college student, calling from Mexico. He was in trouble. He had left campus for a funeral for a high school buddy in Mexico, and he got mixed up with someone involved in drugs. He was talking very excitedly, and loud, which wasn’t entirely normal for him. But Buddy didn’t think anything was too suspicious: Michael had used his own name, his old high school. It was Michael. He was scared.
Buddy quickly called Betty, who came home to learn what Michael urgently needed: $3,800 to get out of jail before nightfall. Betty alerted Michael’s parents, who tried to track him down. Meanwhile, Betty went to Wal-Mart to wire the money.
Michael was not in trouble, of course. He was not in Mexico. Betty and Buddy were being scammed, but they didn’t realize it until after they had wired the cash to Mexico. The scammers, sensing deep and willing pockets, then asked for more money. But just as she was about to send it, Michael got in touch with his parents. He was fine. Betty didn’t send the additional money.
She went home and talked again to the scammers, who had been calling incessantly. She told them: “We’ve talked to Michael.” The scammers hung up.
Betty is devastated.
“I’m ashamed and I’m embarrassed,” she told me the other night. “I was taken. I thought I was too smart to ever be taken in a scam, but I wasn’t. It’s embarrassing.”
But she is not alone. This scam has been making its way around the country the last few years — from Seattle to Gurnee, Ill., to Philadelphia. My colleague Josh White came across the scam back in 2010. Northern Virginia couples have recently been hit too. The FBI issued a warning in April.
The scam originally started around 2008, according to the Better Business Bureau, like this: “The grandparent receives a distressed phone call from who they believe is their grandchild. The supposed grandchild typically explains that they are travelling in Canada and have been arrested or involved in an auto accident and need the grandparent to wire money to post bail or pay for damages — usually amounting to a few thousand dollars. The scammers’ basic tactic is to pose as a grandchild and let the unsuspecting grandparent fill in the blanks. For example, the scam caller might say, ‘It’s me, your favorite grandchild,’ to which the grandparent will guess the name of the grandchild it sounds the most like, and then the call proceeds from there.”
But the rise of Facebook and other social networks have given the scammers more specific information to work with.
The newer version of the scam is described by the Better Business Bureau this way, with eerie similarity to what happened to Betty and Buddy: “In the updated scam, callers identify themselves by specific name as a particular family member. They say they are being held in jail in Mexico and they need bail money wired immediately. They lace their conversation with correct references by name to other family members, increasing their credibility. One caller even knew that the real person being impersonated had a twin who was born two minutes later.”
Betty suspects Michael’s Facebook page helped the scammers. This is scary, ridiculous stuff. The other night when we spoke, about halfway through the conversation Betty asked whether I really worked for The Washington Post. She sounded like she was joking, but fear was speaking too. “I’m starting to question everything,” she said.
Betty reported what happened to the State Police, and a trooper convinced her that instead of feeling sorry for herself Betty should tell her story to prevent others from being victimized. Betty has already learned of several other grandparents in the area who have fallen for the scam.
I love what Betty did next: She wrote a piece for her local newspaper, The Frederick News-Post. The headline: “A grandparent’s warning.” I read it and thought of my own grandparents, now long gone, and how angry I’d be if someone did this to them.
Betty wrote: “Recently someone proved to me just how much I’d overrated my intelligence and underrated the ability of these ‘scums of society’ to get information about our families (yes, small-town folks like you and me) and use it in such devious ways.”
And she issued a warning: “We grandparents are smart and love our grandchildren unconditionally. But we must constantly be aware of all the ‘no-goods’ out there and find ways to keep one step ahead of those who perpetually target us with their evil ways. We wish we had some tried-and-true solutions, but haven’t come up with any — yet. Those who prey upon us are smart, too, and somehow get enough family information (some, no doubt, through all the social media) to come up with such personal and believable stories. But knowledge is golden. We’re hoping that learning some of the details and personal experiences of recent victims will help someone else be a bit more cautious.”
Good for you, Betty. You’re a brave woman and wonderful grandma. You win.