The call came to me at home, from which I work a few days every week. I’ve become accustomed to telephone solicitations, people wanting to refinance my mortgage, clean my air ducts or install a home security system.
This one was different. A heavily accented man who identified himself as Julian explained that because I always paid my bills and taxes on time, was current on my mortgage and had not been convicted of a crime in the past two years, the government wanted to reward me with a “grant.” I was one of only 1,500 people across the nation selected for this largesse. All I had to do was call a number and provide my confirmation code: GG1055.
I knew from the start, of course, that this was a scam. But I wondered how exactly it was a scam. And so I told Julian that I was a writer at The Washington Post, and I asked him why I was getting that particular amount of money. Why not $900? Or $10,000?
“It is just $9,200,” he said, unhelpfully.
Throughout our conversation, Julian adopted an “I just work here” attitude. He deflected every question I asked, assuring me that all would be explained if I just called the number.
“We are not trying to take your money,” he said. “We’re trying to deliver your grant money.”
And you work for the federal government, I asked.
“Yes,” Julian said.
“But isn’t the government shut down? Shouldn’t you be shut down?”
“Not all of the grants departments,” he said. “Only some few grants departments have been shut down.”
“Julian,” I said with a hint of disappointment in my voice. “Either you know you are trying to take my money, and that means you are a scammer. Or you don’t know, and that means you are stupid. Please tell me you will quit this job and do something else.”
“You don’t understand me,” Julian said. “That’s the reason that you doubt.”
No, I thought. I understand you all too well. We hung up, and I called the number. It had a 206 area code: Washington state.
“U.S. Government Grants Department,” said the man who answered. While Julian had an Eastern European accent, this man sounded more Filipino.
I explained that I was with The Washington Post and I asked where the man was.
“Washington, D.C., Independence Avenue,” he said. “In the Health and Human Services building.”
“What color is that building?” I asked.
It was a silly question on my part. He could have easily Googled the HHS building. Instead, he sounded insulted, as if I were questioning the honesty of an essential federal worker. He hung up on me.
I called back and was hung up on repeatedly until I managed to extract a promise from the U.S. Government Grants Department: A manager would call me back.
I’m still waiting.
So how were they going to take my money? According to complaints I found online, this scam has been going on for a few years, though it seems to have heated up recently. Sometimes the scammers ask for a checking account number so they can deposit the grant — and siphon your money. Other times they ask for a credit card number so they can deduct $360 before releasing the grant.
But there is no grant, except for the ones that gullible consumers give to these criminals.
Smile for the camera
After my column last week about my love of old cameras, I heard from many readers who share my affection. Lowell Padgett was one. He had a darkroom in his house — still has it, in fact, just hasn’t used it in awhile.
Lowell had a photographer friend named Howard Churchill, who was a leading photographer in Manassas, Va. “He’d handle a 4x5 Crown or Speed Graphic with such speed and precision you’d think the cameras ran themselves,” Lowell wrote.
Howard was known for shooting events around Manassas, at the lodges and fraternal organizations that once were a regular part of American life. “I noticed how the people always looked so relaxed and at ease, with genuine smiles, in those photos,” Lowell wrote. What was the secret?
“Howard was bald. With 4x5 on tripod, the photo composed, everything ready, he’d bend forward slightly and ask the people to look at the light reflecting off of his hairless head. The people always responded with open eyes and genuine smiles and the shutter fired.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.