"It sounded like a rerun of `ER,' " my reader said. "Lots of commotion in the background, lots of anxiety in the voice."
And most likely, lots of larceny in the heart.
My reader lives in Temple Hills. She filters her phone calls through an answering machine. The other night, a call came that began:
"Your father has been taken seriously ill. We've called 911. Your father asked us to call you. He asked you to meet him at the hospital right away."
The caller, a woman, did not identify herself, or the hospital to which the patient had supposedly been taken. The caller did not say she was a nurse or an emergency medical technician. But she did sound "urgent and persuasive," my reader said.
There was only one problem.
My reader's father has been dead for 10 years.
So has her husband's father.
The husband happened to be listening as the "emergency" call played through the family's answering machine. He picked up the receiver and said:
"Boy, have you got the wrong number!"
The husband was about to explain when the line went dead. The caller had abruptly hung up.
My reader thinks it was a scam, designed to get the family to vacate the house in a huge hurry so burglars could swoop in, undisturbed.
"I can't prove that," my reader said. But she works as an office manager for a doctor, where she is constantly subjected to telephone scams of all sorts -- including the legendary one about cheap-o copier supplies (I've written about it several times). My reader says she knows a con when she hears it.
Get-them-to-vacate scams have been operating for years. Favorite plot lines include:
* Previously unscheduled Tupperware parties on the other side of town.
* A special unannounced appearance at a distant shopping center by a country music singer.
* Pets that wandered away from home and have been miraculously found miles away.
The pet scam is usually helped along by the about-to-be burglars. They snatch Rover so he won't come home in the middle of the call and spoil everything.
Please don't be naive enough to think that such scams can't happen. Evidence that they do: the obituaries in this newspaper.
Years ago, we used to publish the home addresses of the dearly departed. Burglars were delighted.
They didn't even need to case houses any more. They could just spend a quarter, and they had a sure thing (as long as they arrived while the funeral was underway). The dearly departed were soon followed into the next world by departed silverware, departed TV sets and departed stereos. This newspaper and most others have long since stopped publishing addresses of grieving families, at the request of police.
Cpl. Timothy Estes, a spokesman for the Prince George's County police, checked with supervisors in six police districts in the county. None had heard of the "ill father scam." But "that doesn't mean it's not something someone is trying to get started," Timothy said.
My reader says she's warning all her neighbors in Temple Hills, in case the father-scammer uses a crisscross directory and plans to troll for "customers," block by block. She says she's also warning her neighbors to alert their children.
"Isn't this just amazing?" my reader said.
No, ma'am. I'm afraid it isn't. Not in this day and age.
It was an e-mail from Dale City -- a voice of sweet reason. But I fear that the voice may be whistling in the wind.
"Around this time each year, the political posters go up all over the place," wrote this reader. "I don't mind one or two posters for [each] candidate. But when they have four or five within a block, it gets annoying, especially when there's a lot of candidates.
"Sometimes you see five to ten posters for one candidate in one spot. It's overkill."
My Dale City reader asks: "Couldn't [candidates] be spending their money in a more productive manner by making pamphlets that explain the issues? . . . The more posters a candidate has, the less likely I am going to vote for him or her. I wish they would realize this."
Sorry to be so cynical, but I think candidates realize just the opposite.
Name recognition is the whole ballgame in suburban elections. Many suburban voters don't have the slightest idea who's running for any office -- and candidates are well aware of this. So candidates erect dozens of posters just to get a name and a face out there, and to hammer both of them home as hard as possible.
As for pamphlets on the issues, several candidates have tried that over the years. Very few won. Pamphlets do better in political science class than in real-world elections, especially in suburbs like Dale City, where few residents have time to spare, and even less to spare for dense, serious reading.
I agree that multi-postering is "extremely annoying," as my reader in Dale City puts it. But the practice is here to stay. Just pray that all those candidates remove all those posters, win or lose. The only thing worse than the same face 49 times is to have to look at it after Election Day.