In mid-afternoon the phone rang. The voice at the other end said, “Hi, Grandpa, it’s Thomas.”
VOICE: Thomas, your grandson
ME: I didn’t recognize your voice
VOICE: That’s because I have a sore throat.
ME: Where are you?
VOICE: Actually, I’m traveling. I’m in Peru.
ME: You are not in Peru and you are not Thomas. I’m familiar with this scam.
Whereupon, I hung up.
Just two months before, “Thomas” had called me from the Dominican Republic.
That time he had a strep throat.
Later, a State Department investigator explained that this dodge is called The Grandparent Scam. The gang that perpetrates it is operating all over the world.
“They move often, making it very hard to trace them,” she said.
Here is how it works: The victim’s “grandson” was stopped in a car taking him to his hotel from the airport in (name of the foreign city). The car was searched and drugs were found in the trunk. Driver and passenger(s) were arrested. Grandson said he was allowed one call (this one), but that an official of the U.S. Embassy was on hand to help and would explain the situation.
The “official” would come on the line to explain that if the grandson could raise bail (usually about $2,000) he could have a hearing the next day and since he was, in effect, only a bystander, he would be released. Without the immediate bail, he would wait many days — perhaps weeks — for a hearing.
If the grandparent wired the money as instructed, the “hearing” would then be held and the grandson released to return home; however, each person in the automobile was fined by the judge (usually another $2,000 or so). If the grandparent were to wire those funds, the following day the grandson would be taken by the “embassy” to the airport where Customs would demand another $1,000 or so to release his passport and the airline would charge several hundred dollars to change his original return flight.
Through all of this, the helpful “embassy” official would call at each step of the way — except the final one. Although he, or an assistant, would promise to call to confirm that the grandson was on the flight home, this call would never occur, because the scam had been successful and the gang (probably consisting of three men) would be on its way to its next scene of operation.
While the “embassy” version is currently popular among scam gangs, there have been many variations in recent years. Some involve the “grandchild” being involved in a hit-and-run accident or a rental car accident. Others may involve lost passports.
What to do if your “grandson” or “granddaughter” calls in such a situation?
If they are purportedly in a foreign country, tell the “embassy official” that you are not sure you can raise the money. Ask him to give you his telephone number and you will call him back shortly. Then, call the Department of State in Washington, D.C. The number for American Citizen Service is 1/888/407-4747. They have someone on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Then call your actual grandchild at home. You will save yourself several thousand dollars.