The day before her 91st birthday, my grandmother spent six hours driving between grocery stores in Wilton, Connecticut, wiring money to a man she thought was a crooked cop. She did this on my behalf, in the belief that she was bribing him to get me out of jail. Grandma is still sharp. She reads The Economist and The New Yorker, she has an iPad, she drives on her own, and she even does push-ups, but all of this didn’t stop her from losing $3,000 over the telephone.
Around the time the banks opened that day, my grandmother had just dressed and had her coffee. She was in her kitchen — picture a homey, middle-class affair, where copper pots hang above an island — when the phone rang. It was a number she didn’t recognize. She picked up and a voice said, “Hi, Grandma. You know who this is? It’s your favorite grandson.”
“Robert?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I have a cold — that’s why my voice sounds strange. I need your help.”
He told a meandering story, something about a car, drunk driving, the police. He had her call the officer in charge, who identified himself as “Donald Green.”
“I can take care of this,” said Green, “so that your grandson doesn’t have anything in writing, in the newspapers, or records, or anything like that. You need to go to the bank and get $3,000. How soon can you go?”
“Well, I’ll throw on my clothes and I’ll go right away.”
Grandma told me afterward that she had feared I was in a cell somewhere in New York City, where I was studying at the time — “God forbid; all the characters that are in these places” — so she immediately got in her car and drove off.
My grandfather died in 2010. He handled the finances. He went to ATMs and put cash in her wallet and paid for gas at the pump. My grandmother was independent before him and now is independent again, but the world has moved on in the meantime. She’s a little hard of hearing, and interjections don’t register with her while she’s speaking. I try to ask if she had been visibly nervous at the bank, but she rides over me.
“So anyway,” she says, “when I got out of the bank I called his number and the first two or three times it wouldn’t go through; said there was technical problems. So then I tried again — and I’m not too great with the phone as you probably know — and I got him this time and he said I was to go to this CVS.”
The employees at CVS had never heard of the kind of money order Green wanted my grandmother to send, so she called him again. It was a gray day, with temperatures in the mid-30s, and Grandma was making all of her calls standing just outside her car, afraid that the metal frame would disrupt the signal and thus the rescue mission.
Green picked up.
He directed her to a nearby Walmart and instructed her to call back once she had arrived. Outside the store, he told her to ask for a $2,000 MoneyGram and to say it was going to a family member.
“So I went in and I got it,” Grandma says, “got the money, and I felt the worst part of it all was I had to look them in the eye and lie like a trouper. I was in such a lather, trying to hurry… He was not very friendly. Just demanding. Not giving me a chance to ask about anything when I was trying to ask about you in the call.” After the Walmart, she went to a Stop & Shop and wired $1,000 more.
Grandma had her doubts. The address Green gave her for the wires was in Tbilisi, Georgia, a place she’d barely heard of. She asked to speak to me, but Green told her, “He’s only allowed one call, and he made that when he talked to you this morning.”
Just before her last transaction, she said to Green, “I don’t know; this looks a bit like a scam.” He assured her that it was not, that the transfers were all for me and that I would have no record afterward.
When she finished that wire, Green told my grandmother to keep her cellular line open for ten minutes, in case he needed to call. She did, but she was suspicious.
At home, using her landline, Grandma called my mother, who gave her my number. At no point did she mention what she needed it for.
“She didn’t give you up,” says my mom. “She was still keeping your secret.”
The odyssey of phone calls and wire transfers began around nine a.m. It was 2:50 p.m., when I, neither in trouble nor in jail, picked up my grandmother’s call. Soon after, she called my mother back to tell her what had happened, and my mother started calling the wire services to beg them to hold the transfers. Because Green had instructed Grandma to make the transactions in cash, there was nothing they or the bank could do.
* * *
Law enforcement officials have been aware of this kind of scam since 2008, but the FBI reports that the attacks have become far more sophisticated with the proliferation of personal information on social media. The FTC has counted more than 40,000 cases since 2010, and in 2011 alone, older Americans lost $110 million to these scams, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center.
Green’s manipulation of my grandmother was masterful. He used her intelligence against her, never mentioning my name or location and instead getting Grandma to fill in the details. When her brain sounded alarm bells, he muffled it by playing on her emotions and reminding her that time was of the essence.
My mother was furious. Even before she called the bank, she called Green, and a man with what sounded like an Eastern European accent picked up.
“A slight [accent], not a really strong one,” my mother recalls. “He was very suave, you know. Very cool and very calm. He wouldn’t give me his name. I actually gave him my name after a few back-and-forths because I figured what the hell? He knew perfectly well the last name of the person he’d just been scamming and I figured that would make him talk to me… And he responded to this extremely calmly: ‘Oh, I don’t know — I don’t know that name.’”
“Is this Officer Green?” she asked.
“No, there’s no one of that name here,” he said.
So finally she yelled at him, “You bastard, you scammed my mother.”
And he reacted very calmly — too calmly, my mother thought, for an innocent person. He said, “No one has been scammed here,” and then he hung up. She called back immediately, but a recorded message told her there was a technical difficulty and the number was temporarily out of service.
What struck my mother the most about the whole episode is that my grandmother managed to do so many things — driving, withdrawing money, making calls, wiring cash — all at once and on her own. Normally my grandmother prefers to stay at home. She makes calls on speed dial, which is configured for her by someone else, and she uses preset transactions at the ATM. My mother handles her finances, my father handles her taxes, and my mother’s name is on all of her bank accounts.
Where I was concerned, Grandma’s initiative extended beyond phone calls and money. To protect me, she was willing to lie to bank tellers, to wire service employees, and even to her daughter.
“Did you think you were paying off a cop?” my mother asked her afterward. “Well, yeah, basically,” she said.
Grandma’s age had nothing to do with the success of Green’s scam. Years ago, when my cousins and I were small children, she used to tell us “Head Stories,” tales so called because she conjured them purely from her imagination. We begged her for them whenever we saw her. When I was older, she told me about nights out when she snuck out of her nurses’ dormitory past curfew. She and her friends tied a string to her sleeping roommate’s foot that they could tug from outside the window to wake her when they came back. On one of those nights, she met my grandfather, who was in training to be a Navy engineer. Clever, creative woman that she is, she told herself a story about what had happened to me. Green and his accomplice simply knew how to get her started.
My grandmother has a Finnish surname that is uncommon even in Finland. She and my mother are the only people with their names in the United States, so every result in an online search pertains to them. If the scammers had looked at my mother’s Facebook page, they could have found photos of me at my high school graduation and more photos of our 2013 trip to Italy. But Green didn’t even need to mine social media to pull it off. He used a technique called “cold reading,” often used by psychics, mediums and fortune tellers, to get Grandma to volunteer information that she thought he already knew. The practice is common on daytime television. James Van Praagh, a bestselling author and self-described clairvoyant who claims to speak to the dead, will throw out a broad statement to his audience, see who reacts, and then allow that person to supply the specifics.
James Randi, a well-known magician turned skeptic, explains in an online account how mentalists such as Van Praagh use the technique.
“Van Praagh was looking for the name of the woman’s deceased husband,” Randi writes, “and he came up with it by asking, ‘Do you know anyone named Jack?’ The woman answered, ‘Yes! Jack, my husband!’ But Van Praagh didn’t identify ‘Jack’ at all. He asked her if SHE would identify him. By that time, Van Praagh had already tried on her 26 other men’s names — all wrong. But, the woman — the subject — forgot about those failures, because they were not important to her. ‘Jack’ was important.”
The “favorite grandson” line that Green’s accomplice fed my grandmother was a lucky guess: I am her only grandson, so as a joke, she has always called me her favorite. But cold readers make guesses. When they stumble on the right answer, our minds, more accustomed to seeking out truth than lies, forget everything that came before. That day, the scammers found a “hit” on the first try. Randi, who invites magicians to test their powers under controlled conditions, counteracts cold reading by only allowing subjects to answer “yes” or “no,” thereby forcing the reader — not the subject — to provide the information. Had Grandma asked personal questions about me and been careful not to offer any details, the scam may well have fizzled.
We ended up recovering my grandmother’s money, thanks in part to the kernel of doubt that made her call me, and also in part to how quickly I picked up her call, but mostly thanks to the wire service employees at Walmart and Stop & Shop, who had delayed the transactions, suspicious of their destination.
Since then, the extended family has adopted a “safe word” to use in real emergencies. If I do need Grandma’s help someday, I’ll call her up and utter a word no one else would know, and she’ll know it’s me.
Grandma was lucky. It’s not common for victims to get their money back, especially once the transfer has already gone through, according to Edison Alban of New York’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “When you wire money to another country, the recipient can pick it up at multiple locations, making it nearly impossible to identify them or track them down,” Alban says.
Not only are scammers hard to trace, but investigators also have to divide their attentions among a litany of schemes. The Internet Crime Complaint Center lists the most common varieties: Auction fraud, counterfeit cashier’s checks, credit card fraud, debt elimination, parcel courier schemes, escrow services fraud, identity theft, Internet extortion, investment fraud, lottery fraud, Nigerian letter or “419” scams — named after the relevant section of Nigeria’s legal code — phishing and spoofing, Ponzi and pyramid scams, reshipping… the list is staggering.
And the scam industry is booming. Since that first attempt, my grandmother has received calls from a man with an incomprehensible accent, asking for $100 to start a vague process. On one occasion, when she said she couldn’t understand him, he asked to speak to the “owner.”
“I am the owner, thank you,” she said, and hung up.