My phone vibrated on the meeting room table and the words MOM popped up on the screen. It was unusual for my elderly mother to call me at work, so I excused myself to take the call. I was sure that my dad, who was struggling with Parkinson’s disease, must have fallen again.
It took me a moment to process Mom’s words when she blurted out, “Trevor just called me. He said he’s in jail and needs money! He told me not to tell you, and I don’t know what to do.” The moment of panic I shared with her quickly evaporated. My quiet 20-year-old son, who had never been in any trouble and graduated from high school with honors, was in jail? My college swimmer who was in Georgia (while we were in Indiana) first chose to call his Grandma for help, even though he would have called me any other time? Something wasn’t adding up here.
I tried to calm her and asked for more information. It was late on a Friday afternoon, and she had received a call from a Sheriff Donaldson who told her he was calling on behalf of Trevor. It seemed that Trevor was in jail in Georgia and needed $2,000 to get out. The kind Sheriff even put Trevor on the phone to explain that he was riding in the car with a friend without realizing the driver had drugs in the car. They were pulled over, and Trevor was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. He begged my mom not to tell me and to please send the bail money. The very helpful Sheriff then got back on the phone, provided a call back number for Mom, and told her she needed to go to Walmart to wire the money right away. If she didn’t do this, since it was Friday afternoon, Trevor would sit in jail for the weekend.
As Mom told the story, I quickly recognized it as just another variation of a scam that I had repeatedly written about. In my role as a bank copywriter, I often worked with our Fraud Prevention and Investigations team to write articles that warn people about money-related scams. In doing so, I had also regularly shared this information with Mom and told her to always call me before sending money to anyone. When I would warn her about fraudsters calling and pretending to be a grandchild in trouble, she would always respond indignantly, “I would KNOW the voice of my own grandchildren on the phone.” And yet, here we were, with her ready to go to Walmart to send money.
I told her to sit tight while I confirmed with Trevor that he in fact was not in any kind of trouble. He responded to my text with, “I just got out of class. . .and yeah that really sounds like me. Heading to practice now.”
Once I had convinced Mom that she in fact had been duped, I used the call-back number she had been given. Within two rings, a voice answered, “Sheriff Donaldson.”
I can’t really print all that came out of my mouth, but I did tell the slime on the other end of the line that I worked for a bank and my parents were prepared for people like him. I also ordered him not to call them again, not that it probably mattered.
Tips to help other grandparents avoid scams.
While Mom did not send money, I know that many elderly people do. I was certain that my own parents would not fall for this type of scam, but in the end they nearly did. These con artists were very calculating, and I learned a few things that I hope might help others.
- They made their story very believable for my mom. Remember, that the “Sheriff” said he was calling from Georgia, where my son went to school? Also, how could he have known she had a grandson named Trevor, when Trevor’s last name was different than my parents’? My theory is that the scammers used information from my son’s profile on his college swim team’s web page. It provided the state where his college was located, his hometown and his parents’ names. A quick online search of my name in our hometown turned up numerous directory sites that listed people I am related to, including my parents.
- The scammers called at a time when they knew Mom would react with a sense of urgency. After all, she would not want her grandson to sit in jail all weekend. She needed to act quickly.
- According to my mom, the person on the phone who portrayed my son talked quickly and softly. Her grandson’s voice whom she was certain she would recognize? She thought his voice sounded different, because he was upset.
- They attempted to insulate Mom from anyone who might stop her. The “grandson” told her “please don't tell mom.” They directed her to a Walmart to wire money and not her bank, where employees who know her would have been more inclined to know something wasn’t right.
- They were counting on her vulnerabilities. Mom could not hear well, which they know is the case with many elderly people. Also, we did not know this at the time, but she was in the early stages of dementia and more easily confused. And most of all, she loved her grandson unconditionally.
As I look back, I think there was one directive I had given Mom that somehow stuck in her mind and prevented the story from ending differently. It’s a single sentence that I advise others to embed in the minds of their elderly parents or grandparents. I had told Mom again and again, “Before you send anyone money, no matter what the situation, call me.” And she did.
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