The phone rang—not the cellphone that I normally use, but my office landline—and the scam began with an innocent, "Hi, Grandpa."
"Who's this?" I asked.
"Don't you recognize my voice? It's Kenny. I'm in Chicago." (All names have been changed to protect the victims.)
It was a young male, but I wasn't so sure it was my Los Angeles-based grandson. I also wasn't aware that he was visiting Chicago, though his sister, Emily, was working there at the time.
He asked: "Can I tell you something in secret that you won't tell anybody else, please?" This turns out to be a familiar request by scammers.
Intrigued, I responded, "Of course."
I was the potential victim of a financial trick that is aimed at countless grandparents across the country, costing them millions of dollars, according to Federal Trade Commission estimates. In 2015 alone, the FTC received 10,565 "family/friend impostor" fraud complaints; it's impossible to say how many more recipients of these calls didn't notify the authorities.
"Here's what happened. Emily and I went to a White Sox game last night," the caller began explaining. Strange—if they went to a baseball game, they would surely watch the Cubs on the north side of Chicago, where Emily was living.
He continued: "We were on our way back to our hotel [Emily had an apartment, so why a hotel?] when our cab was pulled over by the police. They found pot in the trunk and arrested us. I'm at the police station now with a lawyer." Mentioning an authority figure like the lawyer is another traditional ploy of this kind of scam.
I was both stunned and dubious. "Were you carrying any drugs yourselves?" I asked. They weren't. Then why were they arrested? "The police say I have to stay in Chicago for four to six weeks until the cab driver's trial. If they release us, they want $2,000 to make sure we'll come back." Both Ken and Emily are college students who were due to return to classes in a few days.
The caller wanted me to talk to the "lawyer," his partner in crime. "He's right here next to me." I could hear muted conversation in the background, but it didn't sound much like the noisy Chicago police stations I had covered early in my reporting career.
Increasingly suspicious, I said, "If all this is true, Kenny, you should talk to one of our relatives in Chicago, not me. But the whole thing seems very fishy."
"Please, Grandpa," was the heartfelt response. I had a momentary twinge, then asked, "Kenny, if that's who you are, what's your address in Los Angeles?"
The phone went dead. Unfortunately, I don't have caller ID on my office phone, so I couldn't determine where the call came from. The FTC says scammers phone from anywhere, including overseas.
The scariest part of the experience? These scammers knew my name, my grandchildren's names, my phone number and even some of our personal information, like where my granddaughter was temporarily living. How? Simple: "They buy it or steal it," says the FTC.
And sometimes, we give it right to them. Semi-intimate details about our lives often are available online for anyone willing to dig. And many people routinely announce these details to the world on social media like Facebook and Twitter. No surprise that scammers scout for targets on these networks.
After Kenny hung up, I immediately sent a warning email to extended family members. To my astonishment, I discovered that two other grandfathers in our family had been targeted as I was. One in Kentucky quickly detected the hoax; when he threatened to call police, the exchange quickly ended.
AARP Discounts: Discover great deals and savings as an AARP member
The other grandfather was home alone in California when he received a call from a stranger saying his grandson (no name given) had been arrested in Arizona after a drunken fight, was in jail and needed $1,500 bail. As stunned as I had been, the grandfather shakily asked, "Can I speak to Ralph?"
It isn't clear the scammers even had a name until then. As it turns out, scammers sometimes call numbers randomly until they reach an older person. They then mention a grandchild in trouble, and if there's an emotional appeal to talk to so-and-so, they take it from there.
The grandfather asked the young man who got on the phone, "Are you OK?" He replied, "Yes, but I need the bail money so I can go home." The grandfather's surprised response was: "You don't sound like Ralph." The clever reply: "My nose got broken in the fight, Grandpa, and I don't sound like myself."
The caller said that he knew there was a Western Union near the grandparents' home (which is true), and the grandfather, now convinced, agreed to withdraw the money and wire it immediately. (As one government official said, "Their game plan is to get you so upset that you overlook holes in their story.")
Once the grandfather was back home, the phone rang again. The caller identified himself as Ralph, thanked him for the money and asked for more. (When the first payment is so easy, scammers often move in quickly for more.) The grandfather began to realize, "Oh my God, this is a scam," and hung up.
He called his wife and told her what happened. She telephoned Ralph's mother. Her son was at work, nowhere near Arizona.
The grandfather was too embarrassed to call the police. When his incredulous friends asked, "How could you have done that?" he could only reply, "I was so concerned about Ralph, and they had the story down so well."
The lesson: If you ever get a call from or about a grandchild or any other relative in danger or trouble, and the immediate request is for cash, you need to pause, calm yourself, say you will have to consult another family member first, and hang up. Then check. If the emergency is by any chance real, you can still respond appropriately. If it's not—and the odds point to that—congratulate yourself. You just avoided being on next year's FTC list of those victimized by impostors.