It had been a tense morning. My granddaughter (my only girl of four grands) away at college got sick and there was a brief feeling of crisis in the house until I heard that she was better.
The ambient stress when children or grandchildren are at some kind of risk dies hard, as you know if you have children or grandchildren, or for that matter any loved ones who are beyond your immediate ability to “make better.” The impulse to take care grows deeper, I think, in reverse order to your ability to be of help.
I was just calming down when the phone rang. The voice on the other end was plaintive and sounded very young. “Grandma?” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
“It’s me,” he said. “Can I talk to you a minute?”
“Sure you can,” I said.
I knew immediately that the voice did not belong to any of my grandsons.
“What’s up, honey?” I said.
He let out a shaky breath and said, “Grandma, I have to tell you something, but I want you to promise you will keep this between the two of us for now until I am ready.”
“Of course, sweetheart,” I said. ”What’s up?”
“Grandma, I was driving with someone and he might have been speeding a little…”
I’ll spare you the rest of the details but you might not be surprised to hear that my fake grandson was in trouble, pursued and pulled over by a cop, and found to be in possession of a bag of marijuana which he had never seen before…
”…and it must have been a BIG bag, grandma,” he said, “Because the police officer took us to the station house and I’m here now…” Deep, ragged breath, more incipient tears. Damn. This guy was good.
But I was better. “Jeffrey,” I said, giving him a fake name to go with his fake identity, my voice deep with concerned grandmotherliness.
“Yes,” he said, immediately falling in line.
Then I acted impatient, to put a little more drama into the situation.
“Cut to the chase, honey,” I said. As if “Jeffrey” and I had a history.
“Grandma, I swear, I was drug tested and I came out clean, and I am going to testify against the other person and there won’t be anything on my permanent record. But the thing is, I need the bail money to get out of here.”
Bingo. There it was.
You may have heard about these scams, which take advantage of older people and their soft spots for their grandkids, which makes them vulnerable. I had previously almost fallen for it once before, when I made the mistake of saying one of my grandson’s names to the initial “Grandma?” (to which, of course, the scammer said “Yes”). But that time, luckily the voice sounded different from my grandson’s and when I said so, the scammer hung up.
This time I was going to play it out.
So, after he asked for the money I got tough with him. I said, “What about the other $500 you owe me, Jeffrey?” (I was really getting into it.)
“I swear Grandma, I’m going to pay you back, as soon as I get out of here and I hate to ask you for help again but I have nowhere else to turn.”
Imagining a grandmother being taken in, I gave it another turn of the screw.
“First put the policeman on the phone,” I said.
“But are you going to give me the money?” the scammer said.
“Jeffrey, you know grandma. First I want you to put the policeman on the phone.”
There was a long wait, and then someone with a much deeper voice got on. He was brisk and tough sounding and very convincing.
“This is Officer Johnson, Badge #####” he said. “Who am I talking to?”
“You can call me grandma,” I said. “Where are you calling from?”
“The 23rdPrecinct,” he said.
“Where is that?”
“Downtown,” he said. (I looked it up later. The 23rdis uptown, on 102ndStreet) He asked me my name again.
“I told you, you can call me grandma,” I said.
At which point he hung up.
Sorry. I should have given the wrong name. I should have given Jeffrey’s grandmother a name. I wanted to get them to lay out the whole scheme so I could see how it worked. I know on good authority that they would have instructed me to send money to Jeffrey in the form of a store gift card, because those cannot be traced. I would have liked to find out how much they wanted, and what address they wanted me to send it to (I suppose a post office box). And I would have liked to imagine them waiting for it to come.
That was fun and I got a little bit back scamming the scammers. But it made me think not only how wary we all – old and young — have to be about our better instincts, because we may be taken in by a go-fund-me scheme, or a fake charity, or a telephone scammer. And also, when it is an older person it somehow seems as if the blame is shared. Older persons are gullible, people say, as if that explains how it happened, and makes the older person slightly complicit. But being caring and wanting to help has nothing to do with being older, or living alone, or any of the things that the conventional wisdom says about older persons who are victims of phone scams. We may all look foolish for trying to help, if the request for help is a scam. That’s equal opportunity sad.