Crime

My dad wants you to know: Phone scammer’s fake call from ‘jail’ was wickedly personal

Before I get into the wickedly executed scam, know that my dad is an educated man.

He has a doctor of medicine degree, a master’s in public health and a master of divinity. He never really retired from a career in public service and spars nightly over politics and current affairs with anyone willing to take him on as he approaches his 88th birthday.

“Not just an average mark,” he concedes, writing to me about what happened.

He also loves his grandsons powerfully — not unusual for a grandparent, of course, and a weakness phone scammers have been exploiting for years.

But these guys who called my dad deployed skill and inside information that FBI and police investigators say serves as a warning about just how convincing these kinds of fraudsters have become.

To begin with, the despairing and plaintive youth that the “attorney” supposedly calling from a Miami jail put on the phone sounded just like my son, my dad said. As if he had practiced the voice and mannerisms.

“Grandfather, I’m in trouble.”

Furthermore, they hit him with the inside information on Miami. My dad knew that my 17-year-old son was exploring college options and had been planning to visit a school there.

The fake attorney on the phone said my son had been arrested with a friend riding in an Uber that was busted by police with drugs inside. My son was in jail, the fake attorney claimed. He could make bail and be released immediately if we wired him $10,000 cash, but after that the judge would not be in court again until next week.

A week in jail. And this was my son’s only phone call.

“Please don’t tell mom and dad.”

All the earmarks of a scam were there, but my dad’s breath was taken away by the sound of what was to him his grandson’s authentic voice. My dad knew my son had planned to be in Miami. It was real. He wanted to save him.

“I love my family beyond measure!” my dad said. Hearing his grandson’s desperate plea “cut directly to the most vulnerable portion of my entire being,” he said. “My heart!”

With his thoughts clouded by love, my dad began working on the next step.

It didn’t make sense, but my dad hesitantly accepted the fake attorney’s recommendation that cash could be effectively transferred via the purchase of a series of $1,000 Home Depot debit cards. He was on his way. Call back when you’ve got them, the attorney said.

Too many people get pulled into these schemes.

A year ago, the FBI announced a nationwide sweep in which it had busted more than 250 people who targeted senior citizens in scams, bilking them of more than $600 million. And that was just a small piece of the villainous pie, since most victims are hit for losses that, while significant to them, are not individually high enough to warrant an FBI case.

In November the Kansas City Police Department warned the public that scammers using a phone number that mimicked the KCPD’s main line were asking people for bail money to free a relative or friend purportedly in jail — similar to the fake attorney who called my dad.

Most of those approaches were more crude, based on total fiction. They could make hundreds of calls looking for one that gets a bite.

Accurate, specific personal information, as in my case, gives the scammers their best chance.

Social media posts have fueled more effective schemes in recent years, said Bridget Patton, a spokeswoman for the Kansas City office of the FBI.

People like to post where they’ve been. They “check in” from restaurants and hotels, Patton said. Being careful with social media and monitoring privacy settings is important, she said, because con artists use the information they find.

“They’ve done their mining,” she said.

But the detail in the scam on my dad suggests another warning: Be careful what you tell strangers.

My son spent his Florida night in a hostel, watching sports on TV and talking with people in a dorm-like setting. It’s possible his story got the attention of someone practiced in the nasty art of the phone scam.

Or, even more devious, someone could stay in the hostel for the purpose of finding a mark with each new group of visitors who come through.

The internet provides search engines once you’ve got a name and address to track down phone numbers of possible relatives. Believe me, as a reporter, I know that.

My dad needed my mom to drive him to the Home Depot. It should be pointed out that my mom, just as loving of her grandsons but wary of what was going on, was constantly poking my dad in the side throughout this exercise, saying he should try to contact me, despite my son’s supposed wish for secrecy.

“She was urging me, ‘Call Joe, call Joe,’” my dad said. “I should have instantly deferred to her wisdom.”

Home Depot would not issue enough cards to cover the supposed bail amount. My dad called the fake attorney with the news. When the scammer said my dad should just get as many as he could, the clouds finally cleared. My dad balked.

“The next words I heard were, ‘Listen, Mr. Robertson, if you really love your grandson you’ll do this,’” my dad said. “The whole thing became revolting to my ears and I informed the scam artist, ‘I hope to see you in jail!’”

That ended the call. Then he called me.

My dad admits failing some of the FBI’s precautions against such scams. He allowed himself to be pressured to act quickly. He was honoring a plea to keep the situation secret. He was proceeding with a request to wire cash, though he thankfully aborted it.

The FBI advises he also could have asked a personal question or two of the youth claiming to be his grandson or of the adult with him. Ask about the names of my son’s dogs, or his band instrument, or what position he plays in football.

Afterward, there was nothing authorities could do. The callers used an untraceable disposable phone.

But my dad doesn’t want to let it go.

He knows that the scammers “go on, ever searching for another ‘Grandfather’ somewhere else with a loving heart between his ears and his mind.”

He fears they will “find more victims who will not break off in time . . . and laugh all the way to the bank.”

He doesn’t want it to happen to you.

Related stories from Kansas City Star

Joe Robertson specializes in reporting on criminal and social justice. He works to tell the stories behind the stories, while covering breaking news of all kinds.
  Comments