THE SCAM THAT FINALLY GOT US
When you look back, con games are always so obvious . . . if not to you, at least to your adult children and all their laughing friends.
How was I to know I’d get hooked by an actor good enough for a role on Broadway? That the young man who phoned would use the same opening words as my grandson, Brandon, or that his voice would sound so vaguely familiar?
“This is your favorite grandson,” he began, “I’m really glad I reached you.”
Instantly dubious I said, “You sound different, Brandon,” to which he quickly explained, “That’s because my nose is broken.”
“Oh, Brandon. What happened?”
“I was in a car accident. Last night I was in the hospital.”
I was hooked. From then on, I never doubted I was talking to Brandon.
This, in spite of the fact that Rob and I have routinely ducked those “free millions” from Nigeria, emails from friends in Europe who supposedly lost their wallets, dozens of messages declaring, “The IRS has a lawsuit against you,” heavily-accented voices claiming, “Your computer has a virus,” and the weirdest of all, the phone request, years ago, from a guy who said my daughter had been abducted from elementary school, and I could secure her release just by undressing and describing over the phone what I saw. (Back then, it would have been good.)
Of course I called the school immediately. She was fine. But I was still shook up.
How, then, did I find myself, two days ago, listening with such rapt attention?
Partly because the young man made the circumstances sound logical. He said he’d been to a friend’s birthday party the night before, that he was driving them both home, that he was behind a very slow vehicle ahead, that he’d passed the car and hit another coming the other way. “I only had two drinks, but they’ve got me for a D.U.I.” He and the others had been taken to a hospital—where he’d flunked the breathalyzer test. With that he began to cry . . . small sobs that were subtle but unmistakable.
Oh, Lord, Brandon weeping over the phone. I’d known him from babyhood, but never heard this. Which made me overlook, momentarily, his near-perfect driving record.
I managed to say, “But Brandon, you never drink.”
“It was just a large beer,” he said, through hiccups. (I should have noticed the story change.) “I’m in a holding cell. Will you speak to my public defender?”
By now my heart was pounding. I said I would, and a public-defenderish voice came on. He introduced himself as David Wiseman. I immediately pointed out that my grandson never drinks. Smoothly the lawyer explained, “Well, his blood alcohol was only 0.09—just one point over acceptable.” Then he added, “The people in the other car were three times over the limit—enough to be in jail a long time.”
He let me digest this. “They were REALLY in trouble,” he added. “But it happens your grandson hit a car full of diplomats. They won’t be charged because they have diplomatic immunity.” Another pause. “The good news is, diplomatic immunity extends to your grandson. But he had to sign a waver that he’d never speak about this to anyone. And you have to get him out of jail, fast. Get us the bail, and I’ll have a confidential talk with the judge. Otherwise he’ll have a D.U.I. on his record. And that will stay with him for years. Forever.”
By now Wiseman had woven a perfect web. I was frantic, said I’d have to wake up my husband—a lawyer, I added.
“What kind of lawyer?”
“He doesn’t do criminal,” I said. “Just Medical Mal.”
“Oh,” said the man. Did I catch a note of relief? “Go wake him up. I’ll call back in five minutes.”
The next scene was terrible. Rob said, “This is NOT how I begin my day. Don’t EVER wake me like this again, unless the house is on fire.” He began wheezing, unable to catch his breath. “Make me some coffee. Quick.” When I returned with a cup, he waved away the ringing phone. “You handle this. I’m not getting on the phone. Period.”
“But Brandon was crying,” I said, holding out the dangling instrument. “He’s devastated.”
“Handle it then. I’m not paying any bail.” (Oh, Lord, why didn’t we just call Brandon? But why would we? He wasn’t home, he was in jail. )
Another few seconds talking to Brandon . . . “Hurry,” he said, with another sob. “I’m in a holding cell. I can’t talk long.”
Then back to Wiseman, who explained calmly that we’d have to get gift cards from Target, “because the court has an arrangement with them. But don’t say it’s for bail, say it’s a wedding gift. Bail is five thousand dollars. After your grandson is out, you’ll get the money back. All of it. Within three days someone will come to your house. Call me when you have the cards.” With that, he gave me a phone number.
All through this, my heart had never stopped racing. Though I had an appointment with my hairdresser for 12:15, I knew I had to accomplish the bail issue first. Rob and I had had no breakfast. Quickly I made something, said I’d have to dash to Target.
By then Rob’s mood had radically changed. “You’ve handled this wonderfully, Babe. I’ll drive you to Target.”
Nothing at Target was easy. Right off, the credit card company denied this sudden request for $5000 worth of gift cards. Many phone calls later they finally agreed. Gift cards in hand, we returned home, where I quickly phoned Wiseman, gave him the serial numbers off the backs, and raced away to my appointment. But I can’t talk to Alice, I thought, not with the Diplomatic Immunity issue hanging over everything.
Lucky for us, I was still so shaken, so much the pent-up lady who needs to share, that I DID talk to Alice.
I’d barely started the story when she broke in. “I know how this is going to end.”
I was shocked. “You do?” How could you possibly know?
“This place is like the Internet. We’ve heard this story before. Many times. You’ve been scammed.”
“Scammed?” I almost leaped out of my chair. “We’ve been scammed? Are you kidding?”
“We’ve had other customers with the same story.” She paused. “In every one you’ll find people with diplomatic immunity. Keeps the victims from talking.”
In spite of black goo all over my head, I grabbed my cell phone. “Rob,” I found myself shrieking, “Call Brandon. Call him fast. Then call me back. It’s a scam.”
Within a minute Rob was back. “Brandon’s at home. Doesn’t know what I’m talking about. I’m calling Target. Lucky you left me the gift cards. Gotta reach them fast.”
The rest of the appointment should have been normal—except it wasn’t. My daughter stopped by to bawl me out. “Mom, how could you fall for this?” She glared down at me. “Next time, call ME FIRST. Will you do that? Do you promise?” Suddenly I was six years old and she was forty. I nodded. But I’ve learned, Tracy. There won’t be a next time.
The story ended badly for some and good for others. Rob reached Target before the crooks had a chance to use the cards. Headquarters cancelled them, but it took additional hours to get the local Target on board and willing to issue credit slips.My other plans for the day--a book-signing--slowly vanished.
But still we were touched by luck, that a hair salon is the ultimate Water Cooler. Thanks to Alice, Rob and I learned a horrific lesson—and together we saved our five thousand dollars. The actors, as good as they were, got nothing.
Only later did I realize their elaborate story was full of holes—for starters, the court’s supposed connection to Target. And second . . . besides being a non-drinker, Brandon is a terrific driver who would never cause an accident. Trouble was, I assumed I was actually talking to him. And maybe, just this once . . .
In the end, all Rob and I lost was one entire day. But that day comes in multiples: overnight we’ve become a great deal wiser.