What would you do if your 18-year-old granddaughter called you, upset and afraid and said she needed your help?
Would you help her if you could?
Of course, you would.
George Spira of Youngstown answered such a phone call recently. He picked up the phone and heard, "Grandpa, it's Judy Anne and I'm in trouble." The girl told him she was in jail and that she had used her one call to phone him because she was too ashamed to call her parents.
"I only have two minutes," the caller said. "Could you please call the lawyer I've been assigned?"
When George called the lawyer on behalf of his granddaughter, the man was well spoken and comforting. He told George that the easiest solution would be for him to send $8,000 for bail to an address in the Bronx and that the money which would be returned when his granddaughter appeared in court.
How long would it take for you to start thinking the whole thing was a set up — a scam designed to get you to part with a lot of your money?
I guess it depends on how convincing the scammers were.
In George's case, they were pretty darned convincing.
"These people are really almost like professional actors they’re so good." said Spira. "But, my God, what a bunch of unethical slimes they are."
Oddly enough, his wife, Joan, took the same type of call a few weeks earlier, this one from her "grandson."
"My wife hung up," George said. "She realized it was a scam and immediately called my family to confirm everything was OK. I went a little farther, because I’m not as savvy as my wife is."
He may not be as savvy as his wife, but George is no lightweight either. A chemical engineer and former chairman of the Town of Porter Planning Board, he was also suspicious and told me, "I had no intention of sending money to anyone," but remained concerned about his granddaughter until he spoke by phone with her parents and learned she was just fine.
He called the Niagara County Sheriff's Office after he hung up but was told that with these types of scams there isn't much law enforcement can do.
After talking with George, I called Niagara County Chief Deputy Sheriff Michael Dunn and when I told him about George's scam calls, he said he had just gotten off the phone with a lady in Newfane also dealing with a scammer. She had answered her phone when the name of her friend showed up on the caller ID. The phone number wasn't that of her friend. Instead, the person on the other end of the line was from another country. Technology now makes it easy to get information about people online and contact them for all kinds of reasons, legal and otherwise.
In this day and age, there's really no such thing as privacy, the deputy sheriff told me.
"Unless you are one of those smart people who knows how to make your connections secure," Dunn said.
An important privacy measure is making sure your Facebook page is private, accessible only to friends you have approved.
Many scammers glean information about people, including the name of their relatives, from Facebook posts, Dunn said. Personally, he added, people might be able to find him on Facebook, but they wouldn't be able to see his page or know who his friends are.
"It’s just a matter of understanding your security preference and making the changes," he explained.
The phone calls are another matter.
Scammers call people all the time, pretending to be from the IRS, the Social Security Administration and other government agencies, which never actually call people on the phone.
The long and short of it is this, Dunn said: "Don’t ever answer the phone if you don’t recognize the number."
He said the lady in Newfane answered the scammer's call because, even though it wasn't her friend's number, it was her friend's name.
"If it's somebody who really wants to talk to you, she’ll leave a message and call you back," the sheriff said he told her.
I've written this story many times in my career because there will always be scammers. As soon as people get smart about one method, the scammers come up with a new way to part people from their money.
We're all learning.
Don’t answer calls form people you don’t know.
Don't give out personal information.
And if you, like me, get a grammatically challenged email from a widower who has been left millions of dollars and wants to share with you — don't believe it.
She should keep her money anyway, just in case her "grandchildren" ever land in jail.
Contact Michele DeLuca at email@example.com or by calling 282-2311, ext. 2263.