Scott C. Smith: Senior scams are just plain disgusting

Scott C. Smith

The phone rang. My mother found the phone in her small apartment and answered it in her rushed, anxious, elderly voice, always glad to get a call. The voice on the other end said, “Hi Grandma. This is your grandson Mark.”

“Oh, hi, Mark!” she exclaimed. She loves to hear from her grandchildren. Only something was different. It didn’t sound quite like Mark. And in his 32 years he’s never called her Grandma.

Mark’s older cousins did. But when he came along and started talking, he couldn’t say Grandma. It came out Nama. And in our family she’s been called Nama ever since.

“Grandma, I’m in trouble,” the voice said. “I’m in Canada, and I got into an accident in the rental car I’m driving. The police say if I don’t pay $2,700 to cover the insurance deductible on both of the cars, they’ll put me in jail. Can you send me the money? And Grandma, please don’t tell anyone. I don’t want anyone to know. Just go down to Wal-Mart and you can wire it to this address.” He then had her write down a name and address.

My mother couldn’t stand the thought of her grandson being put in jail. He had called her for help. He needed her. But she wasn’t driving anymore. After all, she’s 88, and her doctor had advised her a few months ago it was time to stop driving. So she found a phone book and looked up the local taxi company. She called. No one answered.

She didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t get a ride, but she had to help her grandson, and quickly. So, against Mark’s wishes, she called her daughter – my sister – who lives a few towns away. She told her that she needed a ride to Wal-Mart. She had to help Mark. She had to send him $2,700. My sister said, “Um, Mom, don’t do anything. I’ll call you right back.”

Then she called her husband, who was at work. My brother-in-law just happens to be a police officer in the town where my mother lives. He immediately recognized the scam. He first called me to confirm. “Hi Scott,” he said. Uh-oh. You just know something’s wrong when you get a call from your brother-in-law, who’s married to the sibling who lives near our mother and, therefore, is the one chiefly responsible for her well being. I immediately thought he was calling about my mother’s health. Several thoughts flew through my brain.

“By any chance, does Mark happen to be in Canada?” he asked.

I let out a sigh of relief, then laughed at the sudden release of my immediate concern. “Not unless he got up there in 20 minutes,” I said. My son lives with me in Plymouth. “He just left for work.”

“I thought so,” he said, “but I had to check.”

He then filled me in on what was going on. My mother, my 88-year-old mother, had just been a victim of a scam to steal her money. Some scumbag punk had tried to steal $2,700 from my mom. I suddenly became very angry.

We agreed that I’d wait about 15 minutes for my brother-in-law to talk with my sister, who would then call our mother to assure her that it wasn’t Mark who had called her, and that he was in Plymouth, and just fine. She would explain that it was a scam, that someone was trying to trick her into sending him money. Then I’d call Mom.

I called my mother, who lives in another state. Her voice was more shaken than ever. She told me all about it, and she just couldn’t imagine how anyone would know that she had a grandson named Mark. I pictured the many conversations Mom likely has had with folks she met in the town she now calls home. She moved there eight years ago to live near my sister and her two little kids, to continue being a grandmother to the young’ens as they grew up. She had been a fabulous grandparent, as was my father, to my children as they grew up, and after my father died she, my sister and I agreed it would be a good move. The kids would develop with the wonderful influence and care and love a grandparent can offer. My brother-in-law’s mother also relocated to the area, and then the kids had both grandmothers in their immediate lives – a truly wonderful situation. And my sister got built-in babysitters in the deal. It’s entirely possible, even likely, that Mom listed her whole family in conversations with her new neighbors, and I wondered if someone local had somehow gotten the name from one of them, perhaps from his own grandmother. That thought made me nervous.

My mother’s whole life has been based on loving and giving to her family. She was a stay-at-home mom, and she doted on my brother and me as we grew up, and then on our sister when she came along several years later, virtually the next generation. Before I moved to Plymouth I lived near my parents, so they were an immediate part of my family during my children’s formative years. Their mother and I both worked, so our kids would go to their grandparents’ home after school. They would spend the after-school hours involved in crafts and reading stories and having adventures with their grandparents. We were all very fortunate, in many ways. My parents loved my children very much, and my children loved them.

And so when “Mark” called his grandmother asking for help (it wasn’t about his needing money to my mother, it was about his needing help), she was quick to respond. Fortunately, the taxi company didn’t.

I called my mother the next day and learned that “Mark” had called her again, asking where the money was. She was immediately shaken again, but she held her composure and asked for a phone number she could call to confirm he got it. He gave her a number. My brother-in-law, who had launched an investigation, passed it on to the police contact he had made in Canada.

Then the guy called again, a bit gruffer. “Grandma, where’s the money?” he wanted to know. My mother quickly responded that he wasn’t who he said he was, and hung up the phone. She told me this and reiterated her question: How could this person know she had a grandson named Mark? I posed the same question to my sister when I called her. Being married to a cop and pretty much in the know in such matters, she said the person likely was just using a common name as he called seniors garnered from phone listings. It’s easy to get lists of people by birth dates, and she surmised he kept saying the same name as he called down the list – until it clicked.

I spent a while online during the weekend looking up whatever I could find on scamming senior citizens. I found several references to similar situations, from all over the country. In many of them the caller would simply say, “Hi Grandma, it’s me.” If asked “Who?” he’d say, “Your grandson.” “Oh!” the grandparent would exclaim. “Mark!” “Yes, Mark,” the caller would respond.

That could have happened with my mother. Ask her about something from our past, and she’d instantly recall every detail. Ask her what she said five minutes ago, and she might not remember.

These calls happen everywhere, all the time. A grandfather in Hanover was scammed for nearly $6,000 last winter when his “grandson” called him for help. He sent money, twice.

My mother, like so many seniors, lives on a fixed income. She can’t afford luxuries, and she certainly couldn’t afford to part with $2,700. But she would have, in a second, to help her grandchild in an emergency. Some scumbag would have profited from my mother’s love and affection for her family. I’m still stunned by this.

Please, tell this story to your aging parent. Look online for resources to identify the many kinds of scams that are going on. This info is easy to find. The FBI, other agencies and many senior service providers offer insight. Your local police department can help. Please coach your folks on how to respond to such calls. The idea that scammers are trying to steal from our parents and grandparents is disgusting. That they also frighten them is far worse.

I’m angry. I’m really, really angry.

Scott C. Smith is GateHouse Media’s senior managing editor based in the Plymouth newsroom. If you’d like to share similar stories to help inform the public, please e-mail him at