Special Report

Guess What, Grandpa?!!

The story of a worldwide criminal enterprise.

By 1.16.12

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It was the voice of my grandson. Speaking in his usual manner, apologizing for sounding so nervous, but explaining that he was on a brief vacation in Panama and had wrecked a rental car and was under arrest in Panama City. He needed help and would repay whatever was involved. A male companion had been injured and hospitalized and…. He had signed a non-disclosure document and I would be bound by it also not to tell anybody, please.

In a moment another voice on the phone, saying he was a bond agent with the U.S. Embassy in Panama and there to get M out of jail and safely home. He gave the name of David Richardson, said the police calculated the damages to a power pole, wires, etc., at around $7,500. I asked for his phone number and he said it could not be called from Maryland, but only from Panama City and that he would stay in touch and call back in half an hour.

He did. This time on my cell phone, the number of which I'd given him. The amount required according to the police would be $3,000, which I could Western Union to Panama City, the recipient to be a Sam Lucas. I went to the bank and to a Western Union office.

Richardson called that afternoon, and said he would check again the next morning when he'd know more about M's release. I had my cell phone and sure enough, next morning he called. There was some good news. M's companion was released from the hospital with only a cast on his arm. Well, could I talk to M? No, he was in a holding cell, but had had a good meal and Mr. R would try get him ensconced in the Embassy. One problem: the police said it would be more money; would that be possible? I said it would not be. Richardson did not call again as promised.

Next morning, however, another call, Again on my unlisted private residence phone. A lawyer, he said he was, about to take the case to a judge. What is your phone number? I asked. He gave a number with the prefix of 514 which I subsequently learned is in Canada. I dialed and that professed lawyer answered, explaining that he had a ring-down arrangement from his office in the States. He was still waiting to see the judge.

I heard no more, that is until my daughter, the mother of M, phoned from New Jersey to say she had just talked with M at his apartment in New Jersey and all was well. I was by then convinced. It was a scam. I was out 3 grand, plus another hundred in the Western Union fee.

I also talked to M, who I must insist sounded just like that other M -- the non-existent one in Panama City or wherever. A source in the Panamanian Embassy has never heard of a David Richardson.

I called the FBI, explaining the scam and was told the Bureau has no jurisdiction and, from the attitude on the phone, no interest in the case. Ditto the State Department whose embassy name was being used. State suggested a call to Western Union which suggested a call to the Maryland states attorney, which transferred me to a fraud control number which finally suggested a call to… the FBI.

There are several sections under "grandparent scams" on the Internet. The Federal Trade commission says it got 60,000 grandparent complaints last year but says an estimated 20 percent of the scam victims never mention the incident for fear of embarrassment.

Aside from the legal run-around, I have some questions about how the scammers got so much information -- names, addresses, phone numbers. (My source in the Panamanian Embassy says they had a rash of similar incidents in late summer.) It is a worldwide criminal enterprise.

I am left to wonder how many grandparents in America know about this. How many keep track of the grandchildren or other family members? And I wonder if any agency aside from the FTC is keeping track -- or cares.

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About the Author

Reid Collins is a former CBS and CNN news correspondent.