Relay: A Scam for All Seasons

How could I possibly have fallen for it — me, of all people, who’s been editing the Star’s police reports for more years than I care to remember?

All year long people keep getting taken in by the same scams, which, like ospreys and pumpkins, arrive with the season. Early spring brings the I.R.S. scam, aimed at stealing money or tax data as April 15 approaches (“I am calling from the Internal Revenue Service. A warrant for your arrest will be issued unless. . . .”). When leaves fall, along comes the home improvement scam (“Hi there, Ms. X, our records show your chimney’s due for cleaning. . . .”). As Memorial Day draws near, complaints about the Airbnb scam swell the police logs in East Hampton and other tourist destinations (renters, having been directed to a fraudulent website to finalize payment, arrive at their ideal summer cottage to find it doesn’t exist). And let us not forget the puppy-for-Christmas scam (you pay in advance for the puppy, which is in some far away kennel; then you’re asked to send money for shots before it can travel, then more for insurance, then more for shipping, and so on until you finally go to the cops).

More frequent than any other, though — a scam for all seasons, you might say — is the one I was targeted by a few weeks ago.

Phone rings. “Hello?”

“Hello, Gramma?” It’s our 17-year-old grandson. He almost never calls, but there’s no question. It’s his voice, his intonation. It’s him.

“Robby? Is something wrong? Why are you calling at 6 in the morning?” (It’s 9 a.m. here, but he lives in Oregon, three hours behind us.)

There’s static on the phone; then someone else comes on.

“Hello, this is. . . .” (Who? What did he say his name was? Before I can ask, he hurries on.)

“I’m a lawyer, and I’m here with Robert. He is being held on charges of reckless endangerment and criminal obstruction.”

My head spins, my heart turns over, I sink into the nearest chair. The morning’s errands are forgotten. This phone call is all there is.

Robby (speaking fast, sounding scared): “Gramma I was driving last night and the cellphone rang and I let it ring but it kept on ringing so I picked it up and this other car was turning and I hit it and the police came.”

A nightmare. I can hardly speak. “Was anyone hurt?”  

No, he says, but he is in jail, and they want $3,000 to let him out.

“Have you called Bernard?” (our son, his father). “Have you called Cathy?” (our ex-daughter-in-law, his mother).

“No, please don’t tell them!” Now he sounds panicky.  

The “lawyer” comes back on. “We can deal with this,” he says. “I happen to know the judge who will hear the case later today, and I will stay right here with Robert until he is released. I will stay here with him as long as it takes.”

He comes across as calm, confident, cool. I thank him, shaking. I ask his name again. “Gary Gould,” he says. He spells it. I ask for his phone number. It starts with 202. 

“But, but, the Oregon area code is 503,” I stammer. 

“I have offices in Washington,” he says smoothly. That makes sense. Washington State is Oregon’s neighbor to the north.

“I’m doing this for Robert because, in a way, I feel responsible for what happened,” he goes on. “It was my son who made that cellphone call he picked up. They’re good friends. My wife and I know Cathy and Bernard, too.”

Now it’s clear why he’s there with Rob in the jail and has promised to stay. A concerned father, and he knows our son.

Go to the bank, he says. Get the money in cash. A Brink’s truck will come to your house to pick it up.

My husband is Googling “Gary Gould.” He’s suspicious. Heedless, beside myself, I rush away.

A few minutes later I’m at the Chase Bank in East Hampton, telling them I urgently need a lot of cash. There’s no line, what luck. I make out a withdrawal slip, I take it to the teller. Her nametag says “Doris.”

Doris sees my agitation. Quietly, she asks a few questions. I blurt out my story while she’s counting out the money. She understands, she sympathizes, she inspires confidence. “I think you need to be very careful,” she says finally, handing me the envelope. “Don’t be in a hurry. This sounds to me like a scam. Brink’s would never send a truck to a private home.”

I am hardly out the bank door when it sinks in: Of course it’s a scam, it has to be, it has all the earmarks described in our police reports, and I am as much a dimwit for believing it as all the other marks. I have fallen, hard, for the ever-popular Grandparent Scam, which begins with your “grandson” (it’s always a male caller; if you say you have no grandsons they hang up) saying he needs money right away to post bail, pay for an ambulance, pay a kidnapper, whatever.

Maybe my scammers, with the “lawyer” who picked up fast on my mentioning the names of Robby’s parents, were quicker on the draw than most, but come on. A Brink’s truck? Preposterous, right? But it had gone right by me, blind with worry. Now that I thought of it, how would an envelope full of cash get to Portland, Ore., that same day?

Our son was out of town, so we called his ex, who said Robby’d been asleep in his bed all night and she’d just dropped him off at school. Soon after, he called himself.

  “Gramma,” he said, “that wasn’t me.” 

“I know it wasn’t you, Rob — but it was your voice!”

Long pause. “Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure. Grandpa said so too. That’s why I never thought to question it.”

“Then I’ve gotta change all my passwords. My cellphone’s been hacked.”

Hackers can steal your actual voice, he explained. There’s an app for it. It sounds like science fiction, but no. Turns out it’s a well-known scam called “Can You Hear Me.” According to Google, “it happens when you answer the phone and the person on the other line asks ‘Can you hear me?’ and you respond. Your voice is being recorded to obtain a voice signature for scammers.”

There was no lawyer named Gary Gould on Google, either in Washington State or Washington, D.C. When the phone rang again, Sidney answered. 

“I can’t find you on Google,” he began. The line went dead. 

Irene Silverman is The Star’s editor at large.