October 17, 2017

My grandson Ryan had landed in jail and…

…was calling for my help. From Mexico City! I was thunderstruck.

By John Guy LaPlante

SCAM: Merrriam-Webster Dictionary: noun, a fraudulent or deceptive act or operation.

SCAM: LaPlante: an act so insidious and horrible that you want to wring the perpetrator by the neck!

Ryan is 28, single but engaged, launched on a career in insurance as an adjuster in Frederick, Md.  I had seen him just four days earlier. He was one of my five grandchildren come for a total family reunion of 15 in Morro Bay, CA, where I winter.  He was fine, working hard, single but engaged to Samantha. Very nice.

I had just flown back to Connecticut with my sister Lucie, who lives in West Hartford.  We had a horrendous trip back—it took us 22 hours to fly back due to a missed flight in Washington, DC. We had dropped into bed at her home after midnight totally exhausted.

She awoke me. It was 8 a.m. I was groggy. She handed me her phone. “It’s Ryan!”

“Hello, Ryan! Gosh, how nice! How are you?”

“I’m okay, Pepa. I’m calling from Mexico City.”

“Pepa” is French for Grandpa. All my grandkids call me Pepa. I like that.

“Mexico City!” Unbelievable.

“Yes, I know. One of my college friends was down here getting married. He invited me to come down. He had a free plane ticket. So here I am.”

“What a surprise. I hope you’re having a good time.”

“Actually, I’m in jail.”

“What?!”

“Yeah, Pepa, it’s a long story. We had a party last evening. I was the designated driver. It was late. We all piled in. We had a rental. It was dark. My first time down here. I was driving along and I saw a motorcycle coming. It was a car with its left light out! I hit it. Bad crash and injuries of course. My airbag did not deploy so I hit my head. But I’m okay. And I’m in jail.”

“In jail?!”

“Yep. The police came. I said I was the driver—the designated driver and they understood. Still, they gave me a sobriety test and I passed that. They also wanted a blood test. They’ve done that and they have to wait for the results.

“So they locked me up. But I’m lucky. I have a lawyer from our Embassy down here.  A good man. Really helping me.  Explained there will be a hearing. Two charges. Drunken driving and negligent driving. I’m stuck down here and I’m calling to see if you can you  help me with the bail, Pepa?”

“Bail!  Ryan, haven’t you talked to your Dad about this?”

My son Arthur is a top-flight lawyer out of Florida, with years of big-time courtroom experience, although all civil matters, not criminal. Really savvy. And a terrific dad.

“No. But of course I thought of that.  This is so embarrassing, Pepa. Mr. Miller—he’s my lawyer—will be calling you and he’ll explain everything.”

We talked for another minute and then Ryan hung up.

Lucie had heard the whole thing.  She was as astonished as I was. And as worried. We went downstairs and she fixed breakfast but that’s all we talked about.

I took her phone and called Ryan back. He didn’t answer. Lucie said, “They must have confiscated  his phone.”

We had hardly finished and her phone rang again. “It’s Mr. Miller,” she told me.

“Hello, Mr. Miller.”

“I know this is awful news, Mr. LaPlante. But it could be worse though this is a serious matter.”

And he explained it all. If Ryan got found guilty, the criminal conviction could be on his record for 10 years, yes, back in the U.S.  . And it’s possible he could lose his license to drive. He mentioned it would be wise not to talk about it at all with anybody. So, a gag order. As we talked, Lucie got the drift of everything.

“The bail for one charge is $15,000. But there are two charges. So $30,000. So without bail he wouldn’t  get out till the trial. Then if innocent, the money would be returned of course though there would be some small charges. The fact that bail was being provided for sure would make the judge more sympathetic.”

“Thank you, Mr. Miller. I really appreciate your help. Thank God you’re there to help him. Makes me feel good about being an American. Got to think this over. I’ll call you back as soon as I can.”

“Please do. But I’ve got to make a court appearance. Wait at least an hour.”

Lucie and I sat across from each other at the table and talked and talked. This was so awful. So incredible. This would be awful if Ryan’s boss heard about it.  Might queer things with his fiancée Samantha. Losing his license would cripple his career. On and on. Back and forth.  What to do? $30,000! Wow! Sure, I’d get it back, but….

In an hour I called him back and got him. Again, I thanked him. Asked him about his work at the Embassy.  “I enjoy it.  It’s important work. I’ve been doing this for five years. It’s a very good job. I like it down here. My wife does too, and so do my  three kids. Will you be able to help your grandson?”

“I want to. But I don’t have this money in my back pocket. This will take some doing.  How do I go about it.”

“I understand. I’d feel the same way, believe me.  But I’ll give you all the details.   Here’s what you do…..”

He told me the money would have to be wired. Gave me the name of the agent and the address.  Repeated everything to make sure I had it all clear.  “If you have any other questions, don’t hesitate to call me.  I’m here to help.  But I’m sure you understand it’s important to get Ryan out as soon as possible.”

Lucie and I continued to hash it over.  I felt I had to do it. It was my duty.

Now using my cell phone I called Ally Bank. You may be familiar. It’s an online bank, recommended to me by my son Mark, who teaches finance at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He told me it operates nationally and doesn’t have the expense of carrying a chain of branch offices, so it can afford more perks for customers.  I told them I wanted to wire $30,000 to Mexico. Right away.

“I’m sorry, Mr. LaPlante. We do not wire money to Mexico, ever. Regardless of the amount.” Period.

Gosh! What to do? I have an account at the Chase branch in Morro Bay. I could wire the money there. I called and got my banker there, Nicholas Scott. He knows me quite well. Was sympathetic.  Yes, they could wire money to Mexico.  But he was very skeptical. “It’s very, very possible this is a scam, sir. You should find some way to investigate this further.”

“I understand, Nick.  But this really and truly was my grandson. I saw him just a few days ago. Right there in Morro Bay. I’d recognize his voice anytime.  And he called me Pepa. That’s Grandpa in French! And he’s in jail!”

He told me Chase would wire a max of $25,000.  And it had to be done in person. Impossible by phone. I had him read a list of Chase branches in Connecticut. Many, but all on the Gold Coast, so called, closer to New York. The closest would be in New Haven. That would involve a three-hour round trip for sure. Lucie was willing to drive me.

Nick told me its closing time.  So not a minute to lose. “You’ve got to be there in person and at least a half hour before closing. And prove your identity and so on.  Good luck. But please, please try to find more about this!”

But I was convinced this was on the up and up. It was Ryan I spoke to. He even called me Pepa!

But no way could I transfer that huge sum to Chase that fast.  And I had another thought. I should talk to my Liberty Bank branch right in Deep River.  I had been a customer for some 20 years. I’d call Steve Rednak, the manager.  A fine regional bank although smaller than Ally and Chase.  I called Steve and was lucky. I got him. Explained it all.

Without hesitation, and very forcefully, he warned me, “This is a scam. Do not do this, Mr. LaPlante. Do not do this.”

Again I repeated the totally convincing evidence I had. He said, “Hold on. Don’t do a thing! I’ll call you back in 15 minutes.

And he called back. “Mr. LaPlante, I went to Google and looked up ‘Scams. Mexico.’ The fourth one is called the Grandparents Scam. It’s exactly what you describe. Exactly.”

I continued the back and forth about all this with Lucie.  We had been sitting at her kitchen table for some three hours now. Totally focused on this huge problem. Should I? Shouldn’t I? She was as convinced as I was this was on the up and up.

In some 20 minutes I got a call from a man named Owen in Washington, D.C . Did not make out his last name. Said he was a specialist on a subcommittee on fraud in the U.S. Senate. Told me this was a clear-cut scam. He told me, “Drop it, Mr. LaPlante!”

Now a new idea. Mr. Miller the lawyer had warned me not to discuss this. Well, I decided to call my daughter Monique and her hubby David in Morro Bay. I got David. He told me, “John, I was talking to Ryan just yesterday. Not in Mexico City. At work in Frederick, Maryland! He’s fine.”

Wow! That was the clincher. That settled it.  I still had questions, but for sure I would not be wiring a penny of my hard-earned money to Mexico!

The next day I called Mr.Miller down there and got him.  I said, “I’ve been working hard on this. Not easy. How is Ryan faring?”

Clunk! He hung up on me.

Some of my big questions? His original call to me had come not on my phone, but on Lucie’s in West Hartford. How did he know that was the way to reach me?

Next, he must have vetted me in some way—he would not have wasted his time if he didn’t feel I had the means to fall for his pitch. So how?

Next, how did they get someone to sound like a 28-year-old and replicate Ryan’s voice so perfectly? Next, and most important of all, how did they realize they should call me Pepa?

I called Steve Rednak at Liberty. Thanked him for being so insistent on my not following through.  Told him I had put in a call to the president of Liberty to tell him how he, Steve, had saved my neck. Mentioned how you told me you had a fiduciary responsibility to warn me, which impressed me greatly. Then asked him, “Steve, How did those crooks in Mexico engineer this scam so smoothly?”

“My guess is through social media. Facebook or something like that.  Check with your grandson. Ask if he does that, and if he wrote about visiting his Pepa in California. And those crooks down there get their leads that way.”

Of course I called Ryan. He said he was on Facebook but had never mentioned the word “Pepa.” So, the question of how they found that gem remains unresolved.

One disappointment. I called Owen, the fraud specialist in Washington to thank him and give him specific details of the scam, which I felt might be useful to him.  Could not reach him and have not gotten a call back.

The whole thing has made me feel embarrassed, stupid. I nearly fell for it hook, line, and sinker! Better to go through life suspicious. I write this as a caution to you. Yes, all decent people should be aware.

I mentioned all this to a friend in California, Carole Truesdale.  She told me the very same scam had been attempted on a friend of hers.

I had another talk with Steve Rednak in Deep River. He told me in his work he has become aware of at least half a dozen frequent scams. It’s a jungle out there.

Full disclosure: “Pepa” doesn’t stand for  Grandpa. Steve advised me not to reveal the real word.

Mr. Miller: How I would love to ring your neck! How many other innocents have you tried to ensnare this way?

P.S. Steve Rednak just sent me a link to a document explaining the in’s and out’s of various popular scams, all vicious: http://archives.subscribermail.com/msg/2e252ab8e1d3468c88d3eb6f30de375e.htm. It is worth your attention!

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