Sunday, May 18, 2014

Santo Domingo Strikes Again!

“Embassy officials” join in the scamming of targeted grandparents. - Peter Hannaford/American Spectator – 5.14.14

For months con men have been preying on grandparents by telephone, apparently finding them a Mother Lode of money. Just last seek I learned how a Long Island, New York couple lost $4,500 to these smooth talkers who presented a plausible scenario.

It went this way: Their grandson, a college student, called from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic (it sounded just like him). He had gone there during spring break. Alas, the car he was in from the airport to his hotel was stopped for a traffic violation. When the officer saw young men in the car, he ordered them out and searched the car. In the trunk he found a bag of cocaine hidden under the floor mat. It was off to jail for all.

The “grandson” told his “grandparents” that he had been allowed one call, so he called them, presumably because he was sure they would be home. He turned the call over to a U.S. Embassy official who had come to the jail to help them. He introduced himself and advised there would be a hearing and that their grandson would be found innocent; however, the court calendar was crowded and a quick payment of bail might get him a hearing the next day, but no payment could result in a delay of weeks. At that point the grandparents wired the requested $4,500 for the bail. It was sent to a supposed bail bondsman in Santo Domingo. The grandparents were told the bail would be refunded a few days after the hearing.

The next day the “Embassy official” called with the good news that the grandson had been found innocent; however, the court had imposed a fine on him. The grandparents, now suspicious, said they would have to call back. They then learned that their real grandson had spent the weekend at his family home in New Jersey.

Despite their loss, the victims had seen spared a much larger one. Had they wired the “fine” it would have been followed a day later with the news from the “Embassy official” that a good-sized bribe would have to be paid to the Customs officials to get back the grandson’s passport. After that, his air ticket home would have to be changed in order to get him on the next plane to New York. This would cost several hundred dollars.

The scenario sounded familiar to me, as I had received a call from my “grandson” in January, telling me of a similar fate on the way from the Dominican Republic airport to the hotel in Santo Domingo. Then, two months later he called again.

This time I feigned deafness and said, “Who did you say was calling?” “Your grandson. Sorry about my voice. I have a cold.” “Where are you?” I asked. “Actually, I’m traveling. I’m in Peru.” Whereupon, after a pause, I said, “You are not my grandson and you are not in Peru. I am familiar with this scam.” and slammed down the telephone.

In retrospect, a better course of action would have been to string them along until I could get a telephone number, and then call the State Department’s American Citizen Service at 1/888/407-4747. They are on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

This band of crooks is particularly difficult, because it moves around. A State Department investigator told me that they are using this dodge all over the world, masquerading as officials of the U.S. Embassy in the particular country.

While the arrested travelers are most often grandsons, sometimes they are granddaughters (involving, for example, a dented fender in a rental car, in a country where a foreign driver is considered responsible, no matter who was at fault).

If you are a grandparent or know anyone who is, beware of this seductive approach. Even if the “grandchild” sounds close to the real one, be immediately suspicious. If you play along until the “Embassy official” gives you the pitch about money, firmly say you will need some time (such as half an hour) and ask for his telephone number. The number may be phony; nevertheless, report it immediately to American Citizen Services.

A recent communiqué advised that the con men have lately concentrated on Arizona and Florida where there are a great many grandparents. If you don’t live in either, still be on guard. They apparently make the connection between the grandparent and the grandchild by some sophisticated online data mining, so they make strike wherever you live.

Peter Hannaford was closely associated with the late President Reagan for a number of years. His latest book is ◼ “Presidential Retreats.”