The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

March 1, 2014

One born every minute: Skepticism is best defense

By Jeff Mullin, columnist
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — There are two kinds of people in this world, it seems — people who make their money honestly, and those who scheme to take it away from them.

In the 17th century, William Chaloner was a counterfeiter and con artist who was caught, proven guilty by Sir Isaac Newton (yes, that Isaac Newton) and hanged.

At the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, Gregor MacGregor scammed people out of their money by selling them the rights to plots of land in a made-up Central American nation called Poyais.

In the early part of the 20th century, George Parker sold unsuspecting tourists deeds to New York City landmarks, like Madison Square Garden, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Grant’s Tomb and the Statue of Liberty. Parker is perhaps best known for selling the Brooklyn Bridge, which he apparently did twice a week for years.

Charles Ponzi was the father of the Ponzi scheme, the scam that netted Bernie Madoff millions and landed him in prison.

William Thompson was the original con man. His scheme involved approaching a well-dressed stranger and pretending that the men knew each other.

After a brief conversation, Thompson would ask the other man if he had enough confidence in him to trust Thompson with his watch (or a sum of money) until the next day. If the mark said yes, Thompson would, of course, make off with the watch or cash and never be seen again. Hence the term “confidence man.”

The practice of dishonest people attempting to relieve honest folks of their cash or belongings has been going on for centuries.

It goes on yet today.

I spoke this past week with a nice lady who recently found herself in a decidedly not nice situation.

She and her husband, it seems, fell victim to what is known as the Grandparent Scam.

They received a phone call from someone claiming to be their grandson, a college student.

The young man said he was in trouble and needed their help. He was in Mexico City, and he was in jail. He and some friends had been flying to Cancun, with a stopover in Mexico City. They had time to kill, so they hired a cab to take them on a tour of the town.

After a time, the cab was pulled over by the police, who found marijuana under the driver’s seat. The driver and his passengers were all arrested and charged with drug possession.

The “grandson” said he needed money to get him out of jail, and he needed it right away. He didn’t want his grandparents to call his mother, because she was at work and he didn’t want to worry her. And he said not to try and call him because he didn’t have his phone.

Besides their grandson, the couple also spoke with a couple of his companions, who told them the same tale.

The story sounded plausible, in that the young man had traveled to different countries to do mission work, and his mother, a nurse, indeed works odd hours.

The woman asked the young man some questions she thought only he would know, like the name of his sister, the date of his birth and the location of his father. All the questions were answered correctly.

So the couple sent the money. Then they were told the young man needed more. They sent that, too. All told they wired close to $1,600 to the location they were given.

When a third plea for money came, they rejected it, the woman telling the grandson, in effect, he got himself into that situation, he was going to have to get himself out.

After a time the whole situation began to nag at her, so she called the state attorney general’s office. She also wound up speaking to the FBI and Enid police. She learned the whole thing was a scam, apparently perpetrated by con artists from Canada.  She finally spoke to her real grandson, who had been at school the whole time. The scammers had apparently obtained the answers to the grandmother’s questions by hacking their daughter-in-law’s computer.

The lady declined to give her name. She was embarrassed, she said, and didn’t want to be thought “a fool.” She is no fool. At least she was astute enough to challenge the caller’s veracity.

Likewise she is not alone. The National Council on Aging lists the Grandparent Scam as the No. 10 scams targeting senior citizens across the United States.

The Grandparent Scam is effective because it plays on people’s emotions. Who wouldn’t do whatever they could to help a loved one in trouble, particularly a grandchild?

The FBI advises potential victims to resist the pressure to act quickly and to try to contact the grandchild or another family member to determine whether the call is legitimate.

And never, ever, wire money based on a request coming via phone call, especially overseas.

The phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” is credited to legendary showman P.T. Barnum, but was likely actually spoken by someone in describing Barnum.

The full quote is actually “There’s a sucker born every minute, and two to take him.”

Scammers are out there and they have their sights set on your money. Your best defense against them is a healthy dose of skepticism.



Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at jmullin@enidnews.com.