When the phone rang that morning, Richard was already at his desk, working. He may be 78 years old and retired, "but I'm not retired from life."
On the other end, Richard heard the voice of a young man.
"The guy said, 'Grandpa?' And I said, 'Yeah.' I have five grandkids and two of 'em are boys. And they all call me grandpa."
Richard's 22-year-old "grandson" told him there'd been an accident.
"The kid was crying. Or, faking crying. It sure sounded like my grandson. And the first thing he said was not to tell his parents."
As you might guess, the first thing Richard wondered was: "Why? What happened?"
The "grandson" and three of his buddies were up in Canada. They'd run into a truck with their car. Now each boy needed to come up with cash.
"The truck driver doesn't have insurance, and we have to pay for his truck," the "grandson" said. "I'll pay you back when I get home."
Well, Richard thought, the boy does have his own money. Works full-time, after all. Besides, he'd do anything for the grandkids.
"Well, how much do you need?"
Minutes later, Richard recounted, he was on his way to the bank. He took out $5,000 and no, he said when I asked, no one at the bank said a word about the large cash withdrawal.
Following instructions, Richard then wired the sum to his "grandson," waiting in Canada. Hours later, he did it all over again - the guy called and back and said authorities refused to let him leave the country without a second $5,000 payment.
By the time his "grandson" called for the third time that day, Richard had already spoken with the boy's mother and discovered he'd been had.
"It's a worldwide scam," said Dick Epstein, head of the local Better Business Bureau. "It's called 'It's me, it's me, Grandma!' It's where senior citizens are awakened by a phone call, and the person on the other end of the phone is hysterical."
It's so easy to fall for.
When your heart races at the sound of a weeping and beloved grandchild in serious trouble, it's not quite like getting duped by Nigerian e-mail.
"We're seeing and hearing almost daily about people who've had calls like these," said Mr. Epstein.
In Japan, the scam is so widespread that two weeks ago police mounted a massive one-day assault on the day of the month when the nation's 40 million pensioners received their checks.
The British newspaper The Guardian reported some 56,000 police officers were assigned to stand watch at 81,000 ATMs on Oct. 15, "the biggest police operation since the G8 leaders met in northern Japan in July."
In a tale Richard would find too familiar, The Guardian said a favorite Japanese variation of this scam "is to claim the caller has been involved in a car accident and needs to transfer cash to the other party immediately."
Richard didn't bother reporting the swindle to his suburban police department.
"Why? They couldn't do anything," he reasoned, adding:
"You'll notice I'm not upset about it. Well, it cost me $10,000 to learn a lesson. But I learned my lesson."
Roberta de Boer's column appears here Tuesday and Thursday, and in Behind the News on Sunday.
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