Ann Griffiths a well-known real estate agent, wants everyone to know about a scam to which she fell prey on Jan. 25 -- one that can devastate the life savings of seniors.
Griffiths was scammed out of nearly $11,000 after con artists impersonating her grandson led her to believe he had been arrested in Barcelona, Spain.
"I'm lucky. It could've been worse," she said today (Feb. 3).
"I had saved some money for a trip to Paris this summer with my granddaughters. It's gone now."
Griffiths said she was in a board meeting at Coldwell Banker, where she is a broker, when her phone rang. The voice on the other end sounded like her grandson, Ryan.
"Hey, Grandma," the voice said.
But Griffiths said her supposed grandson's voice didn't sound quite right.
"Ryan, you don't sound OK," she said.
"Well, I'm in Barcelona, Spain," the voice said.
The real Ryan is a student at U.C. Santa Barbara, but the Ryan on the phone explained that he'd won a radio contest for a trip to Barcelona and he had taken a friend along. Griffiths pointed out that he didn't have a passport. "Ryan" said the radio station had taken care of the problem and he had checked into a five-star hotel.
But he said he and his friend were in a Spanish jail after having met two young people from Canada on the beach. The young men went backpacking and got into the Canadian youths' car to do some sightseeing, the impersonator said. Police pulled them over and found drugs in the car, he claimed.
Griffiths said "Ryan" made her promise not to tell anyone in the family. But he handed the phone to a policeman named Ted Peterson who said he handled law-enforcement issues for the U.S. embassy in Spain. He assured Griffiths that "Ryan" and his friends had not been in possession of drugs but he needed her to wire $2,500 bail to get her grandson out of jail.
Peterson told Griffiths to wire the money through Western Union rather than a bank, because bankers might want to investigate and it could end up on her grandson's permanent record.
Griffiths said she wanted to protect Ryan at all costs, and the idea that he was being held in a foreign country played deeply to her emotions. Griffiths said she wasn't suspicious because $2,500 wasn't much money for bail, since her late husband had been an attorney.
She spoke to Peterson again on Jan. 26 and he said he needed more money to help Ryan, since "the judge was making an example out of him." Griffiths had her banker wire more money, swearing the bank to secrecy.
As "Ryan" was to be released, Griffiths received a call from a man who claimed that Ryan owed $5,600 in legal fees and he would not be allowed to leave Spain until the sum was paid. Griffiths wired that money too.
She decided to call Ted Peterson again and asked him the name of the American ambassador. Peterson said he didn't know.
"That's when I smelled a rat," she said, adding that she called the Palo Alto police. Griffiths tried to stop the $5,600 wire transfer but it went through five minutes before Western Union could stop the transfer, she said.
Griffiths called her real grandson's cell phone and he answered. The real Ryan said knew nothing about the scam and had been in Santa Barbara the entire time taking a physics exam, Griffiths said.
Police told her the con artists get hold of cell-phone numbers and use another number to cover their tracks.
"You feel violated. But I'm not angry, I'm thankful," she said, happy that she did not lose more.
Griffiths is a former president of Peninsula Volunteers at Little House in Menlo Park, which caters to seniors. She said she wants people to know how easy it is to be taken advantage of and to never provide important information that can lead to identity theft.
"If I can save just one grandparent...." she said of her decision to come forward.