When Jan Henry spoke with her granddaughter on the phone and heard she was in Oregon—not in a jail cell in Florida—she knew she had been scammed.
Minutes before, Henry had wired $1,194 to an unknown man in Florida who convinced her that her granddaughter was in a Fort Lauderdale cell, waiting for money to get out.
"I’m absolutely, utterly sick to my stomach," said Henry, 72, of Waianae, who hopes her story will help others avoid the same scheme. "I don’t want that rascal doing that to somebody else. There are too many people who would do anything for their grandchildren."
The man who fooled Henry used what authorities say is a common ploy by scam artists—and one that can be avoided by taking a moment to verify the information.
"We’ve gotten variations of this sort of story for a couple of years now," said Lt. Eric Yiu, of the Honolulu Police Department financial crime detail.
Yiu said these calls are usually random "cold calls" and that the scammers don’t have much personal information on the victim.
Last year, a victim reported to police that he sent $10,000 to a person in Africa to help his daughter who was being "detained" there. After wiring the money, the man found out that his daughter was still in Mililani, Yiu said.
Yiu suggests that people ask for a phone number to call the person back, and then check with family members to verify the information.
"If there’s no call-back number, it’s bogus," Yiu said.
In Henry’s case, a man called her about 10:30 a.m. June 26 claiming to be a Florida public defender representing her granddaughter.
The man identified himself as Robert Atias and said her granddaughter was in jail for causing a traffic accident.
He told Henry it was late in the day and that if her granddaughter didn’t get out soon, she would be stuck there for the rest of the weekend and miss her flight home.
The man asked her to send $1,194 to cover the damage and get her out of jail. He told Henry not to call her granddaughter because police had taken her cell phone.
He said her granddaughter had been drinking at a wedding before the crash, and asked Henry not to tell her father because he would be upset.
Henry, who could imagine her granddaughter making such a request, was convinced, and rushed to wire money to the "public defender." He phoned about 90 minutes later to get the confirmation code and promised to call when her granddaughter was released.
An hour passed and Henry began to feel a tinge of doubt. She realized she never got the man’s phone number; it had been unlisted on her phone.
When Henry called her granddaughter, she answered and said she was OK and that she had never been in Florida.
"That’s when I realized I had been scammed royally," Henry said.
Besides the $1,194 sent by wire, Henry also paid a $115 service fee, all from money Henry had been saving up for a ticket to visit her granddaughter on the mainland.
Police said officers opened a second-degree theft case and that the suspect remains unknown.
In a similar case earlier this year, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said a Pauoa Valley couple was tricked into sending $7,000 to a woman posing as a relative in trouble in Canada.
The woman called and said she was being held by an attorney who wanted payment for bail and legal fees after she was arrested on drunken-driving charges.
Unlike Henry’s case, Canadian and federal authorities were able to intercept the money order and get the couple their money back.
Henry believes the swindler got her and her granddaughter’s information off Facebook, which the two use to communicate.
"He knew a lot about our relationship, that we’re very close," she said. "I’m so angry at myself that I didn’t look further."
Henry said the officer who took her report told her to never send money again.
"I’ve learned my lesson," she said. "I never will."