When the phone rang at 8:45 a.m. recently, Rhea Miles’ heart skipped a beat.
The caller identified himself as Kyle, one of the Gig Harbor woman’s grandsons. He said he had been in a car accident with a high-ranking Panamanian diplomat. The envoy was threatening to have him put in jail, and the caller needed $2,700.
At one point, a person identified as the diplomat’s attorney got on the phone with Miles.
After she discussed it with her husband, Miles headed to Safeway for a money transfer.
“We went and did it,” said Miles, 71. “We wired him the money.”
Later, another call from the self-identified diplomat’s attorney claimed an additional $1,900 was needed because the car accident had damaged a control box for a stoplight.
During another trip to Safeway, employees warned the woman her about the “grandparents scam,” in which callers pose as grandchildren in need of emergency cash.
That was enough to dissuade her from sending more money.
The scam was confirmed when Miles’ husband got in touch with Kyle.
“We should have done this all before,” Miles said of finding out whether her grandson was really in trouble. “When you hear your grandson’s voice, your heart goes out to them.”
Whoever was on the other end of the phone sounded exactly like her grandson and even knew her grandson’s full name, she said.
“It’s happened all over, and a lot in the harbor,” Miles said, noting she has heard similar stories of others who have been targeted by the scam.
Gig Harbor Police Chief Mike Davis said there hasn’t been an increase in reports of these types of telephone scams but said many victims are embarrassed and don’t report their loss.
Last year, more than 25,000 older Americans reported sending $110 million to scammers who posed as family members and claimed an injury or arrest in a foreign country, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Miles hopes getting the word out about her experience will prevent others from being victimized in a similar manner.
“I’m so embarrassed to tell anybody,” she admitted. “I’m telling my story to stop others from experiencing the same thing.”
Still, she’s grateful she parted with only $2,700.
“It could have been a lot worse,” Miles said.
She advised anyone in similar circumstances to get past the emotional shock of the news, listen to what is being said, ask questions and tell somebody who is not a relative.
“I’ve told as many people as I can,” she said.
Gig Harbor’s Norma Collins also was targeted by the grandparents scam, but she emerged without losing any money.
While she waited for her grandchildren to come over for breakfast, she took a 9:30 a.m. call from someone who claimed to be her oldest grandson, Mitch. He said he had been involved in a car accident, was in jail and needed money.
“It can really shake you up,” said Collins, 87. “That guy scared the life out of me.”
Nevertheless, Collins was suspicious from the beginning, saying she didn’t have regular contact with Mitch by phone and questioned why he would be calling her instead of his father.
The person who claimed to be her grandson asked “if grandma still drove.” She told him she still drove, but only locally and did not cross the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, at which point the caller hung up.
It turned out Mitch had not been involved in a car crash or taken to jail.
“I would not do it,” she said of giving away money under such questionable circumstances. “I’ve seen enough not to so easily part with money.”
She called 911 and reported the incident.
Davis had some basic advice for those who get a call from an alleged family member who claims to be in trouble and needs money in a hurry.
“Verify, verify, verify,” he said. “Don’t give up any information over the phone. If you’re not sure, hang up and confirm. Call a family member and find out.”