A different version of this essay appeared in the New York Times on April 9, 2015. This is the original draft.
Identity + Theft = All of Us
The crime is known as the grandparents scam. It’s a type of identity theft that many people have been aware of for a while, but my grandfather, unfortunately, had not heard about it before he had a very personal encounter with it.
A young woman pretending to be me called my grandfather on his landline and asked him to bail her out of a situation she had become embroiled in while traveling in Spain. Drugs were involved, a lost passport, the police, and the caller pleaded with my grandfather not to alert my parents to her troubles. She began to cry and my grandfather promptly gave in to her demands, all of them. Over the course of about a day and a half, he sent three separate wire transfers totaling a little under six thousand dollars to a Western Union office in Spain.
I learned all of this about a week and a half after these events occurred because my grandfather called me. I was surprised by the call because usually, I call him or we correspond with handwritten letters.
When he asked, sounding both hurt and surprised, “When did you get home?” I initially thought he was referring to a trip I’d made to New York the previous month, and I told him that it had been a couple of weeks since my return.
After the briefest pause, he said, “No, when did you get home from Spain?”
I sensed almost immediately what had happened; I had read about a similar scam and received emails from friends whose accounts had been hacked, a foreign country and an urgent need for money both mentioned. My stomach shifted queasily. “I wasn’t in Spain,” I said.
He asked, laughing a little, if I was kidding.
“No,” I said. “I honestly wasn’t there. What happened?”
He told me then about the girl, about how her voice had sounded so much like mine. He did not want to believe that he had been conned. The girl and her helpmates had doubtless looked me up online and learned enough details about my family and my career as a fiction writer and college professor to appear convincingly to be me when they got him on the phone. The girl knew my mother’s and stepfather’s names, a detail that still chills me. Where had they found them? But then I remembered – there’s a short essay on my website about my parents’ dog, and I must have mentioned their names in it.