It can happen to the best and the brightest, apparently. Physician, author, speaker and world traveler Walter Bortz of Portola Valley was duped out of thousands of dollars by con men in a crafty telephone scam.
Dr. Bortz is the author of six books, including "Dare to be 100" and "Living Longer for Dummies." He and his wife, Ruth Anne Bortz -- their bank account now lighter by $5,000 -- sat down with the Almanac at their Westridge area home on Aug. 7 to talk about the scam.
Between 7:30 and 8 a.m. on Monday, July 28, the phone rang, Dr. Bortz said. On the line was a sobbing male voice claiming to be the couple's grandson.
This "grandson" apologized for the early hour, then told a tale of a beer-drinking escapade the night before that, through no fault of his own, ended badly. Dr. Bortz, who is 84, said the voice sounded authentic, as did the location. His grandson lives in San Francisco, surfs in the area and enjoys Santa Cruz, Dr. Bortz said.
"It had verisimilitude to it," he said. "For him, hanging out and having some drinks in Santa Cruz is totally valid."
The circumstances painted a picture of a victim caught up in events. The grandson had been in a taxicab being driven recklessly by a cabbie under the influence, the story went. When police stopped the cab, they found drugs and a gun in the trunk.
Both cabbie and passenger (the grandson) were arrested. While in jail, the grandson had been beaten, leaving him with a broken nose, Dr. Bortz said he was told.
He said he thought he had recognized his grandson's voice. "I was completely taken in," he said. "Everything he said had a viability to it and they pulled that off adequately. I like to think that I am worldly wise (and yet) I got snookered into this one. But I guess it shows that I'm a nice grandfather."
The grandson turned the phone over to a "police officer," Dr. Bortz said. The officer said a judge had set aside 10 a.m. that same morning to make a decision in the case. To save his grandson from the negative consequences of appearing in court, Dr. Bortz needed to follow a specific procedure to arrange a $5,000 bond, the officer said.
Dr. Bortz was told to go to his bank and withdraw $5,000 in cash, then go to the Safeway supermarket in Sharon Heights and buy $5,000 in prepaid cash cards, then call the officer back and read him the card numbers to complete the money transfer.
Dr. Bortz said the bank teller asked him why he was withdrawing $5,000. Why would she have asked that question? "She was just trying to be protective of me (in) the situation," he said.
But instead of answering truthfully, he lied, he said. The officer had told him that "it would influence the court if any of this got out," Dr. Bortz said he was told.
After transferring the money, Dr. Bortz called back and received a surly response. After more calls, he got the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office involved, his daughter Gretchen Lieff said.
Think on your feet
If he could craft a warning, how would he word it? "I don't think any warning would have protected me from this," Dr. Bortz said. "My grandson is in jail and they beat him up and broke his nose? They represented it to a degree that I bought it."
"It bothers me, I guess in the abstract, that there's that segment (of the population) out there roaming," he said. "Their antennas are up to every opportunity. ... Nice guys finish last."
That segment defrauds people out of millions of dollars every year, often combining "age-old tricks" with new technology, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
"People don't ask enough questions," said Nicole Acker of the Menlo Park Police Department. "I don't know how to really word (a warning)," she said. "The only thing we can do is continue to put out the information. If it doesn't sound right, it probably isn't right."
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