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House Calls / Dr. Michael Schwartz

Published 11:17 am, Sunday, August 24, 2014
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Anxiety, stress and fear are some of the most powerful human emotions. Often when confronted with a potentially life-altering event, people can lose perspective and feel overwhelmed. Despite our best efforts to rationalize a situation, a tragic event can affect our physical, psychological and spiritual wellbeing.

Although my columns generally discuss medical issues, I would like to digress and describe a situation that directly affected me and my wife recently. It encompasses all the emotions discussed above. I hope that sharing our story will spare another family the anguish and terror we experienced due to a vicious criminal scam.

While at work, my wife's cellphone rang showing a "blocked" number. When she answered, a male introduced himself by name (most likely made up). He immediately stated that our son had been involved in a car accident and claimed that our son told him to call her and let her know. He refused to allow my wife to speak to our son and instead became hostile and told her that he had caused damage to a brand new BMW. He said that it would cost $2,000 to fix and he wanted the money wired to him immediately. He told my wife to not try to call our son's cellphone because he had his phone. Of course, my wife began to ask questions such as was everyone OK, why weren't the police called, where did the accident take place? The caller stated that the police were not called but instead he took our son to his house and was holding him hostage. The conversation continued as the caller became more verbally abusive, using profanity and making several very disturbing threats. He told my wife, "My brother just hit your son over the head with his gun and he is now unconscious!" When he sensed my wife's anguish he then stated, "I am now holding a gun to his head and I swear on my own baby daughter's life that I will kill your son if you don't get into your car right now!"

When my wife, a very intelligent and well-educated woman, tried her best to rationalize the situation, the countdown began. "You have 30 seconds to leave your office or I'll kill him; now 20 seconds; I swear I will shoot him in 10 seconds if you don't get in your car now and drive to the bank!"

Many of you reading this might think that it would be easy to recognize this as a scam or a hoax; however, when someone is faced with a situation of not knowing if a loved one is in imminent danger, your emotions take over and it is easy to believe such a scenario. Fortunately, my wife was able to alert a co-worker to what was transpiring and the co-worker contacted me; I was able to locate my son quickly and assure that he was indeed safe. I immediately informed my wife that everything was fine just as the caller hung up. However, what would have happened if I couldn't have located my son? What if you couldn't locate your loved one? What would you do?

The scam has been reported throughout the country, but seems to be much more prevalent in the Northeast, especially in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Sgt. Jeremiah Marron, of the Darien Police Department, commented that the callers use many techniques to convince their victims that their loved one is in danger.

"They combine the elements of surprise and emotions to create panic," he said. "They try to feed off a person's fear."

He further remarked that the longer you stay on the phone, the more they recognize an opportunity for the scam to succeed.

"The more time spent on the phone allows them more opportunity to gather specific information about you and your loved one. You may inadvertently give them a name or other details which they can use to make the story even more convincing."

Sgt. Marron stated that there have been many victims who have fallen for this scam over the years. He cautions everyone to be aware of what to look for and how to respond.

"If you receive a call, they will most likely first claim there has been an accident with a relative -- usually a son or daughter. Stay calm. Ask specific questions. If something doesn't seem right, hang up and contact the local authorities."

Furthermore, it is common for these individuals to use social media sites (i.e. LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to discover information about you and your family. All too often, we list very private information on these sites including names of relatives, phone numbers, birthdays, work profession and even our home address, which are then used to create a more convincing story when they call you.

If you receive a call claiming that a loved one has been involved in an accident, try to get as much information as you can from the caller. If they become abusive or threatening, suspect that it may be a scam and hang up immediately and then call 911 or the police directly to let them know the specifics of the call and their demands. Quickly try to get in touch with your loved one directly to make sure he or she is safe. Never wire money from a bank or Western Union without at least first confirming that all the information is correct and has been verified. Additionally, limit the information you share on social media. Most sites have filters which determine what information someone is allowed to see. Never "friend" or accept an invitation from someone you don't know.

Anxiety, stress and fear are strong yet important emotions. However when used against you, they may affect your judgment. Be prepared should you receive such a call. Discuss a strategy with your family -- especially your children in the event that you need to contact them. Most important, share this story with others so that the word gets around. Do not let these criminals cause you to suffer emotional harm from this heinous and criminal scam.

Dr. Michael Schwartz is board certified in internal medicine with a private practice in Darien. For comments or questions, please visit his website at www.drmichaelbschwartz.com