It is Thursday, just before lunch. I’m sitting in my office shed when I receive a text from an unknown number. It says: “Hi dad, I’ve broke my phone. My sim was broken too, I can’t do much but can you text me when you see this.” The number that follows is different from the one the text was sent from.
The bolt of parental concern that shoots through me quickly dissipates. It’s obvious this message is not from one of my sons. For a start, it’s too chatty. All three of them would find a way to boil this request down to 30 characters or fewer. Second, in any genuine emergency the text would go straight to their mother. Finally, even in stressful circumstances, they’re all pretty consistent when it comes to using past participles.
I look across the garden and see the middle one standing in the kitchen, staring at his phone, unconcerned.
I paste the text into Google and am pleased to discover I’ve been targeted by what Which? magazine calls the “notorious Hi Mum and Dad scam”. It makes me feel as if I’m participating in the cultural life of the nation. I’m mainly pleased because I have not been taken in.
But as I read about the scam I begin to worry I might be more susceptible than I thought. If you ask the scammers which of your children is texting, they typically reply “The oldest one” or “The youngest one”. Naturally, I would fall for this immediately. Their next step is to ask for money to be transferred to pay an urgent bill. I can see myself doing this without question, just to prove to my fake son I’m technically competent enough to manage it.
I look up just as a large fox walks by the glass door of my office, stares in at me, and walks on. I shudder a little, and decide not to tell anyone about either encounter.
If you ask the scammers which child is texting, typically the reply is ‘The oldest one’ or ‘The youngest one’. Naturally, I would fall for this immediately
On Sunday night, the youngest one is packing for a two-week trip to south-east Asia. He’s going on holiday by himself, which is something I can’t imagine doing at his age, or my age.
“Have you got an adaptor for chargers and stuff?” I say, trying to be helpful.
“I need to get one at the airport,” he says. “Their plugs are pretty weird.”
“I’ll bet,” I say.
At some point in the dead of night on Tuesday, my wife receives a text to say the youngest one has landed in Vietnam. The message is followed by a series of blurry street scenes, clearly taken through the window of a moving taxi.
Late on Wednesday morning my wife finds me in the kitchen.
“Look what I just got,” she says, holding up her phone. On it is an email that reads: “I’ve lost my phone and had to buy a new one, could you please call this number.” The email is from a strange address. The phone number has an area code I happen to know is in New Jersey. I stare at it for a long time.
“Well?” my wife says.
“I think you may be a victim of the notorious Hi Mum and Dad scam,” I say.
“You don’t think it’s real?” she says. I show her the text I received less than a week before.
“The wording varies,” I say, “but the scam is the same.”
“What do they want?” she says.
“Your life savings,” I say.
“How do we know it isn’t him?” she says.
“Why wouldn’t he just use his new Vietnamese phone to call you?” I say.
“He probably doesn’t know my number,” she says. “What should I say?”
“I wouldn’t answer it,” I say. “Call his phone.”
“It’s turned off,” she says.
Against my advice, she replies: “Is it really you – what’s the name of our cat?”
I go out to my office and try the youngest one’s number – still off. Maybe, I think, he couldn’t find an adaptor for their weird plugs.
I think about how best to answer the scam email. I probably would have written “What was the name of your pet rabbit?” and when they replied “Peter” I’d reply “That’s interesting because YOU NEVER EVEN HAD A RABBIT”. Case closed. I try his number again.
An hour later I go up to my wife’s office.
“Did you hear back from the scammers yet?” I say.
“No, it was actually him,” she says. “He left his phone in a taxi.”
“It was him?” I say. “On whose number?”
“Just some fellow traveller from New Jersey.”
“What did he want?”
“He needed someone to get into his laptop and turn off two-step verification, otherwise he was locked out of everything.”
“Ah,” I say. But I think: no wonder he didn’t email me.