On March 27, 90-year-old Cathy Colley of Barling got a rude awakening with a 7 a.m. phone call.
A woman on the other end of the line who identified herself as Colley’s granddaughter, Courtney, was hysterical and crying. The woman told Colley that she was in jail and needed bail money.
Then a man, who identified himself as a police captain, told Colley that she needed to send $4,000 to get her granddaughter out of jail.
"At first he just told me that the sooner that I got the money to him, Courtney would be let go and she could go back to her husband," Colley said.
Courtney and her husband were together on a Carnival cruise at the time. Unknown to Colley, their ship hadn’t even docked yet.
The man on the phone told Colley that the $4,000 could not be on her credit card, but that she had to get a card from Walmart and send the money that way. The man gave Colley several instructions on how to send the money and told her that she had two hours to do all that he asked, Colley said.
Colley called her son, Ken Colley, a candidate for Sebastian County assessor. Ken Colley made some phone calls, and eventually found out that his daughter and her husband were fine.
In the meantime, the so-called police captain called Cathy Colley back to ask if she had the money. She said she had to go to two banks and that it was taking some time. The man then told her not to worry about sending the full amount, but to send what she could.
"I knew it was a scam because one of my friends told me about it happening to one of her friends," Cathy Colley said.
The scammers didn’t get any of Cathy Colley’s money, and Courtney was fine.
"Praise the Lord, it worked out. She’s OK," she said.
Cathy Colley did exactly what anyone who receives such a phone call should do in that situation, according to detective Barbara Williams with the Fort Smith Police Department.
"Get with somebody else. Make sure that’s what’s going on," Williams said. "A grandchild’s going to have a mom or dad for you to make contact with."
This is not the first time Williams has heard of a such a scam, she said. In the past month or so, the department has received three or four similar reports.
"None of it’s true," Williams said. "They’re just taking advantage of the elderly, and I hate that."
There are several ways to be sure that a law-enforcement officer is who he or she claims to be. A legitimate caller will have contact information available for their agency or one with which they work alongside.
The easiest way for a grandparent to verify if their grandchild is in real danger is to contact family before making any kind of payment, Williams said.
"Do you know he’s in Mexico? Do you know he’s in Canada? Do you know he’s in California? Get some kind of verification," Williams said. "If you’re not sure if something’s right or wrong, get another set of eyes on it."
Cruise lines and other travel agencies maintain secure websites, but scammers will use just about anything they can get in their possession to try to get money out of people, especially the elderly, Williams said.
Furthermore, anyone unfamiliar asking for money through a Green Dot card or Western Union is a red flag, Williams said.
Cathy Colley said she does not know how the scammers got her and her family’s names and was especially incensed that someone would use a legitimate business like Walmart in their scheme to try to take advantage of her.
"If you say it’s your grandchild — they know we’re old, and they know we love them, and we know that we normally have the money," she said. "Anybody, if they knew their grandchild was in danger, they would get money any way they could, or sell what they could. So I believe that’s why they go to grandparents."