It’s not easy to remain honest and trusting in a world populated with those who are willing and able to take advantage of these qualities for financial gain. Con artists line up in droves in order to sucker those among us who have faith that all intentions are good intentions.
It started out innocently enough with an incoming phone call just moments after we had seated ourselves at the dinner table to partake of our evening supper. Past experience has taught me that 90 per cent of telephone calls at mealtime or in the middle of the night are robocalls emanating from the other side of the equator and halfway across the globe.
The first sound you hear is silence followed in a couple of seconds by an audible click. If it is not a robocall, and there is actually a human being speaking to you, the first thing they will do is stumble a few times in vain attempts to pronounce your name correctly (even if it is something as impossibly difficult as “Bob”). What usually follows is a sales pitch for an ocean cruise or for a million free air miles but you will never know because by this time you have realized that someone or something you don’t know is trying to sell you something you don’t want. You end the call by slamming down the receiver (or whatever it’s called in this age of smart phone gadgets). You curse under your breath as you try to somehow restore the ambience at the dinner table before this rude interruption.
This time it’s different. Instead of a meek, mild-mannered, bumbling salesperson on the other end of the line, I find myself being verbally accosted by the booming voice of Robocop himself. He identifies himself as the Police Chief Inspector of Uganda and informs me that I have been caught in an international police sting operation involving the RCMP, CSIS, FBI, CIA, Scotland Yard, MI6, Interpol, and even the Russian KGB. He claims that I have been under 24-hour-a-day surveillance for months, my phone lines have been wire-tapped, and all my friends are actually undercover officers gathering evidence against me.
He informs me that, as we speak, a SWAT team equipped with full body armour, assault weapons, and legal search warrants have surrounded the house. He threatens that, on his command, they are ready to kick down the front door in order to apprehend me.
It is at this point in the conversation that I take a look back in shame as I mentally review my life of crime. Was it the time I pulled the tag off the new mattress we had just purchased? Or perhaps it was that moment of weakness in the bulk foods section of the supermart when I had written the wrong code number on the white twist tie and thereby was able to get a large bag of organic pistachios for the price of ridiculously cheaper lime jello.
Yes, my criminal past had finally caught up with me. It was only a matter of time before the dragnet strings were pulled tight by the long arm of the law, and my sordid misdeeds would cause my life to become permanently entangled.
A wave of paranoia engulfed me. My jig was up. There was, however, a single ray of hope. Normally, the Ugandan police chief informed me, they would toss my family and me in the deepest, darkest dungeon and throw away the key. But if I were to cooperate, they might be willing to make an exception and drop all charges against me.
Yes, all I needed to do was provide them with a few pieces of information which would allow the secret service to wipe my slate clean.
What exactly was this information that could free me from these criminal implications? Was it a list of the names of underground revolutionaries? Was it the secret code by which anti-government terrorists communicated with each other? Was it the names of double agents and moles who had infiltrated key government positions?
No, what they wanted from me specifically was my bank account number, credit cards and PIN numbers, and copies of my driver’s licence and passport. Oh yes, and if I could throw in my Netflix password, that would be grand.
It was slowly beginning to dawn on me. I was not a criminal mastermind. My picture profile was not on display in every post office on the continent. For the time being at least, children were still safe to play in the meadows and lime jello could freely be differentiated from pistachios.
As it turns out, I had almost been the victim of a classic yet classless phone scam. It seems inconceivable that anyone could be taken in by such a blatant distortion of prime time crime thrillers and pulp science fiction all rolled into one threatening phone call. As I was to find out later from the actual local gendarmerie, there are more than a few who genuinely fall for the scare tactics. They give the scamming crooks everything they want and even agree to not report the odious phone swindle to the authorities on the pretext that it would compromise the identities of the undercover cops.
Nobody asked me, but can it really be possible that there are enough gullible people around to make such obviously dishonest schemes lucrative? The notorious 19th-century American circus impresario P.T. Barnum is attributed with the quote “There’s a sucker born every minute,” but phone scams seem to show that he was probably underestimating how frequently people are willing to be duped. I know I’ve learned my lesson. I’ll be happy to tell you about it as soon as they let me out of witness protection.