When Gina M. Ahrens of Ogdensburg got the call that her son, newly returned from military service overseas, was involved in a fatal automobile crash, it was the worst day of her life.
But the news was a lie.
The call, which was placed to her in-laws, Douglas and Dorothy Ahrens, turned out to be a scam, one of the latest in a series reported to the Ogdensburg Police Department.
The Ahrenses received the phone call around 4:30 p.m. Wednesday.
The first caller posed as their grandson, who called to let his grandparents know that he had been drinking with a friend and got into an automobile accident in Atlanta, Ga.
The man posing as my son said was he was okay, Gina Ahrens said. He told my in-laws that he didnt sound like himself because he broke his nose and cut his lip. He said had been taken from the hospital to the police station because the accident had resulted in a fatality.
Five minutes later, her in-laws received a call from someone posing as a lawyer, David Bell, who was supposedly representing their grandson. He said their grandson was involved a motor vehicle accident, had been charged with driving while intoxicated and gave them a case number and a phone number to call if they had any questions.
He said that our son was incarcerated and we need to pay $2,950 in bail so he could be released from jail, Gina Ahrens said. The lawyer said he had to receive it by the end of that business day or he could serve up to 30 days in jail up or until his trial.
Douglas Ahrens was ready to pay the fee until the fake lawyer asked a question.
He said to my father-in-law, your son told me you were retired? Gina Ahrens said. My father-in-law said he was retired law enforcement. After that, the line went dead.
Thats when the elder Ahrenses called their daughter-in-law and her husband, Mark D.
[Doug] told us to come over there immediately, Gina Ahrens said. That Matthew had been in a bad accident, and we had to get ahold of this lawyer, David Bell.
But when they called the number back, the phone number was disconnected. For three hours, the family tried frantically to call their son.
We were all in a panic we tried to contact my son, but we could not get a hold of him, Gina Ahrens said.
Their son, Matthew M. Ahrens, 20, has been serving in the Navy for more than a year and has been stationed in Bahrain for the last eight months. He is due home next month for 27 days of leave.
He likes to surprise us and has friends in Atlanta, his mother said. It was more than likely that on his flight returning home he would have stopped in Atlanta. It all seemed possible.
The family called the Navy recruiter office in Potsdam the Red Cross, and used Skype to try to contact their son.
We also called the police department. They said it might be a scam but we couldnt rely on that until we found out for sure that Matthew was okay, Gina Ahrens said.
At roughly 7:30 p.m., they reached their son via Skype, an internet calling service.
It was just a nightmare for all of us, she said. For those three hours we couldnt talk to him. A parent never wants to hear something like that happen to their child. So when we heard his voice, we knew he was okay.
Many of the new scams like this one are popping up as a result of the failed lottery winnings scams, Ogdensburg police Lt. Harry J. McCarthy said. They are desperate to try anything. Sometimes they put a lot of research into it. Theyll check the Internet and obituaries.
As in the case of the Ahrenses, scammers usually target the elderly, Mr. McCarthy said.
That doesnt mean someone should hang up on a loved one, but they should try to connect with the subject or get in touch with the local police department to confirm the information, he said.
Many of the perpetrators use blocked numbers, Skype and untraceable methods of communication, Mr. McCarthy said, which makes them nearly impossible to find.
Many of the calls come from Canada, Nigeria and New York City, Mr. McCarthy said.
Gina Ahrens said she hopes sharing her story will help another family in the future.
I dont want anyone else to have to go through this, she said. Both my in-laws are over 80 years old. I dont know who is doing this but it takes an awful person to do something like this.