Portola Valley: Con men scam local author and physician


It can happen to the best and the brightest, apparently. Physician, author, speaker and world traveler Walter Bortz of Portola Valley was duped out of thousands of dollars by con men in a crafty telephone scam.

Dr. Bortz is the author of six books, including "Dare to be 100" and "Living Longer for Dummies." He and his wife, Ruth Anne Bortz -- their bank account now lighter by $5,000 -- sat down with the Almanac at their Westridge area home on Aug. 7 to talk about the scam.

Between 7:30 and 8 a.m. on Monday, July 28, the phone rang, Dr. Bortz said. On the line was a sobbing male voice claiming to be the couple's grandson.

This "grandson" apologized for the early hour, then told a tale of a beer-drinking escapade the night before that, through no fault of his own, ended badly. Dr. Bortz, who is 84, said the voice sounded authentic, as did the location. His grandson lives in San Francisco, surfs in the area and enjoys Santa Cruz, Dr. Bortz said.

"It had verisimilitude to it," he said. "For him, hanging out and having some drinks in Santa Cruz is totally valid."

The circumstances painted a picture of a victim caught up in events. The grandson had been in a taxicab being driven recklessly by a cabbie under the influence, the story went. When police stopped the cab, they found drugs and a gun in the trunk.

Both cabbie and passenger (the grandson) were arrested. While in jail, the grandson had been beaten, leaving him with a broken nose, Dr. Bortz said he was told.

He said he thought he had recognized his grandson's voice. "I was completely taken in," he said. "Everything he said had a viability to it and they pulled that off adequately. I like to think that I am worldly wise (and yet) I got snookered into this one. But I guess it shows that I'm a nice grandfather."

The grandson turned the phone over to a "police officer," Dr. Bortz said. The officer said a judge had set aside 10 a.m. that same morning to make a decision in the case. To save his grandson from the negative consequences of appearing in court, Dr. Bortz needed to follow a specific procedure to arrange a $5,000 bond, the officer said.

Dr. Bortz was told to go to his bank and withdraw $5,000 in cash, then go to the Safeway supermarket in Sharon Heights and buy $5,000 in prepaid cash cards, then call the officer back and read him the card numbers to complete the money transfer.

Dr. Bortz said the bank teller asked him why he was withdrawing $5,000. Why would she have asked that question? "She was just trying to be protective of me (in) the situation," he said.

But instead of answering truthfully, he lied, he said. The officer had told him that "it would influence the court if any of this got out," Dr. Bortz said he was told.

After transferring the money, Dr. Bortz called back and received a surly response. After more calls, he got the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office involved, his daughter Gretchen Lieff said.

Think on your feet

If he could craft a warning, how would he word it? "I don't think any warning would have protected me from this," Dr. Bortz said. "My grandson is in jail and they beat him up and broke his nose? They represented it to a degree that I bought it."

"It bothers me, I guess in the abstract, that there's that segment (of the population) out there roaming," he said. "Their antennas are up to every opportunity. ... Nice guys finish last."

That segment defrauds people out of millions of dollars every year, often combining "age-old tricks" with new technology, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

"People don't ask enough questions," said Nicole Acker of the Menlo Park Police Department. "I don't know how to really word (a warning)," she said. "The only thing we can do is continue to put out the information. If it doesn't sound right, it probably isn't right."

Go to this link for more on the latest scams.

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Like this comment
Posted by It's an old scam
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Aug 13, 2014 at 10:56 am

[Disrespectful post removed]

Like this comment
Posted by Wendy
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 13, 2014 at 12:05 pm

This shows how protective we need to be with our elders, even when they seem sharp. This was so clearly a scam, but the kind hearted couple were not able to navigate the scam.

Like this comment
Posted by Astounded
a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Aug 13, 2014 at 12:15 pm

I am often amazed by the lack of heart some posters display here in our little town newspaper's comment section.

Are you feeling superior now that you've contributed this dismissive, impersonal cliché, It's? Would that be why you posted it? Is it an attempt to alleviate your lack of self-worth?

By the way, a lack of heart is much more disturbing than a lack of $5000. Maybe consider taking a long, hard look at yourself. You have a lot to learn.

Like this comment
Posted by Don Caddes
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Aug 13, 2014 at 12:30 pm

We have had two "grandson with a broken nose" calls in the past year. Both times, the "grandson" was in Mexico, with money needed for medical care. The con men had quite a bit of correct information, presumably from Facebook or other social media sources, but they did not know that the grandson being impersonated does not call my wife "Grandma". That, plus knowing someone who was scammed for roughly $10k kept us from getting sucked in. The Menlo Park police have tried to publicize this and other schemes for preying on old people, but people do get caught off guard.

Like this comment
Posted by Debbie Mytels
a resident of another community
on Aug 13, 2014 at 12:45 pm

Thank you, Dr. Bortz, for sharing your story. It's admirable of your to give us this important reminder to be cautious. A scam like this also happened to a good friend of mine, also a Portola Valley resident and another person who's usually savvy -- and a caring grandparent!

Perhaps one thing that we might do when receiving such a "call from a grandson" is to simply complete the initial call -- and then make a confirmation call to the (real) grandson at his number, just to make sure.

Like this comment
Posted by Margot Knight
a resident of Woodside: Kings Mountain/Skyline
on Aug 13, 2014 at 2:25 pm

Excellent story. . . and to Dr. Bortz? THANKS for sharing your story, as embarrassing as it must have been. It won't bring your money back but you may have saved others from the same fate. Honesty and willingness to share and learn is what creates TRUE community. You have my admiration.

Like this comment
Posted by Carey
a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Aug 13, 2014 at 2:27 pm

Same exact wording happened to my elder friend claiming to be her nephew... with the pretend cop on the phone as well.. jerks trying to swindle good meaning, kind, elderly people.. shame on them!

Like this comment
Posted by Thank you
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Aug 13, 2014 at 2:57 pm

Thanks to Dr. Bortz for sharing this story to help others and not feeling embarrassed about it, as he should not. I have met both him and his wife, and they are both great people. Lots of elders are falling for this scam. Yes, when you read about someone getting taken in, it seems obvious it was a scam. I'm pretty sure when it's happening to you, with all of the emotions, it doesn't seem as obvious. As I said on the other thread, the people perpetrating this scam are amongst the lowest forms of life on earth.

Like this comment
Posted by pearl
a resident of another community
on Aug 13, 2014 at 3:22 pm

pearl is a registered user.

Dr. Bortz said the bank teller asked him why he was withdrawing a large sum of cash. She did the correct thing. Bank tellers, utility workers, telephone workers, mail carriers, delivery people, first responders, medical personnel, etc., are what is known as "mandated reporters", that is, when they suspect a scam or illegal activity might be taking place, they are authorized to report it to their supervisors, who can then turn the information over to the authorities for investigation.

And, as concerns seniors, aside from scams of the kind described in this article, it is also not uncommon for a family member, often a son or grandson, to trick parents or grandparents into turning over their Social Security and retirement checks to them under false pretenses.

Anyone who suspects scam activities of these kinds, or otherwise, are taking place should call San Mateo County Aging & Adult Services at 1-800-675-8437, 24 hours per day, to report the suspected illegal activity. You can remain anonymous when reporting the information, if you wish. Your taxpayer dollars are paying for this service, so take advantage of it if you suspect something illegal is going on regarding seniors or anyone else, for that matter.

Like this comment
Posted by Clue
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Aug 13, 2014 at 7:54 pm

I'm so sorry for Dr Borz's experience, but props to him for sharing it.

The real tip-off that something was awry was the business with the prepaid cards. No official agency would deal with those -- maybe a cheque, maybe a CC payment, even cash at the counter, but in any case something traceable. It would also be advisable in such circumstances to determine the police dept in question, and to call them back through their switchboard at their publicly published number rather than the number handed out.

Like this comment
Posted by Ladera Physician
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Aug 13, 2014 at 10:18 pm

Thank you so much for sharing this Dr Bortz. If it could happen to you, it could happen to anyone. I am going to forward the article to my parents. Hopefully your willingness to share this experience will help prevent many others from being victims.

Like this comment
Posted by gunste
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Aug 14, 2014 at 1:07 pm

gunste is a registered user.

My supposed grandson contacted me with a similar story. The odd voice made a few critical errors that alerted me to the scam almost immediately. He called me by the wrong "name", told me a location that was local, while my grandson was in Spain at the time.
The mode of payment should have been a give away. No court operates that way.

Like this comment
Posted by Glenn
a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Aug 15, 2014 at 2:36 pm

Glenn is a registered user.

Just got a "Hi Grandpa" call today, 8/15. The caller said he had strep throat and wanted to know if I knew of his "trip." I knew it wasn't my grandson and tried to ask questions about how he was and what doctor he was seeing - he said "the clinic." He said the trip was to South America. I must have asked too many questions because he eventually hung up on me without making a request.
This is just to let you know this is a current scam.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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