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  • Writer's pictureJoseph F. Berenato

On scammers, and stupidity, and letting sleeping dogs lie

Be careful when strangers demand money over the phone. (Courtesy Photo)

Here’s a story from the “You Never Think It’ll Happen to You” files.

A few weeks ago, at about 6:50 a.m., my dad called me. Naturally, I thought somebody died.


“Joe, do you know where your son is?” he asked.

“Yeah. Norfolk. Why?”

“I just got a call saying he’s in jail in East Rutherford.”

Huh? Why was Justin in Bergen County?

Dad went on, saying that the person on the phone, who only identified himself as my dad’s oldest grandson, said that he was in jail for a DUI and needed $3,000 for bail. He gave my father the number for his public defender, and asked Dad not to tell anyone—so of course, Dad called me. He gave me the number so I could call and find out what was actually going on, because the situation seemed rather suspect on its face.

As I dialed, my wife Googled the number, which yielded no results.

A person answered the phone, identifying himself as David Bell, who said my son was being held in Union County Jail in Elizabeth.

Robyn pointed out that this was neither the city nor county that my father was told.

He said my son hadn’t been arraigned yet, and if I sent $3,000 he wouldn’t even be charged.

“Wait. How does he have a public defender if he hasn’t been arraigned? Why is he in county if there haven’t even been charges filed?” I asked.

“I know it’s confusing, but the court needs you to send the money. If you do, I can make sure no charges are filed.”

Ah. OK.

“I need you to send the money Western Union, sir. And they only accept cash. Can you do that?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I figured that’s how this was going to go.”

The individual said they would text me the necessary info, and hung up.

Meanwhile, Robyn looked up and verified that there is, in fact, no licensed attorney registered in the state of New Jersey by that name. She also found an article from the most recent issue of AARP The Magazine, detailing calls of precisely this nature, which are made either very late at night or very early in the morning, designed to confuse the elderly.

Strike one. My father is 71, and does not like to be called “elderly.”

Strike two. They called my dad at 6 a.m. He had been up since 5:30 a.m. When he answered the phone, he did not say “hello.”

Instead, he said, “Are you out of your [expletive deleted] mind calling here this early?”

Were I the caller, I would have said, “Clearly, sir. My apologies,” hung up, and called it a day.

I called my dad back and told him what Robyn found. He had thought the affair smelled bad, but had called me just in case my boy actually was in trouble.

After we hung up, I messaged my son: “Can you call your grandfather to let him know you’re not in Union County Jail in Elizabeth, N.J. please?”

Justin, who is in the Navy and was on a ship at the time, called me two minutes later.

He was very confused.

After I gave him the score, he called my old man.

“You’re the last person I’d call if I got in trouble,” he told Dad. “You don’t voluntarily call the Grim Reaper!”

So, after the span of just over an hour, we confirmed that my boy was not in jail, nobody got bilked out of three grand and “David Bell” never texted me.

At the end of the day—it was a long one—he did, however, have the gall to call me back while I was napping.

“Hi, this is public defender David Bell.”

Oh no, buddy boy. You don’t interrupt my sleep twice with this nonsense. I informed the guy that I knew my son wasn’t in prison and that there is no such lawyer by that name.

His response?

“Of course!”

This guy.

I said a few more things—interspersed with several descriptive, colorful metaphors—and hung up.

I called my dad back and told him what happened. He was flabbergasted.

“You know,” he said, “I was going to let it go, but if you keep poking at ashes, a flame’s gonna pop up.”

So he called the FBI.

These stories are common; there’s a man from Florida currently wanted by the police for successfully pulling a similar scam—to the tune of $10,000—on a couple in Barnegat. (Yes, we did notify that investigating detective, too, in case it’s the same guy.)

Be careful with who calls you. Be careful when strangers demand money over the phone. Always check with the individual in question to make sure they’re not actually in jail or the hospital. (Our kids actually have a phrase they use if they call a sibling—and they are actually in trouble—as a safeguard. I think Robyn and I are the only ones who don’t know it.)

And don’t ever, ever call me or my family at some stupid hour with nonsense like this. You’ve clearly got to get up early in the morning to pull one over on us.

Even then, don’t try it. We’re surly and vengeful without caffeine.

Joseph F. Berenato began as a mild-mannered reporter for The Hammonton Gazette in 1997, and returned to that position in 2019 after an 18-year sabbatical, during which he farmed, taught, became a grandfather, dug graves and wrote, but never so prolifically as he has since his return. You can email him at or find him on social media at @JFBerenato and at


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