My Grandmother’s Favorite Scammer
BEIJING — One day last winter my mother sent me an odd message over WeChat. “Has Laolao said anything strange to you today?” she asked.I immediately sensed that something was amiss. My mother is a typical Chinese parent. She always feels obliged to withhold bad news from me until she has no other choice. Why was she worried about my grandmother?
I thought back to my most recent visit to Laolao’s shabby apartment here. She had just turned 88, and other than the usual age-related forgetfulness and grumbling about kids these days, she was her usual self.
My mother’s next message unnerved me even more. “Was she of sound mind?”
“You have to tell me what’s going on,” I messaged back.
My mother informed me with uncharacteristic transparency that Laolao had asked for my parents’ bank account PIN, and urged my mother to trust her and not ask questions. Flustered, my mother had already turned over the PIN.
I fought the urge to berate her and began to scour the internet for information on bank scams that involved sworn secrecy. My heart sank when results filled my screen, describing our situation exactly. I was in an airport, on a business trip, so I messaged Laolao’s assistant at her office and told her to freeze all my grandmother’s bank accounts. But it turned out the bank couldn’t do anything unless Laolao herself requested it.
By this point, my family was mobilized, but Laolao was stonewalling. All she would say was, “This goes deeper than any of you realize.”
My laolao （the northern Chinese word for maternal grandmother） is an exceedingly proud woman. As a teenager during the 1940s, she was an operative in an underground Communist resistance movement fighting Kuomintang rule, and I grew up on stories of her astonishing achievements. She was a single mother, and worked as a civil servant in Beijing through decades of political upheaval. She had gone up against impossible odds all of her life.
So I was amazed, but not exactly surprised, when, in her 60s, she began a second career in bankruptcy reorganization with the energy of someone decades younger. In Chinese, we have a word, fu lao （“to yield to aging”） It is about accepting change, admitting defeat. Laolao would not yield. She treated aging as just another trivial obstacle, not something that would ever humble her.
And that was her weakness. The scammers convinced Laolao that they were an elite government task force trying to bust an international crime ring, and they needed her help. This elaborate fantasy involved secret meetings, daily calls on a dedicated phone, call signs, and at least one dead drop.
“I didn’t put two and two together, but your grandmother has been making strange phone calls the last couple of weeks,” her assistant told me.
I tried to call Laolao again. When she didn’t pick up after several attempts, I started to assume the worst. The scammers knew that we had discovered what happened, I thought, and they had taken her money and killed her. With shaky hands, I called the police.
When the emergency operator picked up, I was sobbing. She calmly asked me for Laolao’s address and transferred me to the police station in her neighborhood. I forced myself to speak. “My grandmother was a victim of a phone scam, and now I can’t reach her,” I said. “I’m afraid her life is in danger and —”
“We picked her up an hour ago,” an officer informed me. “She called us about 90 minutes ago, reporting that she has been involved in a phone scam, so we brought her to the station. She’s giving her statement now.”
A few moments later, Laolao was on the phone, sounding as if this were the most ordinary thing in the world.
“Laolao is fine,” she told me. “I’m just writing down what happened for the officers. I’m fine.”
“I’m going to fly over to be with you.”
“No need. I am fine.”
By the time I got to her apartment the next morning, the police had informed me that her bank accounts were empty. She had lost almost all of the money she had carefully put away over more than 70 years. I expected to be greeted by a distraught, unkempt old woman, but Laolao looked just as she always did. Her eyebrows were neatly drawn, her face was relaxed, even peaceful, as she explained what happened.
The basic narrative was a classic: Someone called and told her that her identity had been compromised. That she was implicated in a money-laundering case with hundreds of millions on the line, and that she would soon be arrested. The same scam has been plaguing Chinese immigrants all over the United States, as well as in mainland China, Taiwan, Japan and elsewhere. I had always sneered at the victims for trusting strangers on the phone. Who could be so gullible? But these scammers get to know their marks thoroughly and are adept at ensnaring their prey.
After they got Laolao’s attention, a handler impersonated a government official and appealed to her to cooperate with his team to clear her name. He was eloquent and convinced her that her country was depending on her to do what he asked and agree to strict secrecy, effectively isolating her.
Under his meticulous direction, Laolao purchased a burner phone and communicated with him under the call sign “Eagle.” After two weeks of constant contact, Laolao was picked up and taken to a remote hotel, where she was instructed to turn over her bank information so that the task force could use it to trace the maneuvers of the criminals. Laolao told me she had some misgivings, but complied.
I briefly wondered if this lapse of judgment was a sign that her mind was going. I had never known her to make decisions without feeling absolutely sure. But I had missed her real vulnerability.
“I was really impressed with the scammer,” Laolao told me. “He was quite a high-caliber individual. He was so eloquent and natural, and he sounded so dedicated to the welfare of our country, which is something I have devoted my entire life to. We were like instant old friends; he understood me completely, and very tenderly asked after my well-being and health every day.”
The truth none of us wanted to face, least of all Laolao, was how alienated she felt, from her family and everyone else. She was once a woman in complete control, and she had given China a lifetime of service. She survived Land Reform, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. As a government official, she helped shape national policy, and there was a time when she was involved in every major family decision.
But she had become stranded in a country she no longer recognized. She complained about the news vendors who refused to accept cash, the taxis that ignored her, the smartphones that wouldn’t respond to her elderly fingers. Laolao railed about the old ways being swept away, and we, her family, could do nothing but help her pay bills on her phone. We couldn’t turn back time and return her to a world she understood.
Those charming scammers turned out to be the perfect antidote. They spun an irresistible fantasy of a high-stakes patriotic mission where her actions and commitment mattered, where a mysterious, well-spoken man made her feel relevant and in control. “If he ever gets caught I should like to speak to him again,” she told me. “He’s so talented that he could be rehabilitated to do some good.”
In the days after her trip to the police station, I noticed that her apartment complex had been plastered with warnings: “Do not become involved in scams and give out private information to strangers.” That seemed to be the limit of what anyone could, or would do.
It’s been months since Laolao’s misadventure, and she has returned to work and her orderly, frugal life. But every now and then, when she starts complaining about all the ways young people disappoint her, she reminisces about her former handler, how naturally their conversation flowed, how attentively he listened. “I know he was just winning my trust to get my money, but if he didn’t choose this life he could be doing great things for our country.” Laolao told me, “If they ever caught him I should like to make friends with him.”
In a twisted way, she misses him. It’s a sharp reminder for me of how we have all failed, as a family and as a society, to help her feel less alone. In China, we like to believe we honor the elderly. We pamper them with gifts of fancy fruit baskets, imported foods and other indulgences.
But this shallow perspective on aging infantilizes the elderly and neglects to preserve their dignity. They are people who have “consumed more salt than we have of rice,” as the saying goes. They deserve better.