Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 4, 2011

News Digest

Palo Alto Realtor target of 'grandparents' scam

Ann Griffiths a well-known real-estate agent, wants everyone to know about a scam to which she fell prey on Jan. 25 — one that can devastate the life savings of seniors.

Griffiths was scammed out of nearly $11,000 after con artists impersonating her grandson led her to believe he had been arrested in Barcelona, Spain.

"I'm lucky. It could've been worse," she said Thursday (Feb. 3).

"I had saved some money for a trip to Paris this summer with my granddaughters. It's gone now."

Griffiths said she was in a board meeting at Coldwell Banker, where she is a broker, when her phone rang. The voice on the other end sounded like her grandson, Ryan.

"Hey, Grandma," the voice said.

But Griffiths said her supposed grandson's voice didn't sound quite right.

"Ryan, you don't sound OK," she said.

"Well, I'm in Barcelona, Spain," the voice said.

The real Ryan is a student at U.C. Santa Barbara, but the Ryan on the phone explained that he'd won a radio contest for a trip to Barcelona and he had taken a friend along. Griffiths pointed out that he didn't have a passport. "Ryan" said the radio station had taken care of the problem and he had checked into a five-star hotel.

But he said he and his friend were in a Spanish jail after having met two young people from Canada on the beach. The young men went backpacking and got into the Canadian youths' car to do some sightseeing, the impersonator said. Police pulled them over and found drugs in the car, he claimed.

Griffiths said "Ryan" made her promise not to tell anyone in the family. But he handed the phone to a policeman named Ted Peterson who said he handled law-enforcement issues for the U.S. embassy in Spain. He assured Griffiths that "Ryan" and his friends had not been in possession of drugs but he needed her to wire $2,500 bail to get her grandson out of jail.

Griffiths said she wanted to protect Ryan at all costs, and the idea that he was being held in a foreign country played deeply to her emotions. Griffiths said she wasn't suspicious because $2,500 wasn't much money for bail, since her late husband had been an attorney.

Two further phone calls asked for more money, including $5,600 in "legal fees." Ultimately, Griffiths smelled a rat and called the Palo Alto police.

Griffiths called her real grandson's cell phone and he answered. The real Ryan said he knew nothing about the scam and had been in Santa Barbara the entire time taking a physics exam, Griffiths said.

Police told her the con artists get hold of cell-phone numbers and use another number to cover their tracks.

"You feel violated. But I'm not angry, I'm thankful," she said, happy that she did not lose more.

Griffiths is a former president of Peninsula Volunteers at Little House in Menlo Park, which caters to seniors. She said she wants people to know how easy it is to be taken advantage of and to never provide important information that can lead to identity theft.

"If I can save just one grandparent...." she said of her decision to come forward.

Alcohol, speed caused Stanford scholar's fatal crash

A Stanford University visiting scholar who died in a car crash on rain-slicked Middlefield Road Dec. 18 had a blood-alcohol level more than twice the legal limit and was driving at 50 to 60 mph on the 25 mph road, according to Palo Alto police.

Rune Thode Nielsen, 25, was driving southbound on Middlefield when his vehicle struck a sign on the west side of the street, then slammed into a tree and ricocheted off a parked vehicle before coming to rest in the front yard of a home near the intersection at Hawthorne Avenue at 12:50 a.m., according to police. Paramedics pronounced him dead at the scene.

The Santa Clara County Medical Examiner-Coroner's Office told Palo Alto police investigators that Nielsen's blood-alcohol level was 0.212, according to police spokeswoman Lt. Sandra Brown. The legal limit is 0.08.

Police investigators also determined Nielsen was traveling at approximately 50-60 mph.

"This is determined by the damage to the vehicle (crush), the damage to the tree and the resting location of the vehicle. Fire personnel were on scene and tried life-saving measures to no avail. He was apparently at a party earlier in the evening and was observed drinking," Brown said.

Nielsen, a Danish national from Copenhagen, studied nanotechnology and "had a huge network of friends," a source said after his death.

He was a resident of the St. Claire Gardens neighborhood on Palo Alto.

— Sue Dremann

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