by Rob Dinsmoor
It started with that damn e-mail. “U.S.A. Patriot Bank is opening a new branch on May 22. Come join us for the Grand Opening Celebration. FREE REFRESHMENTS, FREE GIFTS, AND LIVE BAND!” It gave an address in Springfield, the next town over. What’s not to like?
I drove there and noticed right off it wasn’t the best part of town, but the U.S.A. Patriot logo lit up the building it was in, adding color to an otherwise nondescript façade. Despite the fact there were many cars along the street — nice cars like BMWs, Mercedes, and Lexus — there were plenty of parking spaces along the street in front of it. I parked my Volvo station wagon and got out.
I wasn’t the only one there, not by a long shot. I saw nearly a dozen people coming toward the entrance. They were older, like me, in their seventies or early eighties. Retirees.
There were also a few panhandlers asking for money. Some of them had scraggly facial hair, which I guess was in vogue. They reminded me of my nephew Ben, who had a low-paying job teaching special-needs kids and was always calling up and asking to “borrow” money. “Why don’t you get a job?” I called out to one of them, and he had the gall to answer back, “Why don’t you get a job, Grandpa?”
A little old lady behind me said, “Here you go, my friend!” and I saw her reach into her purse hand over a dollar bill to one of the bums. I shook my head. She would be lucky if she didn’t get mugged, now that all the bums realized she had money.
“Thank you very kindly, ma’am,” said the bum.
I held the door for the lady, and she said, “Thank you, sir!” as she passed through the door. Well, some of the old-time manners still mattered and were appreciated, I thought.
The inside of the bank was well decorated, with a nice wood table and leather chairs in the back office. There was confetti on the floor and, along the ceiling, multicolored balloons and banners that said, “Welcome to Our Grand Opening!” Loud big band music was coming through a glass partition from the spacious back room, which I assumed would ordinarily serve as a conference room.
On a large table in the conference room was a lush banquet with a giant chocolate cake in the middle. A serious-looking man in a three-piece suit and glasses took a gold-wrapped gift with a red bow out of a large bag and added it to a pile of gifts on the back of the banquet table. He momentarily paused to turn and wave.
And the band! The musicians were wearing tuxedos and black evening gowns with pearls. I felt heartened by the fact that affluent elderly native-born Americans like me were finally getting the respect we deserved.
A very attractive young lady in a teal business suit came up to shake my hand. Her perfume was intoxicating. “Welcome to our new branch! I’m Carol, the Assistant Branch Manager. Would you like to open an account with us? As a token of our appreciation, we’ll give you a free gift!”
“Sure!” I said. “What do I do?”
She pointed to a long row of terminals, all separated by little partitions like voting stalls, where about a dozen people were already filling out the forms.
She took off my coat for me and sat me down at one of the terminals. “Just fill in the on-line application here. The minimum balance is only fifty dollars!”
I began filling out the long on-line form. There were the usual blanks to fill out like, name, address, and phone number. Because I was always a hunter and pecker, it took a while and I kept swearing under my breath as I mistyped important information. I figured I’d have to go back and check a couple of times after I filled it out.
I looked up from my computer screen and into the back room. The man in the business suit pulled another gift out of the bag and put it on the banquet table, pausing to smile and wave. Something bothered me about this, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
Then it came time to fill out my Social Security number. Now, how many times have I typed my Social Security number over the years? But, just as with my PIN number for my ATM card, I blanked out. I took my wallet out of my hip pocket and frantically started looking for my Social Security card.
I looked up at the back room. The man pulled a gift out of the bag, putting it on the banquet table, pausing to smile and wave. The scene was still making me feel funny. I was starting to get butterflies.
Carol noticed me staring at the man and asked, “Do you need help?”
“No, just looking for my Social Security card,” I said.
“Well, you won’t find it in the back room, silly!” she said, giggling. I ignored her. The man pulled a gift out of the bag, putting it on the banquet table, pausing to smile and wave. Then I realized: He was pulling the same gift out of the bag — a book-sized gift wrapped in gold paper and a gold ribbon. And each time he smiled and waved exactly the same way, like a... like a what? Like one of those annoying videos on Facebook. A GIF, I think they called it.
Just then, my cell phone rang and, boy, did it make me jump! The name “Ben” came up on the screen. “Hi, Ben. What is it?” I asked, knowing full well he was calling to ask for money.
“My old Subaru just croaked and I wanted to ask you... Say, what’s with all the music in the background?”
“I’m attending a Grand Opening of a new bank branch. In fact, I’m a little busy. This isn’t a good time!”
“A branch opening?” he asked in disbelief. “Uncle Bob, I—”
“I really can’t talk now. Talk to you later.” And I hung up.
And then the phone rang again, and I let it go straight to voicemail. And then it rang again. And again. I finally answered it. “What?” I shouted into the phone.
“Uncle Bob, you’ve got to get out of there!”
“What are you talking about? I’m in the middle of filling out an application for an account!”
“It’s a scam! I’ve been reading about it. You’ve got to get out of there!”
“But it’s the U.S.A. Patriot Bank. It’s legitimate,” I complained.
“Just cancel the application, if it’s not too late, and I’ll explain more to you once you’re out of there. If I haven’t convinced you within the next three minutes, you can go back inside and open an account. Is it a deal?”
I was inclined to listen to my nephew. After all, he had warned me about “phishing” and told me to check the addresses on seemingly legitimate e-mails. One time he even told me to unplug my computer when I’d given a so-called computer maintenance company my password and they’d started messing around inside it. “Okay,” I said. I stood up and put my coat back on again.
“You’re leaving?” Carol asked, sounding very disappointed. “But you haven’t finished filling out the form yet.”
“I have an important call to take,” I explained.
“Well, okay. But you might be forfeiting your chance at a free gift.”
“I’m sorry” is all I could think to say.
I stepped out of the building and stood next to the door. “Tell me what this is all about,” I said. The things he told me were as mind-blowing as they were upsetting. Though what he suggested sounded incredible, I had this nauseated feeling in my stomach that what he said was right.
“How many people are in there?”
“About a dozen, maybe more.”
“You’ve got to go back in and warn them!”
“They’ll think I’m crazy!”
“It’s the right thing to do, Uncle Bob! And after they know what’s going on, they’ll thank you!”
Again, I got the sick feeling that he was right and that I was duty-bound to fulfill the unpleasant task ahead of me. I went back inside. The serious-looking man in the conference room looked up again and waved. Carol turned and fixed her gaze on me. “Welcome back, Mr. Wilson!”
“Everybody listen up!” I called out. “I was just talking with my nephew, who’s very savvy about modern technology, and he told me this whole thing is a scam! You’ve all got to stop filling out the forms and get out of here!”
“Mr. Wilson! You’re upsetting people!” Carol said.
“My nephew has informed me that there’s a new scam out there, probably originating in Russia! The plush offices, the balloons, the banquet, the band — they’re all fake! They’re a holographic projection! We’re actually in an abandoned warehouse and these people are trying to get our important data!”
“But I shook Carol’s hand!” the little old lady said.
“She’s the only part of this whole thing that’s real, perfume and all!” I said.
“This is crazy,” Carol said. “I’m going back to get the Branch Manager and he can sort this whole thing out.”
She went to a room off to the right of the terminals and knocked on the door. Then she quietly slipped through the door. For several minutes, we waited for her to return with the Branch Manager. When that failed to happen, I went to the door and then rapped on it. There was no answer.
When I opened it, all there was behind it was a loading dock with an open bay door. “Carol” was long gone, leaving only the scent of her perfume. I was tempted to track her down like a bloodhound. “Holy crap!” I called out, and then there was a big collective gasp behind me.
I turned back to the room to discover a grimy-looking empty space of a warehouse. Everything was gone — the banquet, the band, the gifts, the balloons, and the banners. Everything was gone, that is, except for the cheap terminals where we’d entered our information. The screens stuttered and went dark, as if someone had pulled the plug on them.
The others came swarming around me, hugging me and patting me on the back. “Thank you so much! They really had me fooled!”
“It’s my nephew Ben you should thank! Here, let me get him on the phone.” I dialed his number.
“Did you tell them?”
“I did, and there’s something they have to say to you.”
“THANK YOU, BEN!” they called out in unison.
“How can I ever repay you?” I asked him.
“I was going to get to that. Could I borrow a coupla thousand dollars?”
Copyright © 2018 by Rob Dinsmoor