APRIL 2, 2012 VOLUME 19 NUMBER 13
We have been hearing lately about a scam that targets seniors. You get a telephone call from a number you don’t recognize. When you answer, the person on the other line says: “Grandma, it’s me, and I need your help.” You learn that your grandchild has been detained by the police in another country – Mexico, or maybe somewhere in the Caribbean. Something about an auto accident, perhaps, and unfamiliar laws in the foreign country. Your grandchild needs you to wire him or her money to pay for bail.
Significantly, the grandchild pleads with you not to notify his or her parents, because they’ll be angry. If you note that the grandchild’s voice sounds different, he or she will say that the police broke his or her nose during the course of the arrest. If you ask for a phone number, so you can call back, you’re told that this is an outgoing number at the police station and it’s not possible to call back. There’s no way to contact your grandchild again. You are instructed to go quickly to the bank, withdraw an amount that is usually slightly less than $5,000.00 (any more will attract the government’s attention) and arrange for a wire transfer.
If you have grandchildren you probably love them dearly. We suspect that if you got a call from a grandkid in trouble, you’d spring into action. Any questions you might have about the truthfulness of what you’re being told would be superseded by the stress and anxiety of learning that your grandchild was in serious trouble and needed your help urgently.
We know of several instances lately of our clients (or the parents or other family members of our clients) being targeted by this kind of scam. In one case, the grandmother was at Walmart attempting to wire funds when the store clerk alerted her that this was likely a scam and that she should call the grandchild, or his parent, before wiring any money. In another instance, the scam was discovered earlier in the process because the grandmother was known to her family by a nickname, and not as “Grandma.” She was immediately suspicious. But, worryingly, in that case, the person on the other end of the line identified herself using the actual name of a real granddaughter.
Of course it is despicable of scammers to play on a grandparent’s love for their grandchildren. Worse yet, they frighten and alarm their elderly victims. Please, if someone tries to spur you to action by playing on your fears, stop, take a deep breath, and apply a little skepticism before you proceed any further.
Other than health skepticism, what can you do to protect yourself? If this happens to you, ask your caller to recall a pet’s name, or a family vacation spot, or something that only your actual grandchild would know. Be cautious, however — the sophistication of scammers has increased as private details become widely available on the internet. In one case, for example, police reported that the caller knew that the victim they were calling had an identical twin, and even that the victim was two minutes younger than her sister.
What if this happens to a family member? If money has been wired, immediately contact the transfer company. If it has already been picked up it is too late, but even if the money is gone at least the authorities will have one more piece of data to stop future scams and maybe even locate your scammer. Contact the FBI or its Internet Crime Complaint Center to file a report. Unofficial agencies like the Better Business Bureau also track scam information and may be able to make other suggestions.
Worried that something like this might happen to a vulnerable senior in your family? Start by locking down their internet vulnerability — scammers often use e-mail malware to collect information about potential victims. Make sure your family member’s internet use is protected. Caution them about social media — trusting seniors might be inclined to share too much sensitive and personal information online.
Make sure your family member knows to contact you before succumbing to a scammer’s pleas for confidentiality. Maybe you even want to adopt a family code word to signal that any caller is truly a family member. Please don’t inject unnecessary fear into your family member’s life, but make sure they have sufficient skepticism and the comfort to contact you or another family member no matter what a scammer might tell them.
Want to familiarize yourself with the kinds of scams working across the internet and through your neighborhood? Check out the Better Business Bureau’s “Scam Aggregator.” It might amaze, alarm and inform you all at the same time.