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Posted at 8:01 AM ET, 12/17/2010

Phone scam targets grandparents

By Josh White
Josh White

The phone rings. When the elderly woman answers, a panicked caller on the other end claims to be a grandchild or another relative in urgent need of help.

There's been an accident, or an arrest, or a hospital visit. They are in the Dominican Republic or Canada, or England. They need cash, immediately, or there will be consequences.

Though on their surface believable, the calls are part of a widespread criminal scam targeting the elderly.

Authorities in more than a dozen states and across Canada are investigating similar calls over the past few months in what appears to be a resurgence of a fraud scheme that began a few years ago.

The Better Business Bureau of Metro Washington D.C. and Eastern Pennsylvania said it has encountered an increase in reports of these calls in the region over the past year.

Authorities in California, Florida, North Carolina, Oregon and Wisconsin have reported similar calls.

In some cases, flustered and well-meaning grandparents have sent thousands of dollars via untraceable wire transfers -- only to learn that their loved ones were safe and that the unidentified caller had bilked them of large chunks of their savings.

"We first started seeing this in 2008, and there was a resurgence of it in the first part of this year," said Edward Johnson, President and CEO of the regional Better Business Bureau. "We'll continue to see it because it's successful. ... This scam really is despicable because it preys on the emotions of grandparents and older adults because they're trying to protect the interests of their loved ones."

Johnson pointed to the case of a 78-year-old grandmother in Falls Church who received a call recently. The caller, pretending to be a relative, said they were in Canada and desperately needed $1,732 for medical bills related to a hit-and-run accident.

She couldn't pay, and she felt horrible because she didn't have the money.

"She said she would send what she could, then got wise, called the BBB and was much relieved, and angry, when she learned from the BBB that it was a scam," Johnson said.

In September, the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney's Office warned that several local law enforcement agencies in California had reported almost identical scam phone calls.

Dubbed the "Grandparent Scam," authorities in California said a caller claimed to be a grandchild in a Dominican Republic jail and then passed the phone to an "officer" who asked for a wire transfer of more than $5,000. After sending the money, the callers asked for more. The grandparent later learned that the real grandchild was safe.

"The District Attorney's Office would like to remind elders in such situations that they should make inquiries to establish the true identity of the individual contacting them," the California office said in a news release. "Victims should be very wary of requests for money transfers and never provide bank account, credit card, or personal identification information to any caller.

Earlier this week, a member of my extended family was targeted with exactly such a phone call. Someone pretending to be me said that they were in the Dominican Republic and needed immediate financial help.

The caller had very basic information -- such as that I live in the Washington area -- and other details that easily could have been gleaned from public Internet searches or possibly by using an online family tree web site.

Tough luck for the scammer: My family member knows my voice and immediately knew that it wasn't me calling. The caller couldn't answer basic questions -- such as what I do for a living, or my wife's name -- and got flustered.

But so did my relative. The incident was troubling and evoked emotion. A quick call to me verified that I was in Virginia and not the Carribean. Then I did a Google search and confirmed that it was an all-too-common scam.

Not everyone is so alert or able to separate the scam from a possible reality.

Law enforcement officials, the Better Business Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission urge people who receive such calls to be skeptical and ask lots of questions.

They also recommend never sending wire transfers to someone you don't know, as the transfers are like cash: Once they're gone, they're gone for good.

The scam continues because it works. Increasingly, callers like these are able to use social networking websites, easily obtainable information and random call lists to target those who are most vulnerable. A little information can be enough to convince someone that they're legitimate.

"What is sad about senior citizens as a scam target is that they are robbed not only of their money, but also of their dignity, trust and independence," Johnson said. "These scams usually revolve around some sense of urgency, and these grandparents get caught off-guard and end up making emotional decisions instead of logical ones."

By Josh White  | December 17, 2010; 8:01 AM ET
Categories:  Around the Nation, Cons & Scams, Financial Crimes, Identity Theft, Josh White  
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This happened to my parents, who live in Florida. A man called them and claimed to be my oldest nephew. My mother, who answered the phone, can't remember whether she used my nephew's name first, or the caller did, but if it was the latter, the caller might have gotten the name off of my dad's Facebook page (which I have since locked down for him). The caller claimed to have been arrested in Canada and in need of money for bail. Luckily, my mother immediately knew by the voice that it was NOT my nephew (who has a very deep voice) and also because my nephew was then in the military and deployed in Qatar, and definitely not on vacation in Canada. She hung up and called the police.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | December 17, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

Sadly not enough people question the call and immediately try to "help". Its actually a very common scam and works a surprising number of times.
But there are still folks falling for the Nigerian royalty scams and they've been around for years.

Posted by: BigDaddy651 | December 17, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

It's sad that there are people who would prey on people's emotions for quick cash. However, I have to call into suspect those who fall for this. First one should know the voice of a relative. Secondly, if it's a distant or a relative they are not in regular contact with shouldn't one try to verify first that their niece, nephew, or grandchildren are indeed in such a perilous predicament. I don't see how anyone should fall for this.

Posted by: jab00 | December 17, 2010 7:41 PM | Report abuse

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