Scammed: Con artists often prey on heartstrings of senior citizens

July 19, 2012|By MARIE GILBERT |
  • Its the kind of telephone call no grandparent wants to receive. Theres been an accident involving their grandchild. Or an arrest. "Please send money immediately!" So they do. But it's not real. It's a scam. Local law enforcement officials say they get reports of scams against seniors two or three times a week. And they think only about one in eight victims report the scam.
Photo illustration by Kevin G. Gilbert

It’s the kind of telephone call no grandparent wants to receive.

There’s been an accident. Or an arrest. Or an injury that has resulted in a trip to the emergency room.

The grandchild desperately pleads for money.

Could you wire it now to post bail or pay for medical treatment? And, by the way, don’t tell Mom or Dad. It will only worry them.

The rub?

There’s been no accident. No legal problems. No time spent in a hospital.

And it’s not a relative who wants the money. It’s a con artist tugging at an older adult’s heartstrings.

It’s called the grandparent scam — another in a long list of frauds that target senior citizens.

The con has been around for years, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). But, today, it’s become more advanced, with perpetrators now using the Internet and social media web sites to research potential targets, where names, addresses and birth dates are easily found.

They also randomly dial telephone numbers — using prepaid throwaway cell phones — until they reach an older individual.

But, regardless of how they find their target, the scenario is usually the same: A grandparent receives a phone call from a so-called “grandchild” claiming to be in an emergency situation. He’s in a foreign country where there’s been a mugging. He’s been arrested for driving while intoxicated or has been involved in an accident that has resulted in a visit to the emergency room.

The voice might not sound like the grandchild’s, but he’s talking excitedly and loud so the grandparent believes he must be scared. There also might be a lot of background noise, making it difficult to hear clearly.

They lace their conversation with correct references to other family members, increasing their credibility.

Sometimes, the con artist hands the phone over to an accomplice who pretends to be a police officer, lawyer or doctor and further spins the fake tale.

And while it’s called the grandparent scam, criminals might also claim to be a niece or nephew or another family member.

The goal, says the FBI, is to catch relatives off guard, play on their emotions and separate them from thousands of dollars — which they request be sent through Western Union or MoneyGram, making it difficult to trace or recover.

Last year, more than 25,000 older Americans reported sending $110 million to scammers posing as family members and claiming an injury or arrest, according to an AARP report.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, the report noted. At most, only about 8 percent of victims ever report the crime.

If you’ve heard about such incidents but thought it’s something that would happen somewhere else, think again.

The scam has come to Maryland.

In Ocean City, Md., for instance, a woman recently was bilked out of $2,000 after receiving a call from someone claiming to be her grandson who was in trouble in St. Lucia and needed financial assistance.

Locally, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office  receives about two to three calls a week pertaining to the grandparent scam, said Deputy 1st Class Carly Hose.

“It’s definitely happening in Washington County,” she said. “But it’s hard to know the exact number of people targeted because not everyone reports it.”

One reason is embarrassment.

“Victims can’t believe that they fell for such a scam,” Hose noted. “It’s a bit of Monday morning quarterbacking. They didn’t see the signs at the time, but after thinking back on what happened, they wonder how they could have allowed themselves to get drawn in. That goes with any scam. People feel foolish, they feel embarrassed, so they don’t want others to know.”

But it’s important to report such incidents — even if you’re not a victim, Hose stressed.

“It gives us the information we need to better serve the community. It helps us make the public aware of such crimes and also aids in prevention,” she explained.

Hose said the con artists, who often are phoning from out of state or out of the country, “are very smart, very organized and have an answer for every question. There is so much information available to them online. There are search engines that will give them names of everyone related to you and other basic background.

“So always be suspicious,” she stressed. “If it doesn’t sound right, it probably isn’t right. Go with that gut feeling. And never send money to anyone without verifying all the information. These criminals are hoping you’ll react on emotion that will override common sense. So stop and think and explore before sending money.”

Hose urged individuals who have been victims or who have received such phone calls to contact the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

“The best way to fight crime is to stay one step ahead of it,” she said.

How to avoid a scam

The following tips on phone scam prevention have been provided by the FBI:

• Resist the pressure to act quickly.

• Ask the caller questions that would be difficult for an impostor to answer correctly — for example, the name of their first pet or an important date that most other people wouldn’t know.

• Try to contact your grandchild or another family member to determine whether or not the call is legitimate.

• Never wire money based on a request made over the telephone or in an email, especially overseas. Wiring money is like giving cash. Once you send it, you can’t get it back.

• Contact your local authorities or state consumer protection agency if you think you’ve been victimized. Also, file a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center or IC3, which not only forwards complaints to the appropriate agencies, but collates and analyzes the data looking for common threads that link complaints and help identify the culprits.

• Be vigilant about the information you post online, which scammers can try to use against you or your loved ones.

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