June 26, 2011
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It began late one evening when Harriet, already in bed, answered a call from someone claiming to be a police officer. The caller said that Harriet’s grandson was in a car accident while traveling in Canada and needed some money to tow and fix the car. “Could you please wire some money to us so we can get him on his way home?
“Oh, and please, Grandma,” the alleged officer said, “don’t tell his parents, since they didn’t know he was taking this trip.” By the way, Grandma, what a big checking account you have.
Yes, it’s a scam.
Sometimes the caller claims to be a lawyer or a close friend and — even more boldly — the grandchild herself, often with a less serious problem such as a missing wallet, lost airline ticket needed to get back from spring break, or a stolen credit card while traveling in Europe. The “grandparent scam” can also happen by email after access to email accounts has been compromised.
Regardless of the story, one red flag is that it always ends up with a request to have money wired immediately. Using cold-reading techniques, the scammers get you to provide the information they need. For example, when you answer the phone and the caller says “Hi, Grandma” it’s easy to respond with, “Is that you Billy?” Of course, the caller says “Yes, and I need your help,” and then proceeds to weave the trap.
Sure, many times the recipient of the late night call does not have any grandchildren, but it only takes a few correct guesses among hundreds of calls for the scammer to hit a jackpot, often averaging several thousand dollars each.
And with lots of personal and family information available on social networking sites, con artists now come prepared with relatives’ names, travel itineraries, and school and graduation information, making their probes more credible.
Critical thinking points us to several key patterns. For one, there is always a cry for immediate help — there can be no waiting, so wire money right away. And so there is no time to check the facts by alerting other relatives, and just in case, please don’t tell mom or dad or someone who might pop the bubble, the scammer pleads.
To add insult to injury, in a few cases, victims received calls from a scammer posing as an attorney who just happened to learn about their unfortunate recent financial fraud and can offer legal assistance — for a reasonable fee, of course.
Skeptic that you are, take the time to ask a few questions of people posing as a relative, or friend of the relative, that require answers only a family member would know, such as the name of a favorite pet or someone’s middle name. Be sure this same information is not readily available on a Facebook page or other public website. It’s also not too farfetched to give each family member a secret code word or phrase that could be used in emergencies to verify the caller (may we recommend “I love reading Miller-McCune”?).
Financial elder abuse is not limited to the “grandparent scam.” Reports of other scams on the rise include the “home repair fraud,” in which someone appears at the door and claims there are problems with your roof or hot water heater or electrical system. Of course, the phony contractor will do the work for you at a bargain rate, especially if you agree right now and pay a fee to lock in the special price. Maybe later the workers will actually return to repair the problem, or will do so using shoddy materials.