They’re all too common, and some can be heartbreaking.
They’re stories of older citizens who open their hearts and their wallets and hand over money to people they’ve never met. All the while, they believe they’re helping a family member or someone else who’s truly in need.
There were at least two reports within hours of each other to the Bangor Police Department earlier this month. A caller, pretending to be a grandchild, claimed to have been in an accident, then arrested, and needed money wired “right away” to get out of jail. One of the people who was called became suspicious and hung up; the other was not so fortunate and is out more than $2,000.
The calls were bogus. No one had been in an accident, and no one needed bail. It’s a ploy called the “grandparent scam.” As the name suggests, it plays upon the caring and concern of older citizens.
As they have rehearsed their stories, the scam artists believe they’ve covered every angle. They likely use cell phones so they can’t be found and prosecuted. If the person who is called says the caller “doesn’t sound like my grandson,” the scammer might say he injured his nose or mouth in the accident and that’s why his voice sounds odd.
The con artists tell victims to wire money to a specific bank account number, and they ask them to hurry because they “only have one phone call.” Note the two red flags. Wiring money to someone you think you know, but cannot really be sure, is perilous; there’s no way to stop a money transfer once you send it. The other red flag is the time pressure. Crooks don’t want you to spend even a second thinking logically. If sound reasoning takes over, their game is up.
We all want to do the right thing in case of a real emergency, so here’s a suggestion. Come up with a “safe” word or phrase you and your loved ones can use in case of a real problem. Make sure it’s not a mother’s-maiden-name type of word, which might be found in personal information. Thieves may already have access to that.
In fact, that’s how many scammers operate. In the past, burglars might look at newspaper obituaries for funeral listings, timing their thefts when family members’ homes would be vacant. Now they search online, through Facebook and other social networking sites, gleaning bits of information that members post without a second thought. They use those bits of data in their bogus phone calls to gain victims’ trust.
A recent incident reported to the Maine Attorney General’s office involved such a scam attempt. When the grandfather began to make arrangements with Western Union for the wire transfer, an employee there questioned him. The man and his wife had recently celebrated their 60th anniversary, and their grandson’s name was mentioned in the announcement. Although the “accident” supposedly took place in Canada, the money was to have been wired to Spain. The man quickly determined his grandson was all right.
To prevent being conned, create a code word or phrase to use in times of trouble for a family member of any age. Never give your personal information to anyone you don’t know, and be careful what you divulge on social networking sites. Nothing that’s on the Internet ever really goes away.
If you’re the target of a scam attempt, report it. Your local police department is interested, and so is the Federal Trade Commission. You can call the FTC toll-free at 877-382-4357. Visit FTC’s website for more information.
Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, go to http://necontact.wordpress.com, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.