Phone scams prey on fear, target seniors
The first time Ray Richens got a call a few months ago about a grandson who had had a car accident in Mexico, he almost fell for the story.
The other day he didn't even come close.
"This person on the phone told me it was my grandson and he had gone to Peru for a wedding," said Richens. "He said he had been involved in a car accident after the wedding and needed $2,286 to pay for the damage and to get himself out of jail."
Other than the country the call was apparently coming from, the story was almost an exact copy of the one he heard earlier this year. He knew it was a hoax.
"When the call came from Mexico they wanted $3,000," he said. "They wanted it within an hour. I was about to make arrangements for it but we decided to see if we could get ahold of that grandson and we found him in Salt Lake. He was fine."
The coincidence was that at the time the Richens had a grandson in Mexico City serving a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, the caller had told them that it was the other grandson, the one they eventually talked to in Salt Lake.
In both instances the callers even went so far as to say that the reason their voices sounded different than they normally would is that in the accidents they had their noses had been injured. This of course was to cover up the fact that they were not the Richens' grandsons at all.
Richens was right to question anything like these calls. They happen all the time. Here are the common denominators about these kinds of calls.
- First the relative is always out of the country (or at least out-of-state) and can't be directly contacted by calling back.
- They are usually in some kind of trouble, financial, criminal or both, even though that may be completely out of character for them. (For instance in the second Richens call the person told them he had been drinking, but they knew their grandson didn't drink).
- There is always an element of time that one has to hurry to get the money to the caller. Usually they say they will be in deeper trouble or some kind of case is pending against them without the money.
- Something always keeps them from sounding like they normally would. An injury, poor cell service, bad phone connection, etc.
- Often (especially with grandkids supposedly calling) they don't want their parents or other relatives, who may know more about the true whereabouts of the grandchild, to know about the situation.
- Scammers usually only ask for no more than a few thousand dollars. They know more than that might raise more red flags and it also might take more time to get the money.
- They never want the money sent to them, but to another source, such as a "lawyer" they have secured to help them.
These kinds of grandkid scams are fairly prevalent, and even with all the warnings that have been issued, they work enough times that the perpetrators make money and seniors lose part of their wealth. The problem is, even with all the publicity about how these people can steal money, they are convicing and often have personal information that would make it seem they are real.
It may shock many people how easy it is for scammers to get information about people's age, where they went to school or what they did (or do) for a living. In this day and age of electronic media, many people have put this information out there themselves. Social media, websites and email lists can often be accessed by anyone. In fact, detective sites on the web are some of the most popular and for a low cost these sites can provide anyone who wants to pay with information about someone, sometimes fairly confidential information.
Even though it is illegal for people to use this information for criminal activity, that means little to a scammer, who, like all crooks, seldom thinks they are going to get caught.
Generally the person on the other end of the line knows the name of the real grandchild and the nickname the grandchild uses for the senior, such as "Grammie" or "Pop." This scam relies on emotion and exploits the grandparent's willingness to help the grandchild in any way possible. Unfortunately, it isn't until the senior finally speaks with the actual grandchild that they learn that they were scammed.
By then, the scammer is long gone and nearly impossible to track down. The situation is more complicated when the money is sent out of the country. In the Richens' case he was told to send the money to a Mary Wells (supposedly a lawyer) in Tuno, Peru. To wire that money Richens would have also had to spend another $160 to send it.
So what should someone do if they get a call from a grandchild or a relative who says they are in trouble and need cash?
- First, do not wire the money.
- Second, do not give any more information to the caller.
- Third, don't keep the call to yourself. Scammers know that if they isolate a person by giving them parameters on who they can talk to or a limited amount of time in which to wire the money, the chances of them making the scam work is much better.
- Ask questions. If the person on the other end of the phone says they are your favorite grandson or nephew, respond with "Who?"
- Call up the person who the caller is claiming to be if you can get ahold of them. If not, call another family member that is close to them to find out what is going on.
- Call the police department and report the scam.
In the end the callers usually call twice. First to set the person up and the second call comes so they can make arrangements for the money. In Richens' case he said the guy called back and told him that if the money wasn't sent he would be stuck in jail. Richen's gave him just the right reply.
"I just think you need to be stuck in jail for awhile, so I am not sending it," he said.
With that the caller hung up.
(Some information for this article came from Senior Shield, an advocacy group for seniors).