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Feds warn of grandparent scam

The FBI warns of a scam that intends to take advantage of a grandparent's love for their grandchildren.

Image | Courtesy of the FBI

A grandfather received a frantic phone call from his grandson who told him that he has been arrested in a foreign country. Through sobs and sniffles, he tells his elderly grandfather that he must have money wired to him so he can pay for bail and get out of a horrid and brutal prison. 

“And please don’t tell my mom or dad, because this will just make them worry.”

Sadly, the caller is not his beloved grandson, but the caller knows enough about the boy and the family to pull off the impersonation. The FBI states that this is a common scenario in what has become known as “the Grandparent Scam.” This scam takes advantage of a grandparent’s love and concern for the welfare of their grandchildren.

The grandparent scam is but one of the many criminal schemes that crooks use to bilk money from seniors. Law enforcement officers and security experts say criminals target senior citizens because they believe the elderly are more likely to engage in conversation with a stranger on the phone due to loneliness, isolation, and in some cases, cognitive decline. Seniors also tend to be less cynical and more emotional and can be manipulated easier than younger people. 

I spoke to a reformed scam artist who told me that the key to success is to get the “mark,” the potential victim, on the phone and keep them on the phone as long as possible. 

“You have to offer a good quick pitch to get the ‘mark’ to talk to you on the phone. And the longer the mark is on the phone, the better the chance you’ll have to convince them to believe anything – and I mean anything – and then they’ll pay for something utterly bogus,” the former crook explained.

The former scamster, who saw the light after serving a short stretch in a federal prison, said a con artist must do intensive research and talk a good game to convince the mark to fork over money, but many people, especially older people, are often gullible. And, the former crook said, seniors tend to have more savings readily on hand.

According to the FBI, they have been receiving reports about the grandparent scam since 2008, but scam artists have become much more sophisticated these days. Utilizing the Internet and social media, crooks can discover personal information about their targets, which makes impersonations of loved ones much more believable. Like the scenario above, a grandson who notes on Facebook or other social media sites that he is a photographer who often travels to Mexico, makes it easier to convince a grandparent that he is his grandson and that he is in a prison in Mexico.

The FBI warns that scamsters often call late at night or early in the morning when most people aren’t thinking that clearly. Some calls have the crook pretending to be a police officer, a lawyer, a bail bondsman, or a friend rather than the grandchild. The FBI also warns of crooks using couriers to collect money in the scheme. The FBI has also seen military families victimized.

After reading a service member’s social network site, a con artist will contact the service member’s grandparents, claiming that a problem came up during military leave that requires money to address.

According to the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), these schemes accounted for the highest losses reported by the elderly in 2020 with more than $280 million in complaints. From January 2020 to June 2021, the IC3 received more than 650 reports of potential grandparent scams, resulting in losses of more than $13 million. During that time frame, more than 90 victims reported money was picked up from their home, resulting in losses of more than $3.6 million.

The FBI suggests that you be careful what you post online and be suspicious of telephone calls that require you to take immediate action. Be warned that crooks know how to use technology that can disguise the actual number they are calling from (called a “spoof”), and never give the caller personal information.

The Federal Trade Commission also offers some crime prevention tips regarding the grandparent scam. The FTC states you should take a breath and resist the pressure to pay immediately. Check with a family member to get the real story. And know that anyone who asks you to pay by gift card or a money transfer is possibly a crook. The imposter who claims to be a “grandchild” on the phone may beg you to keep this a secret, stating they’re “under a gag order.”

If you believe you’ve been the victim of a grandparent scam, contact the local FBI office or the police. 
Paul Davis’ Crime Beat column appears here each week. He can be contacted via pauldavisoncrime.com.

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  • Paul Davis

    Having worked as a crime reporter and columnist in Philadelphia for many years, Paul Davis has covered organized crime, cybercrime, street crime, white collar crime, crime prevention, espionage and terrorism. He can be reached at pauldavisoncrime.com

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