The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

November 10, 2012

Grandparent scam keeps popping up

By Randy Meier
Special to the Herald

CLINTON — The type of complaint I receive most frequently regards the family emergency scam, more popularly know as the “grandparent scam.” In sheer numbers, this kind of complaint out-paces all other kinds of frauds, such as charity scams, lottery frauds and medicare scams. We’ve warned our readers before in this space about this kind of fraud, but it bears repeating, since it shows no sign of stopping.

This scam always starts out with a phone call to a senior citizen. The caller will greet the senior citizen with, “Hi Grandma/Grandpa, this is (blank).” The caller uses the real name of a grandchild, almost always an adult grandchild. Or in some cases, they won’t offer a name, and will wait for our senior citizen to make a guess as to who is calling. For instance, “Melissa, is that you?” If the senior citizen offers a name, that is the name the caller will use the rest of the call.

After some very brief small talk, the caller will give the reason for the call. In every case, the caller “grandchild” is in some kind of trouble. And the trouble is almost always in a foreign country. Some of the kinds of trouble reported to me include:

• I went to Cancun with some girlfriends, and we got stopped for speeding. The police found drugs in the trunk. I’m in jail (or the U.S. Embassy)

• I went to Canada on a fishing trip. I got in an accident while driving, and I was drinking. I’m at the police station.

• I went to the Dominican Republic for a destination wedding, and I missed my return flight.

So this kind of unexpected news can get a person pretty shook up, or rattled. But so far, this is just bad news. It becomes a scam when the caller says the only way to get out of this trouble is for our senior citizen to send money, always by money wire transfer, to whatever foreign country our hapless “grandchild” found themselves in. In the grand scheme of things, we are not talking about a large sum of money. Most amounts run from $1,000 to $2,500. The caller may even settle for less if our senior citizen says they can’t get that much money.

In some cases, the caller will put someone else on the line. This second person will pose as an attorney, or a police officer, or even an embassy official. They will reinforce the request for a wire transfer, making it sound even more official, or vitally necessary.

Somewhere in the conversation, the caller will make a demand. “You can’t tell my mom and dad.” “This is just between you and me.” “Please don’t let my parents know about this.”

The caller in most cases will know some family details you would not expect a stranger to know, such as other relatives, pet names, or travel plans. We need to realize many, many email accounts and social media accounts are routinely “hacked” allowing access to whatever information we write into those accounts. Obituaries are also a good source of family information.  

These callers are using the sense of family loyalty and compassion against senior citizens, to defraud them. Psychologists call this “social engineering,” manipulating people into actions ultimately harmful to them. The crooks goal in the grandparent scam is to sound so persuasive, the grandparent feels they must send money to help out. And it works. It might not work all the time, or most of the time, but it works often enough that it remains the most attempted scam.

I want to highlight four red flags that will mark a phone call like this as a scam:

1. Unexpected phone call from grandchild.

2. Grandchild in trouble in a foreign country.

3. Grandchild needs money sent by Western Union or Moneygram, wire transfer services.

4. Grandchild pleads to keep this a secret, “don’t tell anyone else.”

If you have received such a phone call and sent money off, please let me know about it. If you got such a phone call and didn’t send money off, let me know also. I want to get an accurate gauge of how widespread this scam is in our area.

Contact me at Seniors vs. Crime, 242-9211, ext. 4433.

Randy Meier is the director of Seniors vs. Crime, which operates in conjunction with the Clinton County Sheriff’s Office.