Do you recognize the voices of your grandchildren when they call you?
You might think that you do — and that you couldn’t possibly be fooled by a pretender.
That’s what lots of other grandparents thought before they became victims of what has come to be known as “the grandparent scam,” in which a con artist pretending to be their grandchild calls, claiming to be in a foreign country where he or she has been arrested for drugs, has been in a car accident, or has been mugged and desperately needs money to pay for bail, legal fees or other expenses — “and, oh, by the way, please don’t tell Mom or Dad because they’ll just overreact.”
The FBI has been fielding such reports since 2008, but scam artists today are more sophisticated than ever — thanks to the Internet and social networking sites where criminals can get personal information (e.g., names of relatives and friends) to embellish their stories.
One victim called my radio show recently to relate his experience as a warning to others. Here’s an edited excerpt of my conversation with “Kevin,” who was too embarrassed to give his real name:
Kevin: It was early in the morning when I got the call — he said he was my grandson and asked, “Where do you think I’m calling from?” I guessed Florida, but he said he was in Mexico. He explained that his buddy won a trip for two to a resort there, “but his girlfriend couldn’t make it, so he invited me to join him. We met two guys at a club, and they offered to take us to a better club in their car, but after a few miles the police stopped us and found narcotics in the trunk. The guys we met were arrested, but my buddy and I were taken to the U.S. embassy.”
Then I received a call from a “Sgt. Watson,” who claimed to be a security officer at the embassy.
Ric: Wait, you mean your grandson’s call ended and you received a second call?
Ric: How long after the first call?
Kevin: Just a few minutes. He said my grandson was fortunate to have pro-American police officers take him to the embassy, because Mexican jails tend to hold people for months without charges. He thought my grandson could be sent home if he paid a minor fine.
Ric: What sort of fine and how much?
Kevin: He called it an appearance fine of $1,900.
Ric: How was it to be paid?
Kevin: It was to be paid in two ways: $950 through Western Union and $950 through MoneyGram. I made both payments, and later called to see if my grandson had been released.
Ric: They actually gave you a call-back number?
Kevin: Yes, and when I did call they said my grandson was in court, which just seemed to reconfirm the legitimacy of the charade.
Ric: Were they going to release him?
Kevin: They said he could be released for an additional $1,000 payment for an attorney’s fees.
Ric: And you paid that as well?
Kevin: Yes, through MoneyGram. I wasn’t thinking clearly. My heart was overruling my head, I guess. I thought I was helping my grandson.
Ric: When did you realize it was a scam?
Kevin: When MoneyGram called me and said, “We know what’s going on, and it’s a scam.” I told them about the sergeant, but they said he wasn’t real either and recited verbatim everything that had transpired.
Ric: Did you consider calling the boy’s parents before sending the money?
Kevin: Actually, no. The caller said he’d be ashamed for them to know, so I went along.
Ric: What happened after MoneyGram warned you?
Kevin: I called the boy’s parents and asked for their son’s phone number. When I dialed it, he answered.
Ric: Where was he?
Kevin: At home.
Ric: And he was oblivious to all of this?
Kevin: Of course. And I realized how much the caller sounded like him.
Ric: You’re a client of our firm, and we know you to be an intelligent, educated, rational individual. If you could get caught up in this scam, so could anybody. What lesson would you like to share? What would you have done differently?
Kevin: The first thing is to stop, take a deep breath and think about the likely veracity of the story. Next, I’d have called the local number to confirm he’s not there. And even more important, I’d have alerted my wife.
Ric: She could have provided a sounding board.
Kevin: Exactly. I could even have called some other relatives. Cooler heads would have prevailed.
Ric: Here’s another idea — for anyone who receives a call similar to Kevin’s. Simply ask the caller a question that only your grandchild could answer. Perhaps, “What’s your middle name?” or “What’s the name of my dog?” That’s even better if you don’t have a dog. Crooks won’t be able to answer, so you’ll know it’s a scam. Thank you for sharing your story.
Kevin: You’re welcome.