A late night call from her “granddaughter” leads to a $4,000 loss

Have you heard of the “Grandparent Scam?” One of our readers wrote to us for help after a version of that ruse cost her more than $4,000.

Normally, our policy is to use the real names of those who write to us. We’re making an exception in this case. The victim feels humiliated by being taken for so much money and doesn’t want her name out there as an easy target for other con artists. But her story is worth telling. So I’ll refer to her as Grandma N.

Even if you are not a grandparent you need to be aware of this con, because there are variations of it that target aunts and uncles too. Here’s how thieves preyed on a grandmother’s love and trust.

I received a phone call at home from someone who sounded exactly like my granddaughter, Alex, who lives in New Zealand. She was in a car accident that was her fault. She was OK but said she had to pay the other driver $4,200 until he is reimbursed by his insurance agent, at which point he would mail her a check. He also wanted the money in Target cards.

I asked why she didn’t call her father first. She said she wanted to get this whole thing settled before doing that. She said she was at a pay phone so I couldn’t call her back but she would call me back.

Wanting to help “Alex,” Grandma N went to Target and used her credit card to buy $4,200 worth of gift cards. “She called back after I got home. I scratched the cards and gave her the numbers. Of course, she thanked me profusely.”

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But it didn’t end there. The scammers knew they had a live one. So “Alex” called again a little later saying that she needed another $4,000 to pay a lawyer and asked Grandma N to get gift cards from Giant Eagle, a grocery chain with stores in five eastern states. It didn’t occur to the victim to ask why a New Zealand lawyer would want American grocery store gift cards. She was focused on helping her granddaughter, so she did as asked, using her credit card again for the purchase.

Then she got another call from the crook saying she had made a mistake and had meant for Grandma N to go to Giant Eagle to buy more Target cards. She went back to the grocery to exchange the gift cards.

This time, an alert clerk realized something was wrong, telling Grandma N that she was being scammed. “I really argued with her as the voice, etc. sounded exactly like my granddaughter. She wouldn’t do the transaction and told me to call my son.”

She called her son who told her it was a scam, confirmed by the granddaughter, at home in New Zealand. The victim then called Target, hoping to get the gift cards canceled. But she was told they had already been used in Texas and in Maryland.

In a desperate attempt to save her money, she called her credit card company hoping their security department could stop the transaction. But it was too late. She then wrote to the company asking for reimbursement of her loss as a “one-time senior fraud exemption.” When that didn’t work, she wrote to us for help.

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Unfortunately, we can’t. She bought the gift cards and gave the codes to the thief who quickly used them. While her money is gone, we can use this as a warning that crooks are not above preying on familial love to separate you from your money.

My internet searches on the terms “grandparent scam” and “family emergency scam” generated more than three million results. The warnings come from the FBI, FTC, other government agencies, AARP, and even Western Union, which victims often use to send money orders to scammers.

The pattern is the same. The target gets a call, usually at night or early in the morning, from someone claiming to be a grandchild, niece or nephew who is in trouble. The callers say they were in a car accident or falsely arrested or robbed and they need money to get out of the situation. A common element is a plea not to tell the caller’s parents just yet. The scammers tell the victims to not try to call them back because their phones are lost or stolen or damaged or they’re calling from a pay phone.

Then, of course, there is the request for money. It has to be immediate cash, usually in the form of gift cards or wired via Western Union.

If you send the money, you most likely will never get it back.

This scam and its variations have been around for some time. The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center has been getting reports on it since 2008. This page from The Federal Trade Commission gives some good tips on how to recognize such a scam and what to do and not do.

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Here are some of the FTC’s key points to remember:

  • Resist the urge to act immediately, no matter how dramatic the story is.
  • Verify the person’s identity by asking questions that a stranger couldn’t possibly answer.
  • Call a phone number for your family member or friend that you know to be genuine.
  • Check the story out with someone else in your family or circle of friends, even if you’ve been told to keep it a secret.

All of this is too late to help Grandma N. But it’s not too late for you to think about how to keep yourself or other family members from being victimized.

While I was writing this story, we received data about a big increase in robocalls using spoofed phone numbers for something called the “neighbor scam.” They’re trying to trick you into thinking a call is from a nearby business or neighbor. A follow-up article will look at that.


Abe Wischnia

Abe started his working career as a television news reporter and newscaster before moving to corporate communications and investor relations. Now retired and having learned useful tips from Elliott.org, one of his volunteer activities is writing for us. Read more of Abe's stories here.

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