Police warn residents of phone scam10/09/08

Oct. 9, 2008

By Marianne Apfelbaum

Observer staff

An elderly Williston resident received a call on Oct. 1 from a female saying she was the resident’s granddaughter, “was involved in an accident, and needed $3,200 wired to a Wal-Mart in Canada,” according to police reports. The resident got some cash from her bank and went to the Williston Wal-Mart to attempt to wire the funds to the Canadian Wal-Mart, but was refused service, the report states. The woman called her niece and “then realized it was a scam,” the report notes.

Apparently, it was not an isolated incident. Williston police have received several complaints regarding the phone scam. The scammers are targeting retirement communities and claim to be family members in need of money. The scammers request the money be sent to Canada by money order, and often use family member names and birthdays.

The Better Business Bureau is warning senior citizens nationwide of this emerging telephone scam. BBB has recently received reports about grandparents across the country who thought they were aiding grandchildren by providing money for an emergency situation. Instead, they were giving thousands of dollars to Canadian con artists.

According to BBB, the scam begins when the grandparent receives a distressed phone call from a supposed grandchild. The caller typically explains he or she is traveling in Canada and has been arrested or involved in an auto accident and needs the grandparent to wire money — usually a few thousand dollars.

While many seniors have reported the scam without falling prey to it, many others have been victimized.

“This scam is just despicable because it preys on the emotions of seniors who want nothing more than to ensure the safety of their grandchildren,” said BBB spokesperson Paula Fleming. “The key to avoiding this scam is to remain calm despite the ‘emergency’ nature of the call and to verify the identity of the caller.”

Given the sudden pervasiveness of the scam, several state attorneys general have issued warnings. In addition, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Call Centre is reporting a significant increase in complaints for this scam. In 2007, the Centre received 128 complaints about this type of scam; since the beginning of this year, nearly 350 complaints have been filed, and about half were filed in July and August.

Law enforcement officials believe scammers are calling random numbers until they happen to reach a senior citizen. The scammers’ basic tactic is to pose as a grandchild and let the unsuspecting grandparent fill in the blanks. For example, the scam caller might say, “It’s me, your favorite grandchild,” to which the grandparent will guess the name of the grandchild, and then the call proceeds from there.

To protect themselves from this scam, and other scams that may use a distressed loved-one tactic, BBB is advising seniors to confirm the status of the individual by calling them directly or verifying the story with other family members before taking further action.

BBB also advises that any request to wire money through Western Union or MoneyGram should be seen as a red flag. Funds sent via wire transfer are hard to track once received by scammers and are usually not recoverable by law enforcement or banking officials.

For anyone victimized by this type of call, BBB recommends reporting the incident immediately to local police departments and state attorneys general offices. If there is a request to wire money to Canada, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Call Centre has established the PhoneBusters hotline and Web site to report such fraud. Reports can be filed online through the PhoneBusters site at phonebusters.com or by calling 888-495-8501.