'Help me Grandma;' Phone scams on the rise

February 4, 2012

Care, but verify.

If your grandchild calls from a foreign country asking for emergency financial help, it's alright to be skeptical.

Hood River Police have received recent reports of scam attempts on elderly residents that run something like this:

"Grandma I'm in (some foreign country) and I was hurt in a (motorcycle or car) accident and I need $2,500 for medical bills (or to get out of jail). Please wire me the money immediately but don't tell Mom and Dad because I'm embarrassed about what happened."

"This sort of thing is becoming more and more frequent," said Hood River Police Officer Erin Mason, who recently responded to a case involving an octogenarian.

The woman received a call from her "grandson" and went to Safeway to wire him the cash via Western Union but a clerk smelled a rat and contacted a local family member.

"It was a scary situation," Mason said. "You should try to contact family to verify something like this. It's a tough situation because instinctively she was full of concern for her grandson. She didn't think to ask more pertinent questions."

Anyone receiving "an outlandish story" should ask pertinent and specific questions, as many as needed to be sure. If he's really who he says he is, it won't be an issue.

Whenever local law enforcement hears of scam attempts they turn what information they can gather over to the U.S. Department of Justice; in most cases, police don't establish a specific case number, because often there is nothing firm to go by, such as an email address or traceable phone number.

Scam artists typically work from pay phones or send emails from anonymous accounts at libraries or other locations.

To combat the increasing problem of scams such as "Help me, Grandma," Mason plans to assemble information from Department of Justice and hold seminars at locations serving senior citizens.

"We want to educate people as far as things they need to look for," he said.

It is elderly people who are most vulnerable to the "Help me, Grandma" ruse and another recurring one, the widespread foreign lottery scam.

In that scam, a person is notified they have won hundreds of thousands of European euros but are told that in order to claim the prize they must first send $10,000. The euro prize, of course, never arrives.

The recent case of the Hood River grandmother contained an "ironic coincidence" in that her grandson actually does travel around the world.

One family member said an otherwise private nickname the scammer used suggested that he had someone gained inside knowledge about the family.

"We got lucky in this case," Mason said. "She had pulled the money, but luckily they were able to get hold of the grandson. She was very shook up, and appalled at the levels people will go to trick people."

Mason said, "The thing I'd stress to people if they get random phone calls, people need to verify.

"The mindset is they're instinctively wanting to help the family, and are not thinking of being scammed.

"These are fluke phone calls and it can be very believable," he said.

"There have been numerous cases in this valley that have been successful, and unfortunately some of those people are hard to convince it's not real.

"One man didn't believe me … we had to get adult senior services involved, and got hold of his son so the family could get control of the (elder's) income because it wasn't going to stop."

Mason said anyone receiving an unusual phone call with a request for a financial transaction should first "reserve some calm, even though you might really be worried, and verify the information on the phone. If they can't answer basic questions they would know, I'd have come concerns."

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