When a 78-year-old Westchester County grandfather got an urgent call from his grandson saying he needed help getting out of jail in Niagara Falls, the worried grandparent was eager to help.
He followed instructions he was given over the phone and wired $2,700 bail money.
The only problem, according to Port Chester police, was that the man's grandson was actually in Arizona—safe and sound, and not in any trouble with police. The concerned grandfather had fallen victim to a telephone scam that continues to successfully target senior citizens throughout the country.
"It's sometimes hard to believe people fall victims to these scams, but the callers are very convincing with their stories," said Port Chester Police Lt. James Ladeairous.
Ladeairous said the Port Chester senior citizen who was the latest victim in the "grandparent scam" contacted police Tuesday afternoon to report he had been victimized.
The grandparent received a call from a man who claimed to be his grandson, who went on to say he had been arrested in Niagara Falls in a car that had marijuana in it. The caller said the marijuana wasn't his, but that he needed $3,000 to get out of jail.
Ladeairous said a second person claiming to be a police officer got on the call and provided instructions on how the grandparent could help his grandson. When the grandfather suggested that $3,000 was a lot of money, the police imposter knocked the bail amount down to $2,700.
The grandparent was given instructions to use a Western Union service to wire the money, which he did.
Ladeairous said that after the grandparent wired the cash his real grandson contacted him — having heard about the incident through family members. The grandson had not been arrested, was not in trouble and did not call asking for money, Ladeairous said.
Port Chester detectives are investigating the incident. However, Ladeairous said the victim has lost his $2,700.
"If people would call us first, we can prevent this from happening," Ladeairous said. "We can help find out if the story is true or not."
Unfortunately, law enforcement officials say incidents like this latest one in Port Chester are becoming common across the country. And, many instances go unreported because victims don't want to admit they sent money without fully checking out the story they've been told over the phone.
The FBI says the Port Chester incident is an example of what’s come to be known as “the grandparent scam” — a fraud that preys on the elderly by taking advantage of their concern for their grandchildren.
The FBI reports it has been receiving complaints about the grandparent scam through its Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) since 2008. With time, the FBI says scammers are getting more sophisticated, using social networking sites on the Internet to uncover personal information about their victims and making their stories ring true when they make their calls.
An example cited by the FBI:
The actual grandson may mention on his social networking site that he’s a photographer who often travels to Mexico. When contacting the grandparents, the phony grandson will say he’s calling from Mexico, where someone stole his camera equipment and passport.
Common elements of the scam include:
- A phone call or sometimes an e-mail from a “grandchild” comes in late at night or early in the morning when most people aren’t thinking that clearly. Usually, the person claims to be traveling in a foreign country and has gotten into a bad situation, like being arrested for drugs, getting in a car accident, or being mugged and needs money wired immediately. And the caller doesn’t want his or her parents told.
- Sometimes, instead of the “grandchild” making the phone call, the criminal pretends to be an arresting police officer, a lawyer, a doctor at a hospital, or some other person.
- The FBI has also seen military families victimized: after perusing a soldier’s social networking site, a con artist will contact the soldier’s grandparents, sometimes claiming that a problem came up during military leave that requires money to address.
- While it’s commonly called the grandparent scam, criminals may also claim to be a family friend, a niece or nephew, or another family member.
Police and the FBI say the best way to avoid falling victim is to resist pressure to act immediately.
The FBI suggests:
- Try to contact your grandchild or another family member to determine whether or not the call is legitimate.
- Never wire money based on a request made over the phone or in an e-mail — especially overseas. The FBI says wiring money is like giving cash — once you send it, you can’t get it back.
If you've been victimized, law enforcement officials say to call or local consumer protection agencies. The FBI also suggests filing a complaint with its Internet Crime Complaint Center, which forwards complaints to the appropriate agencies and uses the information gathered to find clues that can identify scammers.