En español | A crime ring believed to have swindled as much as $3 million since November from trusting grandparents in 36 states was busted this week in Canada, police there report. Officials say the arrests shut down a "massive" operation behind the "Grandkids Scam" that has targeted AARP members and others for years.
The seven people arrested in Toronto and Montreal since Sunday — two as they were about to fly to Italy — are accused of making some 200 telephone calls a day claiming to be grandchildren in dire need of cash.
On average, 15 to 20 American grandparents per day fell for this ruse, sending between $2,500 and $6,000 each to the scammers by wire transfer, says Superintendent Chris Perkins of the Halton Regional Police Service, the Toronto-area department that oversaw the investigation code-named Project Viper.
Many of the telephone and Internet scams that prey on Americans are operated from outside the country, beyond the direct reach of U.S. law enforcement authorities. The arrest of an entire ring of alleged scammers is unusual.
The scammers made their calls from a Toronto-area basement, Perkins tells the Bulletin. They allegedly identified potential victims by paying telemarketing companies for specialized calling lists that note the names and phone numbers of older people, often those living in over-50 communities.
"When we raided their boiler room, the home of a relative of one of those arrested, we seized a stack of telephone lists that was 8 or 9 inches thick," Perkins says. More than 20,000 Canadian dollars were also confiscated.
"There was no bank of phones like the old days, just smartphones and laptop computers," says Perkins. "In this kind of scam, you can operate from a car. All you need is a cellphone and away you go."
The scammers, four men and three women between ages 26 and 41, dialed people believed to be grandparents in states as far afield as Maine and Texas, North Dakota and Florida. They also made calls to households in Canada.
Typically, one member of the ring would begin the call by saying something like, "Hi Grandma, it's me, your favorite grandson."
"The hope was that the grandparents would respond, 'David, is that you?' And he'd say, 'Yes,' to get more information," says Perkins.
"In most cases, they were cold calls aimed at tricking the grandparents," says Perkins.
In some cases, however, the fraudsters tried to make their ruse more believable by first gleaning the names of the targets' grandchildren through a social networking website such as Facebook, or through obituaries published on newspaper websites.
The caller would typically go on to tell a story of being arrested while vacationing in Canada and being afraid to tell the parents about it. After a plea for bail money, the phone would be handed to an accomplice claiming to be a lawyer or police officer. Instructions on how and where to send the bogus bail money by wire transfer would be given.
Perkins said he believes the seven arrested may have been operating for years.