The grandkids scam — also known as the emergency scam — first came to light in mid-2008, and despite generating a lot of publicity and several Scam Alert warnings, continues to thrive.
"We started our investigation in the summer," says Perkins, "but moved very quickly in recent weeks, as we were astounded at the sheer volume and success [of their scheme]. We had to shut it down."
Two of the suspects were arrested in Montreal on Feb. 21, as they were about to board a flight to Rome. "The information we have is that they were planning to start a similar [scam] in Spain," says Perkins. Noting that the investigation is continuing, he would not comment on how the suspects were identified, other than to cite "good old-fashioned police work."
The accused are scheduled to appear in court on Feb. 25, charged with multiple counts of fraud, participating in a criminal organization and impersonating police. If convicted, Perkins says "they face a serious period of incarceration."
Perkins says that while this group of phony grandkids is out of business, similar rings continue with this common ploy: "The fact that senior citizens are still falling for this scam is tragic."
So if you get a phone call from a "grandchild" in need, don't take the bait. It's likely a scammer on the line. But if curiosity — and your devotion to your grandkids — get the best of you, here's how to protect yourself:
- Don't fill in the blanks. If the caller says, "It's your granddaughter," respond with "Which one?" Most likely, the caller will then hang up.
- If the caller properly identifies himself or herself as your grandchild, ask for family details, such as the name of a family pet, a favorite vacation spot or the anniversary of the grandchild's parents, assuming that this information is not on your Facebook account.
- Ask the caller for a callback number for the police station or hospital where he or she is allegedly located, and then verify that number with an online search of the facility. Sometimes the scammers pretend to be grandchildren who were injured and need money for medical care.
- Say you will return the call to your grandchild's cellphone (but don't ask the caller for the number). If you don't have the number, contact a trusted family member to ask for it.
- Be mum on account numbers. Although phony grandkids usually request wire transfers, some may ask for your bank or credit card account numbers.
- Always verify claims of a grandchild's trouble with their parents.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.