But when the phone rang on a Thursday morning in April, her heart skipped a beat. The caller identified himself as her grandson David and said he'd been arrested in Mexico and needed $2,400.
Sharon, 76, and recovering from recent surgery, immediately headed to a local MoneyGram office. Employees there warned her about the notorious grandparents scam, in which fraudsters pose as grandchildren in need of emergency cash. Southerland sent the money anyway.
By Monday, after she'd responded similarly to five more calls, the real David returned her frantic messages. But it was too late. The Florida widow had drained her nest egg and borrowed against her home to wire more than $15,000.
"I never fell for a scam before," says Southerland. "But this was love. I would do anything for my grandchild."
"Love definitely makes a difference — and works to the scammer's advantage," says Steve Baker of the Federal Trade Commission. "The impostor says his voice sounds odd but that's because he broke his nose in a car crash. You may be 75 percent sure that it's a scam. But many grandparents still send money."
Last year, more than 25,500 older Americans reported sending $110 million to scammers posing as family members and claiming an injury or arrest in a foreign country. "That's just the tip of the iceberg," says Baker. "At most, only about 8 percent of victims ever report the crime.
"These scammers are professionals in organized crime rings. They are really, really good — and very careful," says Baker. "For every question or objection you have, they have a set answer."
Every day hundreds of grandparents fall for this scam. Here's what you need to know to not be one of the victims:
1. Don't be fooled by detailed greetings such as "Hi, Grandma, it's Billy!" Many get names and details from online directories, social networking websites or obituaries. Some hack into emails.
2. No matter where they say they are, the scammers typically are in Canada — using numbers that can easily be disguised or using disposable cellphones that are very difficult to track.
3. Scammers often ask for wire transfers because with a reference number and phony ID, they can retrieve that money anywhere. "Wiring money is like giving cash," says the FBI. "Once you send it, you can't get it back."
4. The crooks have done their homework on your family and often pose as police officers, attorneys or hospital workers.
5. When a suspicious caller says, "Please don't tell Mom and Dad," show your love the better way: Hang up the phone and contact your grandchild or another family member to get the facts.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.
Also of interest: Don't fall for unclaimed money scams. »
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