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En español | Now in their 70s, a married couple in Georgia had never used an ATM in their lives — until one nerve-racking day last spring. On May 12, the couple fed several $100 bills into a Wells Fargo automated teller machine near their suburban Atlanta home. In two deposits made within a few hours, they parted with $4,800 in cash.
A criminal with a fake name, along with accomplices, had instructed the couple to deposit the money into the Wells Fargo ATM, which accepts cash even if it's not placed in an envelope. This “no-envelope” technology has been around for years. The couple, who weren't Wells Fargo customers, didn't need a bank card to make the deposits because a crook gave them eight-digit “access codes” and a four-digit PIN.
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The ATM never spit out a receipt, according to couple, who alerted police, their credit union and Wells Fargo on the day they were victimized. They also called AARP's Fraud Watch Helpline, 877-908-3360.
Talking about the ATM, the husband says: “It was a one-armed bandit — just took our money. Didn't even say ‘Thank you.’ No voice, no paper, nothing. Cold, like the crook."
A textbook ‘grandparent scam'
The husband, 71, and his wife, 77, spoke to AARP about their ordeal, but are not being named in this story. Married for 42 years, they parted with a portion of their retirement nest egg due to a “Grandparent Scam,” which is sometimes called a “Granny Scam.” They were misled into believing their oldest grandson, 18, was in trouble with the law.
The wife, retired after 50 years with major airlines, ordinarily steers clear of fraud; she has hung up on an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) impersonator in the past. In May, though, she thinks she was blindsided when her “grandson” called due to the timing: Already she and her husband were anxious about COVID-19 and locked down at home. “If I had said, ‘No. Call your mom,’ we wouldn't have gotten hit,” she says.
As they fed a stack of bills into the ATM, the two didn't realize that con artists were pulling off a smash-and-grab with their nest egg — part of retirement assets they say they hope will last longer than they do.
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Their encounter with fraudsters began that morning when the wife answered the phone and a young man, posing as their teenage grandson, said he was in jail because he'd been arrested for a traffic accident while driving drunk. He said his cellphone had been taken away before he was locked up — which sounded plausible — and asked his grandmother to keep what he said “real private,” she recalls.
The “grandson” said he needed bail money and gave the name of his fake public defender, “Richard Benson” and a toll-free number to reach him. Next, a second fraudster entered the picture. A mature-sounding woman answered the phone at the phony public defenders’ office. She put the call through to a man who masqueraded as “Richard Benson,” the supposed public defender. He explained the plight of their “grandson” and said the courts were closed because of the pandemic. Then he instructed the couple to put $2,500 into an ATM at a local Wells Fargo bank, where he asserted the courts had an account. “Benson” gave her an eight-digit access number and four-digit PIN to effectuate the deposit. The couple got the cash from a drive-through lane at their credit union to make the first ATM deposit.
Greedy fraudsters come back for more
After that, the fraudsters weren't finished. In a follow-up call, “Richard Benson” said the grandson's car insurance had lapsed, so $2,300 was needed to secure his release. The couple went back to the credit union's drive-through — and back to the ATM. This time “Richard Benson” gave the couple a different access number and the same PIN.
"The second (deposit) was crazy,” the woman says now. “I felt in my heart that it probably was not right, but we did it anyway."
Immediately afterward they tracked down their grandson by phone; he said he'd been at work since 7 a.m. that day. The accident, the arrest, the need for cash — all lies. The truth quickly emerged. “We got ripped off big-time,” says the husband, a retired customer-service worker and a Vietnam-era Army veteran who was drafted and served stateside as a map compiler from 1968-1970.
That afternoon, the couple called Wells Fargo to try to retrieve their lost funds (without success, initially) and filed a complaint with the local police, who categorized the case as a “theft by deception."
Later the couple called Wells Fargo again, without satisfaction, and set up an appointment to visit their credit union; an appointment was required because of the pandemic. The credit union wouldn't return the money, either.
Sad scam has happy ending
Last week, AARP contacted Wells Fargo, explained the couple's plight and provided a copy of the police report. On Aug. 21, Wells Fargo agreed to refund the couple $4,800.
In a statement to AARP, a Wells Fargo spokeswoman said: “These credit union customers made multiple cash withdrawals from their credit union account and deposited those funds into a Wells Fargo account. The credit union has elected not to reimburse their customers. Wells Fargo has elected to do what their credit union did not — refund the $4,800 and work with law enforcement to recover the money. As we combat fraud, we understand the frustration and anger of those who are victims of fraud."
A local police detective told AARP on Aug. 24 that he is pursuing new leads just provided by Wells Fargo.
The husband and wife want other older Americans to avoid the “nightmare” they endured, so are sharing their story. “How foolish can you be to put cash in the machine twice and not get a receipt? We got scammed,” the husband says now. “But they are so professional, so smooth, that they could have fooled anybody."
"We are very happy and very grateful,” he says. “Thank God for AARP."
To be sure, they insist they will never use an ATM again. “We hadn't used it before that day and will never use it again,” the husband says. “Never. Ever.”
Avoiding a ‘Granny Scam'
Wells Fargo offers advice on recognizing and preventing this fraud that plays on the emotions of grandparents:
- Wells Fargo research shows that families need to talk with older family members about fraud to keep them safe.
- In our brochure “Protecting those you love” we discuss the grandparent scam. A fraudster can take advantage of a grandparent’s emotions, posing as a grandchild who needs money very quickly.
- In these situations, it can be helpful to establish in advance a special family password. If anyone asks a family member to quickly send money, asking for the family password can add a layer of protection.
- Another protective action is an absolute commitment to check with the parents before giving large sums to or on behalf of a grandchild. And in some instances, calling the grandchild’s known cellphone can help, as well.
- Depending on your financial institution, you can ask that a son or daughter get an alert for a large wire or cash withdrawal, so they have the chance to check on the circumstances.
- The goal is to recognize a potential scam before anyone transfers money