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The Grandparent Scam

Be on your guard if you receive an urgent phone call from someone purporting to be your grandchild

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Full Transcript

[00:00:00] HOST: Is there really such a thing as the perfect scam? Today
there are millions of scams and millions of us are falling for them. Every week
on AARP's Perfect Scam Podcast we're going to introduce you to the victims of
scams and the families of victims. We're going to talk to real life scam
artists and con men and with the help of one of the world's top experts on the
topic. We'll pull back the curtain on how scammers operate and how you can
protect yourself.

[00:00:24] This call center scam works. These people have figured out a
way to make a lot of money off of this.

[00:00:31] I don't think anyone realized to the degree that he was
living a double life. I never had a clue he was living a double life.

[00:00:40] The daughter that immediately, I could hear her just
absolutely screaming at her mother, "You've already been scammed a couple
of times with your identity and you've lost thousands of dollars on things like
this before and yet you continually fall for this."

[00:00:54] I was emotionally vulnerable. It felt good that there was
somebody who wants to talk to me nice and, and sweet talk and whatever.

[00:01:06] That just kind of dawned on me at that point that how many
other of these people that I've talked to did I potentially remove this money
from their rent checks? Did I remove from their grocery bill?

[00:01:17] HOST: For the AARP's Perfect Scam Podcast, I'm your host,
Will Johnson. And I'd like to introduce my cohost, AARP's Fraud Watch Network
Ambassador and one of the world's leading experts on the topic, Frank Abagnale.

[00:01:28] Frank Abagnale: Pleasure to be here. Thank you.

[00:01:29] HOST: Many of you will know Frank's story from the 2002 movie
Catch Me If You Can. Before he turned 20 years old, Frank became an airline
pilot, a doctor, a teacher, a lawyer without ever getting a license for using
his real name. He made a lot of money and eventually got caught for his crimes,
but act two of Frank's life has been a long career with the FBI and other
notable organizations. He knows more about scams and fraud than almost anyone
on the planet. Frank, how did you first get started? When did you first realize
maybe even you had an ability to do this kind of thing, maybe present yourself
as someone who you're not?

[00:02:00] Frank Abagnale: You know, that was self-taught, I think. You
know, I was 16 years old when my parents got a divorce and I was pulled out of
school and brought to court and told, told that I had to choose between my
mother and my father. Rather than choose, I ran out of the courtroom and became
a runaway. Back in the 1960s, runaway, running away from home was very popular.
Unfortunately, a lot of kids got in Haight-Ashbury, the hippie scene, the drug
scene. I ended up on the streets of New York City, 16 years old, no money and I
realized I had to survive, so the first thing I realized is no one's going to
deal with a 16-year-old, and because I looked a little older, I would, I
decided to alter my date of birth on my driver's license. I was actually born
in April of 1948. I dropped the 4 and converted it to a 3, and that made my 10
years older or 26 years old. I had a checking account, didn't have a lot of
money in it, but I started writing checks, and I realized how easy it was to
write checks and then one day I was walking down the street, still 16, and I
saw an airline crew come out of a hotel, and I thought to myself, you know if I
had that uniform, when I walk in a bank to cash a check, it'd be 10 times
easier because a uniform shows trust and, and I think it will work a lot
better. So, I finagled to get a uniform. I posed as an airline pilot for a couple
of years. I realized I could fly around on the planes for free. I stayed in the
hotels for free.

[00:03:24] HOST: So, let me stop you. So, the movie is pretty true to
your story, or absolutely true.

[00:03:28] Frank Abagnale: Yes.

[00:03:28] HOST: That feels like what we saw, and so that first changing
of your driver's license, would you say that was almost like your first foray

[00:03:34] Frank Abagnale: First thing I really did that was kind of
fraud. And then I, you know I impersonated a doctor in a Georgia hospital for a
while. I passed the Bar in Louisiana and practice law there. I actually, by the
time I was old enough to drink, I'd written about two and a half million dollars’
worth of bad checks in all 50 states and about 26 foreign countries. I, like
all criminals, sooner or later you get caught. I was arrested at 21 by the
French police in Southern France, charged with forgery. I spent time in the
French prisons. I was later extradited to Sweden, convicted of forgery and
spent time in Swedish prisons, and then was brought back to the United States
where a U.S. federal judge sentenced me to 12 years in federal prison.

[00:04:17] HOST: In New York?

[00:04:18] Frank Abagnale: In Atlanta.

[00:04:19] HOST: In Atlanta, right.

[00:04:20] Frank Abagnale: And the, and I served about four of those 12
years; when I was 26 years old the government offered to take me out of prison
on the condition I got to work with an agency of the federal government for the
remainder of my sentence or until my parole had been completed. I agreed and
was released, and I've been working with the FBI now for 41 years.

[00:04:41] HOST: So, deep breath for anyone who just heard all of that
and have not heard Frank's story before. It is truly amazing and again, you did
all this before you were at least that part of your life, before you were 20,

[00:04:50] Frank Abagnale: Right.

[00:04:53] HOST: What was, as you look back on it now and throughout
your life, what was the hardest part, before of course being caught, of that
experience of scamming people? I mean there's a lot of it that's sort of
amazing, romanticized to some extent, made incredible and funny, but it must
have been at times lonely.

[00:05:11] Frank Abagnale: It was a very, very lonely life. I would
never want to live it over again, even if now I know where it brought me today,
nor would I wish it on anyone. It was a very lonely life. You know I did it at
a very young age. I never got to go to a senior prom, high school football
game, share a relationship with someone my age, spent the best part of my life
probably behind bars in some very bad prisons. I think, in my case, you know it
started out for me as survival, and then people started chasing me, so then it
became, how do I stay ahead of the people chasing me, until it ultimately
became more of a game towards the end. I truly believe that people who say,
well you were brilliant. You were a genius, that's not the case. I was just 16
years old. I truly believe I got away with the things I got away with because I
was an adolescent. I had no fear of being caught. I had no fear of
consequences. So, I didn't sit out in front of a bank with a $500 check and say
to myself, I'm going to go in this bank, now here's my plan. If they say this,
I'll do this. If they do this, I'll do that. I just went in and did it. I
always believed that had I been a little older and started doing this at 21 or
25, I wouldn't have done half the things, cause I would have rationalized them
and said it's never going to work. It's not going to happen. I had the, the
idea of a kid where everything's possible, and I can do this, and I can get
away with it, and that confidence, I think, came because I was, I was so young,
and that's why I got away with the things I probably got away with.

[00:06:35] HOST: I'm curious when they approached you when you were in federal
prison in Atlanta and said look, here's the deal, would you like to do this?
What was that like to hear? Were you expecting that at all?

[00:06:44] Frank Abagnale: No, I wasn't expecting it at all, and I
always say to people, you know, people always say to me, what made you change?
Was that the change in your life or were you already a changed individual? You
know, I would be sitting here lying to you if I told you that I was born again,
or I saw the light or prison rehabilitated me, or that I had all good
intentions when I accepted that offer. I really didn't know if I was any
different or that I would go back to a life of crime, or I would start doing
those things again. I just saw it as I saw a lot of things at a young age, as
opportunities. I was truly an opportunist and I saw that as an opportunity to
get out of prison. But along the way, I met my wife. I had children, and I
think that's what really changed my life. It wasn't anything other than realizing
the responsibility of being a husband, of being a father, bringing children
into the world. And also, when you work with the men and women of the FBI, they
are truly the most ethical people that have the most amazing personal character
that you can't help but have that wash off on you because you're around them,
and then you start to realize how important their country is to them and their family
is to them. Those are the things that really changed my life. I'd be lying if I
said prison rehabilitated me and I came out a changed man. That was not the

[00:08:05] HOST: Alright, so Frank, thanks for sharing a condensed
version of your life story, and as we reviewed a lot of our stories for the
show, it seemed like some scams were more heartless than others, and that's why
we love this story so much, not because it's heartless, but because our hero,
Richard, doesn't actually fall for it. So, some of our scams will indeed have
people that actually turned the tables to some extent. So, of course, that
doesn't mean the scammer didn't just move on to countless other victims, but
there's definitely a lesson that we can all learn from Richard.


[00:08:36] Richard: I am 88 years old, and still getting around. I've
been a journalist all my life since the age of 15. I worked for Time
Incorporated, worked for Life Magazine for many years with the founding editor
of People Magazine.

[00:08:57] HOST: In other words, Richard's no fool, so when his landline
rings, he's already on alert.

[00:09:02] Richard: First thing I heard was, "Hi Grandpa." And
I said, "Who's this?" I mean it was not a voice I recognized. Well he
said, "Don't you recognize my voice? It's Kenny." And he said, (which
is indeed my grandson), "I'm in Chicago." It was a little strange
that he was in Chicago because my granddaughter is in Chicago and I had no idea
that he was there. Then he said, "Can I tell you something in secret that
you won't tell anybody else, please." I thought, that's a strange thing
for my grandson."

[00:09:45] HOST: And is Kenny someone who might just call you out of the
blue? It sounds like not on your landline anyway.

[00:09:51] Richard: Not really. I mean I talked to his mother, my
daughter. He would call me when I sent him a Christmas or birthday gift, and you
know, when I visited his home town I saw him with all the rest, but no. But
when he said, "Can I tell you something that you won't tell anyone
else," I said, "Of course." Then he said, "Here’s what
happened. Emily (that's his sister) and I went to a White Sox game, baseball
game last night. And we were on our way back to our hotel when our cab was
pulled over by the police. They found marijuana in the trunk and arrested us.
I'm at the police station now with the lawyer."

[00:10:42] HOST: At this point, whoever is on the end of the line knows
a thing or two about Richard's grandson and is making a desperate plea for
help. This may be just enough to get Richard asking more questions, it seems,
but again, he is no fool.

[00:10:55] Richard: And my first question, perhaps a rhetorical
question, were you carrying drugs yourself? And he said, no, that they found
them in the trunk and assume that they belonged to the driver.

[00:11:15] HOST: Right, so having something in the trunk doesn't
necessarily mean you're the one that's going to get hauled in for it.
Especially a cab.

[00:11:21] Richard: That, of course, was my first question. I said,
"If you weren't carrying it, why were you arrested?" And this is
where they really get clever. He said, "The police say I have to stay in
Chicago until the cab driver is put on trial which will be 4 to 6 weeks. So, if
they release us, they want us to post, in effect, a $2000 bond to make sure
we'll come back."

[00:11:55] HOST: Are we talking about like a garbage bag of marijuana
here or just, did he say how much?

[00:11:59] Richard: No, he did not say how much and, well as soon as I
discovered it wasn't theirs, the amount of marijuana seemed not very important.

[00:12:13] HOST: It didn't matter.

[00:12:14] Richard: And the whole thing, of course, it was beginning to
smell at this point.

[00:12:20] HOST: Yeah. And I remember reading your story and there was
something about the White Sox game in particular that kind of raised your
suspicion, right?

[00:12:31] Richard: Well, there were two things; one is that his sister
was indeed working in Chicago for the summer, before he final year in college,
and but she had an apartment. So, he said we're on our way back to her hotel.
Huh? And then went to a White Sox game. Now her hotel was on the North Side of
Chicago. And if you live there, you would not go all the way down south to a
White Sox ballgame, you'd go to a Cubs ballgame.

[00:13:09] HOST: (laugh) So you're using some geographical awareness of

[00:13:13] Richard: But it's very real in Chicago, and so things began
not adding up and at that point he said, "Will you please talk to the
lawyer, he's right here next to me."

[00:13:33] HOST: I'm starting to feel like they called the wrong guy.

[00:13:35] Richard: Well first of all, I mean the first time I had a
call like that, all of my instincts were rising up just to say this is phony,
but what if it wasn't? And he really was in trouble?

[00:13:53] HOST: And here's where you have to start to see how
convincing these calls can be. Not every 88-year-old has Richard's background
in journalism or knowledge of a certain town or maybe just a skeptical nature.
And not every octogenarian is going to double-guess the voice of someone
claiming to be their grandson and pleading for help. I mean they still have
Richard asking questions.

[00:14:12] Richard: The amazing thing is the information that he had
about me. Never mind the phone, the phone line, but the fact that he knew his
twin sister was in Chicago, and that he knew sort of enough about Chicago, the
ball, the baseball teams and all the rest. I said, "You should talk to one
of the family in Chicago, not me. There's not much I can do from here."
Then at that point I said, "This sounds kind of fishy to me." And
then he, we're talking to actors here too, then he said this heartfelt
response, "Please, Grandpa." And I have to say I had this momentary
twinge. Then I asked, "Kenny, if that's who you are, what's your address
in Los Angeles?" Click.

[00:15:20] HOST: Richard asked the right question, and he was ready to
ask more if they had the right answer. But that's the thing, here's this smart,
intuitive guy, but they've said enough in just the right way to get him asking
questions, to get him wondering just a little bit if this could really be his
grandson stuck in a jail asking for money.

[00:15:38] HOST: You know, I'm picturing you on this call at home, and
the part of your story there where you said, or he says, "Please,
Grandpa." I can only imagine the thoughts that ran through your head, you
know, you're trying to do the right thing, but also not be fooled by a

[00:15:56] Richard: That "Please, Grandpa" and it was done in
just the right plaintive, pleading tone; that was the worst moment of the
entire conversation.

[00:16:15] HOST: After they hung up, Richard called the Federal Trade
Commission and got the low down on this kind of scam. What he learned is the unfortunate
truth behind all of this. A lot of people are falling for it, and a lot of
people caught up in the emotion and urgency of the caller's voice are sending
money to someone they've never met and never will.

[00:16:32] Richard: I told him what I'd been through and he said that
it's typical. And I said does this happen a lot, and he said that elder, that
grandparents, senior Americans send millions, millions of dollars to scam
artists every year as a result of the kind of conversation you just went through.
So, after this happened, I mean I was still kind of stunned by all of this,
that I sat down and wrote an email to all the members of my family that I had
email addresses for; primarily my four grown daughters and in some cases, their
husbands, to tell them what I'd been through. Within a few hours I heard back
from two members of my extended family. One was a grandfather who lives in
Kentucky, he said he had been through a similar experience and he apparently,
whoever called him was not as clever as my "Kenny" because he began
asking questions immediately and the phone went dead within two or three
minutes. The other phone call, he picked up the phone, he was at home, he
picked up the phone and there was this again plaintive voice appealing to
Grandpa, and he said, "I'm in Phoenix, we got in a fight in a bar and I
got punched in the nose and I know my voice is very different from what it
normally is." And that he needed bail money, so he could come home, and
grandpa went around the corner and sent money.

[00:18:34] HOST: When did you talk to Kenny after all this? And did you
connect with him eventually?

[00:18:40] Richard: Kenny was away and working someplace in LA at the
time, so I talked to his mother, and I've talked with him since then. And he
has, he's absolutely amazed at what happened.

[00:18:55] HOST: I'm glad Kenny's staying out of trouble.

[00:18:57] Richard: (chuckle) He’s graduated from college and has a good

[00:19:02] HOST: Yeah, and well at least you've got a good story to
tell, to share with each other.

[00:19:06] Richard: Exactly.


[00:19:11] HOST: So Frank, so these scammers ever impress you with their
stories, or their ability to fool somebody?

[00:19:17] Frank Abagnale: You can always tell by listening to someone
tell the actual incident whether these are real amateurs that are doing this or
really pros that are doing it. It's not always just an individual. A lot of
times these are boiler rooms, rooms set up with 7 or 8 people in the room, and
they've advanced far beyond that now, so what they do now is first of all, they
go to a social media site of that grandson so they can get the grandson's name,
the mother's name, his father's name, sisters' names, girlfriends' names, even
sometimes what kind of car he's driving. They obviously are able to manipulate
the caller ID, so they don't want to say they're the grandson because then too
many questions can be asked of the grandson to verify it is the grandson. So,
what I've seen more often is the conversation starts by the phone ringing, and
it says on there that it's X-Y-Z police department, so you pick it up and
someone says, this is Sergeant O'Brien with X-Y-Z police department; we've
arrested your grandson. They gave him the name, he was driving this vehicle,
but he was DWI.

[00:20:18] HOST: So, in this case they don't even have to talk to the

[00:20:20] Frank Abagnale: They don't have to talk, and they say he was
with his girlfriend, and they give the girlfriend's name. The girlfriend is not
in custody, but your grandson is. He has asked us not to call his parents, but
he has asked us to call you. He needs to post bail in the next couple of hours
or he'll have to spend the weekend in jail. Oh my god.

[00:20:37] HOST: So, they've got all these, all these details.

[00:20:39] Frank Abagnale: Details, and of course everything always with
every scam has to be urgent, right now, must be done this moment. So, then of
course the grandparent is immediately, well what do I have to do? Well, you
need to basically just give me a credit card number and where I can put it on
your credit card. The bail is $200 or whatever they say the bail is. Of course
they're going to charge the card a lot more money, and they get the parent or
grandparent to give them a card number. So they've gotten much more
sophisticated. They've realized that you might start questioning about what's
your address, or what's this relative's name, so this way you're not dealing
with the grandson, the grandson's in custody. As all scams, and we’ll go through
this a lot, I live on a simple philosophy; everything is basically stop and
verify. So the simplest thing in there is for me to hang up the phone, call,
look up in the phone book, the police department's phone number, call the
police department, ask for this sergeant. They're, of course, going to say
there's no one here by that name, then you'll explain, I got this call. No, we don’t
have your grandson in custody, and sir, that's a scam. It's perpetrated all the
time, just ignore that call and don't fall for that. I think that's the biggest
mistake we make. We listen to the conversation and then we don't verify the
information that was given to us. We don't check it out. We don't stop and say
before I send some money, even if you had said to that caller, well you know
what? I'll just come down to the police department right now and I'll post the
money. They would hang up or tell you, no, you can't do that, you can't come
down here. You have to, what you then would start to get a little bit
suspicious, but again, they've gotten so sophisticated that again, you know,
even a very smart person would think, well the caller ID says it's the police
department, he knows all this information, he even knows what car that he has,
so it sounds that this must be real. When it starts to get bad is that the
police are never going to tell you, yes, post bail with your credit card over
the phone. Those are the kind of things where then you start to get a little
bit suspicious. So, my response would have been, well can I just come down and
post that bail right now?

[00:22:43] HOST: Right, it makes you wonder the percentage of calls in
the world that have actually, when a grandparent or rather a grandchild has
ever actually called a grandparent for help from jail, you know, maybe it's
never even happened. I mean I'm sure it has, but...

[00:22:55] Frank Abagnale: Exactly.

[00:22:56] HOST: These boiler rooms, so these exist across the country?
I mean I'm sure outside of the country.

[00:23:01] Frank Abagnale: And they have for years, and there are all
types of boiler rooms.

[00:23:03] HOST: Have you been in boiler rooms? Have you seen...

[00:23:05] Frank Abagnale: I've seen them. The Bureau has raided them
over and over. Sometimes they're boiler rooms selling you investment scams.

[00:23:12] HOST: Are they in somebody's house or like in an office park?

[00:23:14] Frank Abagnale: Somebody's house. Sometimes they've rented
office space and they operate out of office space. Sometimes there's been as
many as 30, 40, 50 people in the room.

[00:23:23] HOST: Using the sense of urgency and fear on a call and
having to do with a family member. As you look back at your early career in
doing this kind of thing, was that something that would come into play, or was
it a really different time and really different kind of stuff that was going

[00:23:39] Frank Abagnale: You know with me it was a little bit
different because I had one motive all the time, and that was to cash a check,
so I wasn't really trying to swindle anyone out of their money. I will tell
you, one of the things that most amazed me about that experience was that say I
had met a friend, whether it be a guy or a girl, and later on when the police
interviewed them, I was surprised because the individuals say, well look, I have
to be honest, he really didn't swindle me out of anything; on the contrary, he
bought me a lot of gifts, he took me on trips, he was very nice to me. He
didn't do anything to hurt me in any way except he deceived me. And I will
never speak to him again and I'm very mad because he didn't trust me enough to
tell me who he really was, and people really do not like to be deceived. That's
the whole thing. It's not that you took their money or whatever, it's the fact
that you deceived them, and I had to learn that that way, that I was really
shocked that wow, why could this guy be mad? All the things I gave him and all
the trips I took him on and they're mad? Well they were mad because you were
their friend and they come to find out you were deceiving them, even though you
didn't do anything to them, you didn't take anything from them, you took their
trust and that really bothers people, and that was a real eye-opener for me.

[00:24:55] HOST: That's really interesting. And did you ever have the
opportunity or the experience of them speaking to some of these people later in
life? It sounds like you knew...

[00:25:03] Frank Abagnale: I've had the opportunity to see a lot of
them, only because of the movie and then people contact me, and I think people,
I think people feel great that what I've done with my life now, but probably
down deep, they maybe feel they still were a little bit deceived and that
bothered them. It's like, you know, it's the same way in a relationship. If
you're deceiving someone in the relationship and they find out later, it's not
that you mistreated them, you took them to great restaurants, you took them on
trips, you paid for his vacation with them, but in reality you were fooling
around with somebody else, you were having other affairs with someone else; the
deception is what's really devastating to a lot of people.


[00:25:41] HOST: We are joined now by Jen Beam. She is with the Fraud
Watch Network. She manages the Fraud Watch Network Facebook page. Jen, thanks
for joining us.

[00:25:49] Jen Beam: Happy to be here.

[00:25:49] HOST: Alright, so this week on our show we'd like to talk to
you about Facebook. Tell us about some of the scams that are happening there.

[00:25:57] Jen Beam: One of the things we're seeing most often lately is
with Facebook Messenger, so that's you know, direct message app right within
Facebook. It's on your phone, so one of the top scams I'm seeing and getting a
lot of questions about is you'll get, it could appear that it's coming from a
friend. It could appear to be coming from a page that you follow, but you'll
get a message that will be a cute emoji or a sticker, you know, happy bouncing
puppy, and then a video. And the video link, if you clicked on that link what
happens is it brings you right to a Facebook login page, so people look at that
and they go, oh, geez I got kicked out of Facebook. I'd better log back in. And
it's a fake page and really what it is is scammers grabbing your password and
your login information.

[00:26:49] HOST: That usually comes from, it has to have a name, right?
I mean usually the names... sometimes I feel like the names are kind of absurd
sounding names, right? They've got to go out and find a name that...

[00:26:58] Jen Beam: Yeah, sometimes, I mean I think it's the classic
you know imposter scam. So sometimes they'll make it seem just close enough to
something you’ve heard of. You know just maybe a LinkedIn but still different,
a friend, sort of like a generic name. So it can vary. For us, we see all
kinds. So we'll see something that looks like a nonprofit organization, we'll
also see something that looks like it's just coming from a nice woman, Mary
Jones from Montana. Slow down, click on that profile, take a look around. If
there's only three photos in that, there's nothing else, it looks like it was
created last week, that's a scam.

[00:27:41] HOST: Alright, Jen. Thanks a ton for your great information
and we'll look forward to having you back again sometime.

[00:27:46] Jen Beam: Thank you, so much.

[00:27:46] HOST: Jen Beam is with the Fraud Watch Network, manages the
Fraud Watch Network Facebook page.


[00:27:54] HOST: Frank, you’re a wealth of information, luckily we have
a whole season of episodes coming to our listeners to go through a lot more in
the shadowy world of scams. The main thing is grandparents, stop and verify.

[00:28:06] Frank Abagnale: Absolutely. It doesn't matter whether you're
a grandparent and you're 80, or you're a grandparent and you're 50.

[00:28:11] HOST: Alright. Next week we'll be back with more scams, more
frauds, and of course, my cohost, Frank Abagnale. Thanks for being here.

[00:28:17] Frank Abagnale: Thank you for having me.


[00:28:19] HOST: For more information and resources on how to protect
yourself from becoming a victim of a scam, visit AARP's Fraud Watch Network
website, Special thanks to our producers, Julie
Getz and Brook Ellis. Our audio guru and engineer, Julio Gonzales, and of
course, my cohost, Frank Abagnale. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts or any of the many fine podcast outlets you choose to visit. For The Perfect Scam, I'm Will Johnson.


Richard is a retired journalist who receives a call from someone claiming to be his grandson in jail. The young man on the other end of the line tells Richard he needs money to help him get out. By asking the right questions and not giving in, Richard discovers the man is a con artist. 

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 Stop and verify. If you receive a suspicious phone call, hang up and verify the information provided by the caller before proceeding. For instance, if the caller claims to be from your town’s police station, look up the police station’s number and call it.

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Episode 2: Martha’s Jury Duty Scam

Find out what happens when Martha gets a message from the police department saying she's missed jury duty and needs to take action immediately or else. 

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
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