In upstate New York, an older couple receives a startling call from an unknown voice. They are told their grandson has been in a car accident. The caller knows their grandson’s name, where he lives and other details about his life. The caller shares alarming news that police suspect his grandson is at fault for the accident and are holding him in jail. If the grandparents want to help their grandson, they’ll need to pay for a lawyer and send money immediately. Terrified, the grandparents agree to cover the legal fees to get their grandson out of jail. They follow the caller’s instructions and send $5,400 in gift cards. Then the caller demands $10,000 cash. The grandparents don’t yet realize that they are victims of the grandparent scam, a con targeting seniors by preying on their devotion to their families. In the U.S., grandparent scams are on the rise, with nearly $41 million in reported losses in 2018, up from $26 million in 2017. Before the ordeal is over, the couple will receive dozens of calls demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars and threatening their grandson.
TIPS: If you think you’ve been a victim of a scam or would like to report fraud call The Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Anyone can become the victim of a scam, it’s important to be vigilant and know your vulnerabilities. For instance, if you are looking for a job you are more vulnerable to a work-at-home scam.
[00:00:01] Julie: This week on AARP's The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:04] Karen Allen: My dad is college educated, my mom is smart and has worked her whole life. My initial reaction was a bit of anger, I have to say, at, that they were so vulnerable to this.
[00:00:18] Julie: Welcome back to AARP's The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Julie Getz and with me today as always, Frank Abagnale. Frank, it's great to see you.
[00:00:25] Frank Abagnale: Great to be here, Julie. Thanks.
[00:00:26] Julie: Frank, today we're revisiting a scam that we've discussed before on this podcast, the grandparent scam. Now there's no doubt that scams play on people's emotions in different ways, and for this one in particular, most older adults with grown children have had years to worry about the what-ifs. What if my daughter's car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, or what if my son is robbed, or what if one of them suddenly has to go into a hospital? So with this grandparent scam, the fraudsters prey directly on these worries, the parents and grandparents have had for much of their adult lives. Now coupled with the fraudsters' demands and needing to act immediately to send money or something terrible will happen to your grandchild, it's just all so devious. And unfortunately, it feels like this grandparent scam is one that we continue to hear more and more about. It just won't go away. Why is that, Frank?
[00:01:17] Frank Abagnale: Well, you know, there's no question when I get asked by law enforcement or even when we go out and do state events for AARP and we get Q&A, people always bring up the grandparent scam. So it's much like the IRS scam. It is a very, very popular scam. Again, we've seen it change a little bit, so it, you know, the grandparent scam is, the easiest way to explain it is that nowadays where it's got a little more sophisticated, the phone rings, the caller ID says it's a local police department or the state police, so of course you believe it is. You pick up the phone and says, "Sergeant Ryan, we have arrested your uh grandson. He was DUI on Interstate such and such," but then they go on to tell you what kind of car he drives, and you're familiar with the car, so that's a confirmation. And then they tell you he had a passenger in the car, and they give you the name of the passenger, so you know that's his girlfriend, you met her many, many times. They said he didn't want us to call his parents. They say the parents' name, of course you know the parents, and then they say, "He needs to post bail, but he has to do it in the next couple of hours, or he'll have to spend the weekend in jail. He asked us to call you." And of course, their immediate response is, "Well no, absolutely. How do I do that?" "Well you can give us a credit card over the phone, and we can do that." There are many different ones where we have your so--, we kidnapped your grandson or your grandson's down and out of the country and doesn't have any money, but it all comes back again to that red flag we always talk about; you've got to give me the money right now. I always remind people that if it was one of the scams like I just discussed, and you actually said to the person on the phone, "Oh, well I live just one block from the police department. So let me, I'll be down there in four minutes. Let me just come down there and I'll give you the money." "Oh no, you can't do that. You know, you have to pay me with a credit card, or let me wire the money," that, you know, is a scam. And again, very easy to confirm. You know, you hang up the phone, you call the parents, say, "Where is so and so?" "Well he's sitting right here," or uh or you basically call the police department back and say, "I just got a phone call, they said it was Sergeant so and so, and that they had my grandson in custody. I wanted to verify," and of course, they're going to say, "No, we don't, and we wouldn't have made that call to you. That's just a, a scam." But I think it works because obviously everybody, I have five grandchildren; everybody's worried about their grandchildren. So if it involves your grandchildren, right away your ears pick up and you go, "Yes, what can I do," and you can understand where maybe the grandson doesn't want the parents to know, 'cause he's going to get in a lot of trouble, so he's calling the grandparents. And you kind of feel good that he's, well, he's calling me to help him, you know, and all--, they play on all of those strings and, and it works. And as we always say, people are basically honest, and because they're honest, they don't have a deceptive mind. So, if they don't know that, then they get that call, they think it's totally legitimate. They have no reason to doubt it, and because of social media and the fact that I know what kind of car he drives from Facebook, I know his girlfriend's name from Facebook, and I can put all that information on there, then it's even more convincing, must be, who else would know all this information, that it must be real. So, that was one of the things again, writing "Scam Me If You Can," we want to explain the grandparent scam, how it works, so that when you get that call, you've read that book, so you said, no, I know this is a scam. I read all about it, and this is what they do, and I know it's not true. So again, education is a very, very important, important part of this. But you can never tell people enough over and over that these scams go on, but that is the, one of the most common ones we get asked about.
[00:04:43] Julie: Okay, Frank, thanks for explaining the way this scam works. We'll be back in a bit to discuss the grandparent scam more. In the meantime, we're going to hear about an elderly couple from East Amherst, New York, who got caught in one of these grandparent scams. It's a story we learned about from Chicago reporter, Alexandria Jacobson.
[00:05:02] Julie: Alexandria, tell me about the series you're working on called "Be On Guard."
[00:05:06] Alexandria Jacobson: One of the publications I freelance for is the Chicago Sun Times. And they approached me to work with them on a series called "Be On Guard," which was about common consumer scams, and giving people best tips for avoiding them, and that project was actually sponsored by AARP Illinois.
[00:05:23] Julie: And what kind of stories did you feature?
[00:05:25] Alexandria Jacobson: I did a series of six stories talking about scams that affect people of all different backgrounds. So, there are romance scams, scams that affect young people who might be looking for temporary work as babysitters, I think these are really important stories that we share so we can hopefully minimize the number of victims.
[00:05:43] In August 2018, you wrote an article about grandparent scam. What made the Sun Times decide to focus on that particular story?
[00:05:50] Alexandria Jacobson: We really want to focus on scams affecting retirees and one of the common types of scams that unfortunately target elderly folks is called the grandparent scam. So, I actually was in touch with John Allen's daughter, Karen Allen, who told me that unfortunately her father had lost a lot of money to scammers, and she connected me with her dad, and he was able to share that with us so that we could put this story out into the public and hopefully to help others avoid such types of scams.
[00:06:25] Julie: This story starts when 86-year-old John Allen and his wife get a phone call in the middle of the night.
[00:06:31] Alexandria Jacobson: Back in July 2018, John Allen and his wife were home and they received a phone call (phone ring) from their grandson.
[00:06:42] Julie: Or who they thought was their grandson calling for help.
[00:06:45] Alexandria Jacobson: ...saying "I'm in trouble, I've been in a car accident, I'm in a holding cell in Chicago, I need your help."
[00:06:51] Julie: Before they could ask for more details, another voice came on the line claiming to be their grandson's lawyer.
[00:06:58] Alexandria Jacobson: He said, "Your grandson is in this holding center. We need some money to try to help keep him out of jail." Then this person said, you know, "Don't call the police directly, we'll take care of it. I need you to send me money as soon as possible." John told me that he and his wife felt terror when they got this phone call. It could have been totally plausible that their grandson was in a car accident. He actually lives in the Chicago area, so that information was enough to convince them that maybe this is true, and we need to do something to help our grandson. They were panicked.
[00:07:31] Julie: The Allens quickly asked what they can do to bail their grandson out.
[00:07:34] Alexandria Jacobson: The person asked, "Where do you have credit cards?" So one of the places was Home Depot, and they said, "Great, go get us Home Depot gift cards since gift cards are the fastest way to get us money and get $5400 in gift cards, and then scratch off the numbers on the back and read those to us." What the scammer said was so convincing and so brief that they felt like they had to take action right away.
[00:07:59] Julie: The two anxious grandparents drive a half an hour to the closest Home Depot, purchase the gift cards, and called the scammers back with the numbers. The very next day, they get another call.
[00:08:10] Alexandria Jacobson: The scammers called and asked for $10,000 cash to be sent before the grandson's impending trial date. And the Allens were told that they would get this money back if their grandson was found innocent, so they went to the bank, took out $10,000 cash and FedEx'd it to an address they were given in Texas, and this whole time the Allens listened to what the scammers were telling them, which was, "Don't tell anyone about this, we'll handle it."
[00:08:37] Julie: In the next two to three days the Allens get more than a dozen calls. (phone ring) Each one is more aggressive than the last.
[00:08:45] Alexandria Jacobson: The people on the other end of the phone asked for $150,000 and became threatening and said, "Your grandson might not get out of jail, we need this money right away."
[00:08:59] Julie: Fortunately the Allens have children they can count on. One of them is Karen Allen. She's an Associate Director of Chicago Field Studies at Northwestern University and speaks to her parents every week.
[00:09:11] Karen Allen: My parents and I, we usually talk every Sunday, and I could tell something was off. They asked me right away about James, my nephew, and I said, "Well I just saw James. He's great," you know, "He's doing really well," and they said, "How does he look? Does he have a black eye?" I'm like, "No, James is fine." I said, "Tell me what's going on."
[00:09:37] Julie: Karen and her parents usually have an easy conversation. This time, they seemed to be hiding something. It takes her at least five minutes to get them to open up.
[00:09:46] Karen Allen: They still were believing that they needed to send, now, $150,000 to these men to keep James out of jail or to represent him in the courts.
[00:10:02] Julie: Karen immediately guesses the truth; her parents have been caught in a scam. She tries to break it to them as gently as she can.
[00:10:09] Karen Allen: It took time for me to convince him that James was okay. That there was no accident. And I just had dinner and played golf with James; they were very shaken up when they realized they had been scammed, especially my dad.
[00:10:28] Julie: While Karen's talking to her parents, she's texting with her three brothers. One lives in Chicago, another lives in Vermont. They agree that the brother who lives in New York should check on the parents right away.
[00:10:39] Karen Allen: He left the next day and drove all night long to get to my parents and then to troubleshoot. They went to the bank. They changed accounts, so he then was there attending to them as best they could.
[00:10:56] Julie: Did your parents report what happened to them to the police?
[00:11:00] Karen Allen: They did. They went to the Amherst Police Station in upstate New York, and the police came back and said that this is a very common crime. They did receive a detective who then pursued the gift cards trying to see if they could recoup some of that money and/or trace these individuals. They did try to pursue and recoup some of their lost money via an attorney. Of course, none of that resulted in success, and they were out another, I don't know, a thousand or 1500 dollars for attorney fees.
[00:11:45] Julie: Okay, so the scammers never got caught.
[00:11:49] Karen Allen: They did not. The scammers continue.
[00:11:53] Julie: When your father withdrew $10,000 from the bank, this was abnormal behavior, right?
[00:11:58] Karen Allen: Correct.
[00:11:59] Julie: Did the banks follow-up? Did they ask questions?
[00:12:02] Karen Allen: No. And in fact, the bank uh did not follow-up, and my father then employed an attorney and met and tried to bring suit against that bank. The bank in examining this made the determination that my parents were at fault, because they withdrew the money.
[00:12:31] Julie: Karen, tell me a little bit about your parents. How would you describe their personalities?
[00:12:34] Karen Allen: My dad is very outgoing. He's a salesman by profession. My mom is more reserved and private. My dad played Santa Claus for the western New York area, for 40 or 50 years, and my mom would, you know, make sure he had one of the best Santa suits and the beard, and she would, I remember helping her clean it and comb it and get him ready for his many trips to like a home or a hospital or to even Notre Dame grads, so the alumni association or to uh neighbors. And so my dad and my mom went and, and sometimes I went as an elf uh to help him, um, but and, and, and that was quite joyful in seeing him turn on and engage with the community really um, you know, help kids feel loved and special, and of course their parents were there. So it was one of my fondest memories, I think, of my parents in that tradition of kind of community service.
[00:13:51] Julie: Karen, your mom and dad sound like very caring people. Do you think that could have helped make them open to these scammers?
[00:13:58] Karen Allen: I think one of the things that maybe convinced them is that James, you know, six months or a year earlier, had been in a car accident. He, indeed, was, he, there were three cars that were driving up to Wisconsin to go skiing, and there was a snowstorm and all the cars got in an accident. So, you know, they thought it plausible that this could happen. You know, they obviously were helping, in their mind, a grandson who was in trouble.
[00:14:30] Julie: What did you find to be the most challenging part about going through something like this, as the daughter learning about what happened to her parents?
[00:14:37] Karen Allen: Not being able to protect my parents from this, seeing my parents so vulnerable to something like this, has been incredibly challenging. My dad is college educated, my mom is smart and has worked her whole life. She was a bookkeeper for a law firm, and my dad was often on the road working for a trucking company in uh moving goods and services across the, the country. So my initial reaction was a bit of anger, I have to say, frustration or anger at, that they were so vulnerable to this. And of course, that shifted to feeling, you know, sad, and also realizing that while they are smart and they're hardworking and have done everything to provide for us kids and their grandkids, they can fall prey to these types of scams. I think coming to realize that they were vulnerable, um, is, has been hard, but as we age, we need each other to help and to protect from bad people in the world.
[00:16:03] Julie: How do you think this experience affected your parents?
[00:16:05] Karen Allen: They're ashamed. There's a lot of shame, like how could I have let this happen to me? It has taken more than a year for them to get comfortable talking about this, but they still have not told all of their own siblings and family members, and they've asked all of us to keep this quiet. And of course, I've let them know as my brother has, it's like, no, you know, this is an important experience that we share and help our family and others learn about and take steps to guard against.
[00:16:46] Julie: Karen, after watching your parents go through something like this, do you have any advice you'd like to offer to our listeners?
[00:16:53] Karen Allen: Communication with each other is vital, so that they might then trust and open up, so that we can protect each other. I do think that AARP has done great things in the Bulletin, in the magazines with the tips. I know my parents see that and read it. I do as well. For those who have fallen victim, I think it's important that they realize that shame doesn't need to be a part of this. That this happens to very educated, smart people, and the more we can talk about it, the more we can protect ourselves from these types of creative predatory practices.
[00:17:44] Julie: Altogether, the Allens lost $16,500 in this grandparent scam. It's a lot of money, but in reporting her series for the Chicago Sun Times, reporter Alexandria Jacobson has seen people lose much, much more.
[00:17:58] Alexandria Jacobson: When you hear stories like this people think, oh, that could never happen to me. I, I would have picked up on the red flag right away, but scams like these are incredibly common. As I mentioned the grandparent scam is very prevalent, anyone can fall victim to it. So the most depressing thing to me is that scammers are able to concoct such believable stories. They'll stop at nothing in order to concoct stories that people might fall for and get, and be able to send them money.
[00:18:29] Julie: Frank, what is the biggest takeaway from this story?
[00:18:33] Frank Abagnale: Well, my biggest takeaway from this, is that now I have a law firm, supposably a lawyer's telling me that I have to get them $5400 and it has to be in gift cards from Home Depot, that's the quickest way to do it. That right there would make me very suspicious that someone wants me to send the money on gift cards, especially if they're portraying themselves as a law firm or someone like that.
[00:18:56] Julie: And Home Depot, nonetheless.
[00:18:57] Frank: Yeah, from Home Depot or somewhere. They, they're looking for a way to convert it in cash so you can't trace it. So, again, this is where you need to question some of those things, and even though you're a little scared and apprehensive that maybe this is true, you need to say, you know, that doesn't sound reasonable to me.
[00:19:12] Julie: The con artists who are running the grandparent scam seem like the low of the low. They're digging up personal information on you and your family, calling you up out of the blue with the intentions of catching you off guard, as they did with the Allens. I mean just right there when your phone rings in the middle of the night, a strong signal is sent to your brain that there's something wrong, so by the time you actually even pick up the phone, you might already be feeling anxious.
[00:19:34] Frank Abagnale: And they are the worst of the worst, and as you heard me say many times, this is the problem that we exist today because of technology and the internet. So as I always tell people, you know, back in my day, 50 years ago there were con men and con women, and that stood for confidence man. But in order for it to work, you had to know me one on one. I had to deal with you, and I was a likable person, I was well dressed, well spoken, and you got to where you trusted me, and I got to kind of like you 'cause I got to know you, and that's where there's, compassion came into it. So, you know, I might have said, well, you know, I don't want to take this person for all their money, 'cause you know, Helen's really kind of a nice person. I'm just going to take some of Helen's money. Today you’re dealing with someone thousands of miles away and they don't see you. You don't see them. So there is no compassion. There is no relationship in there involved, so yes, these are very low people, but again, on their side, they don't have to deal with any of those consciences or compassion, 'cause they're not seeing you. You're just somebody on a screen or somebody on a telephone that they don't really care whether they take all your money or take some of your money. So that's what gets real scary about technology and the internet where there's not that human touch and that human relationship involved.
[00:20:47] Julie: So folks, be aware of the grandparent scam. It's a lucrative business for fraudsters, but one we can help prevent by being aware of its presence and to resist the urge to act immediately no matter how dramatic the story is.
[00:20:59] Frank Abagnale: Again, don't part with your money unless you absolutely know who you're giving your money to.
[00:21:04] Julie: Great, all right. Thanks so much. See you next week.
[00:21:06] Frank Abagnale: Thank you.
[00:21:08] Julie: If you or someone you know has been the victim of a fraud or scam, call AARP's Fraud Watch Network helpline, at 877-908-3360. Thank you to our team of scambusters; producer Brook Ellis, our audio engineer Julio Gonzales, and of course, my co-host, Frank Abagnale. Be sure to find us on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP - The Perfect Scam, I'm Julie Getz.
END OF TRANSCRIPT
How to listen and subscribe to AARP's podcasts
Are you new to podcasts? Learn how to subscribe to AARP Podcasts on any device.