Seventy-nine-year-old Jack receives a call from a young woman claiming to be his granddaughter, Grace. She tells Grandpa Jack that she’s in jail as a result of a car accident and begs him to call her attorney. The attorney claims that Grace was texting and driving and needs money for bail. Jack is instructed to send the money in cash through the mail. Before the ordeal is over, Jack sends $19,000 through the mail — but with the guidance of the police, he’s able to fight back against the scammer.
[00:00:01] Michelle: This week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:04] The second he walked out of that car, the detective with eyes on his car says, "Hey, that's him." Three or four guys converged on him, and uh, they were off to the races. But fortunately, we had our runners out there and he didn't get too far...
[00:00:02] Michelle: Welcome back to AARP's The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Michelle Kosinski. This week this one ends unexpectedly. We're going to take a look at a particularly disturbing grandparent scam. Now these things have been going on for some years, and I would say they bear a special ranking on the horribility scale, because this is when a scammer impersonates someone's grandchild pretending to be in big trouble, in jail or the hospital, and of course, in need of money. Just preying on and exploiting the things that make grandparents so great, their enormous love and caring and wanting to help. And this one has quite a twist, or maybe I should say, twisted ending. Now the Federal Trade Commission says this kind of scam is not just growing, it's exploding. These scammers netted around $26 million from people in the US in 2017, and one year later, that had jumped up to 41 million, probably because it's so lucrative. And we should warn you, with coronavirus, the FTC says these scammers are on the prowl, because now there's even more urgency when they tell grandparents that the kid in question is terribly sick or stuck overseas and money needs to be wired immediately. Just an ugly situation.
[00:01:55] Michelle: Let's bring in Fraud Expert Frank Abagnale now. Frank, how are you doing?
[00:01:59] Frank Abagnale: Doing great, Michelle, thank you.
[00:02:01] Michelle: So these scammers are just getting more and more money out of people from doing these.
[00:02:07] Frank Abagnale: Yes, scams are always being updated and changed a little bit. So first, the grandparent scam was someone calling and saying they were the grandchild and they've been arrested for DWI and they needed to post bail. Then sometimes it was someone from the police department and the caller ID said it was the police department which is very easy to manipulate the caller ID. And then said they were Sergeant So and So and they'd arrested your grandson for drunk driving, and they had him in custody, wanted to post bail. But now we even see where the grandson or the granddaughter calls in and says to the grandparent, "Can you contact this lawyer, I'm in trouble and I need to get money to get out of bail or hire this attorney." It's very official sounding, sounds very, very real. And again, social media has a big play because people on social media say the grandchild's name, their girlfriend's names, what kind of cars they drive, all their personal information. So they take that information from social media to convince the grandparent that it is, in fact, the granddaughter or the grandson.
[00:03:10] Michelle: It just hurts to hear about.
[00:03:12] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, and again, I always tell people you're parting with money or you're giving somebody information, so you need to stop and verify. You need to make sure that this is real. You need to call to see where is your grandson, where is your granddaughter, call their parents, uh verify that that is, in fact, a real law firm. Again, very easy to do with the, the internet. These are steps you have to take before you turn around and send someone especially a large sum of money.
[00:03:39] Michelle: Thanks a million, Frank.
[00:03:40] Frank Abagnale: Thank you.
[00:03:46] Michelle: So our scam starts with a man named Jack who's retired from an international business where he would set up and execute joint ventures in industrial manufacturing in Asia. He even lived in China for a while. Today, at 79, he and his wife split their time between Texas and the bright lights of Las Vegas. Now Jack is a smart guy who's used to negotiating and seeing through people's bluffing. A tough guy who used to play quarterback in school. But this past December, just before Christmas one peaceful evening down in Texas when he suddenly got a call from his distraught granddaughter, or who he thought was her. He found himself completely unskeptical. I mean this understandably put him straight into panic mode.
[00:04:33] Jack: "Hello, Grandpa," you know and, and I says, "Well, Ava, it uh sounds like you just got up." And she said, "No, I'm in jail." And "Uh-oh." And then she told me that uh she had an accident and uh they gave her a, a lawyer, a public defender I guess, and uh, here's his number. I asked her if she was hurt. And she, I think she said she hurt her lip and she broke her nose or something.
[00:05:00] Michelle: His granddaughter is 18 and had just moved to New York City to start college, a move that Jack was worried about in the first place, and now this.
[00:05:10] Michelle: And she sounded like her?
[00:05:12] Jack: Yeah, yeah, she sounded like she was uh, just got up and um, maybe tired or, or uh frustrated or concerned, and then when she said she's in jail, I, I put two and two together...
[00:05:24] Michelle: But it adds up to even more than Jack could have imagined. He calls the number she gives him, supposedly to a lawyer who's there to help, except, in reality, far from it.
[00:05:36] Jack: He told me that she was, had an accident and uh, because she, she was texting at the time, and she hit somebody else and uh, it's a felony apparently. He told that uh, texting while you drive, and then he confirmed that she was hurt, uh, you know, she had a broken nose and a lip, but she's fine, but she wants to get out of jail and, you have to send the money uh to the First Offender Program, it's got to be cash, and you'll get the money back after uh, my granddaughter finished her driver's ed course for two weeks, and then also to do community service, so many hours.
[00:06:18] Michelle: The amount, $9,000. All cash. Looking back, Jack hates that he did this, but the pressure was on to act quickly, and he was so upset about his only granddaughter, who, by the way, had begged him on the phone not to tell anyone else, especially not her parents. Jack was now poised to be the hero, bail her out and take care of this situation.
[00:06:44] Michelle: You must have been really worried about your granddaughter.
[00:06:47] Jack: Ex--, exactly, exactly, but, you know, in looking back at it, I don't know how I did it, how I was fooled but I did, I was fooled.
[00:06:54] Michelle: And what did the lawyer sound like? Was he professional?
[00:06:58] Jack: He sounded professional. Oh, very professional.
[00:07:00] Michelle: Wow.
[00:07:01] Jack: And um, and he knew the law and he, you know, I guess he knew it, oh, she's only allowed one uh phone call, and that sounded like the movies, you know, as far as I know.
[00:07:11] Michelle: Yeah.
[00:07:12] Jack: And so, as soon as she gets out, she wants to talk to you, again, and don't tell anybody, uh you know, don't tell her father, her mother. By the way, her mother was in, in, in Europe. You know, her father uh and my daughter, uh, they're, they got divorced about five years ago, so.
[00:07:28] Michelle: Okay.
[00:07:30] Jack: So I don't talk to him. I didn't even have his phone number. And actually I didn't want to call my daughter in Europe, because, well she, she's going to get more worried than, than I am.
[00:07:38] Michelle: Wow. So you thought you were, you were handling this. You were doing the right thing.
[00:07:43] Jack: Well it, I, I, I guess so, but looking back at it, it was uh, it was a beautiful scam, I guess.
[00:07:50] Michelle: And one that just keeps going. Jack has several conversations with this lawyer who seems knowledgeable, patient, and ready to do what he can to help. Jack sends that $9,000 to an address in Connecticut. He thinks, well that's done now. But then this lawyer character calls Jack back. There's more.
[00:08:11] Jack: He said, "We've got another problem." He says, "The person she hit was a woman, and she was pregnant, and the baby died." So you know, I mean this is really going, you know, really left field here. And she agreed that if, if Ava would pay the um, the hospital bills, she wouldn't file charges. And, and the hospital bills were 6--, 6, 7 thousand dollars, so again, and it wouldn't go on her record.
[00:08:43] Michelle: Jack is beside himself with grief and worry over this. He sends another $7,000 through the mail. But the scammers aren't done yet. Another call. This lawyer has yet another problem for Jack to fix.
[00:08:59] Jack: And he said, uh, "The police impounded the car, and while they were inspecting the car, they uh, found some prescription drugs that she didn't have a prescription for, that's another, uh, problem, because it's a controlled substance, and she has to pay a fine. So, and then also we've got to get the car fixed, and that's, that's $3,000, and, and I said, "Well what do you mean the car?" And, and way down deep I, I didn't think she even had a car, 'cause in New York, it's stupid, you wouldn't have a car, and I was getting PO'd by that time.
[00:09:37] Michelle: Aggravated enough that Jack starts to move away from worry mode, and after realizing that something now seems really off, the car, his doubts are growing. He's had enough. He tells the supposed lawyer, the police can just keep the car and that he's out of cash and will need to call back, giving him just enough pause and disurgency to act on his gut feelings.
[00:10:03] Jack: By that time uh, I uh, decided to call her father. And I, I didn't have his phone number, so I called my grandson, I said, "Tell your father to give me a call. Tell him to call me urgently."
[00:10:18] Michelle: When he hears back, Jack's worst suspicions are now confirmed. Ava has no car in New York. Her father calls her new cellphone number which Jack didn't even have, and the great news is, she's absolutely fine; not in jail, there's been no accident, which means the terrible news is, this has all been an elaborate, cruel, nasty scam.
[00:10:43] Jack: Ava, my granddaughter called me back, and she says, "Grandpa, I'm, I'm fine. I'm in my dormitory, I'm fine."
[00:10:51] Michelle: With the phone in his hand, it all feels surreal. Jack doesn't know whether to be more relieved or horrified, but he is now out nearly $20,000 to these creeps. He has nothing left to do but spring into action. He calls the police in Texas. He calls the police in Connecticut where he sent all that cash, and at one point, he's told, well they're writing up a report, that'll take at least a day, but he won't rest. He urges them to catch these scammers, make a plan and stop this now. And they're up for it.
[00:11:27] It was one of those things where you walk into the office and, and hit the ground running.
[00:11:32] Michelle: Enter the guy known around his office as the Grandparent Scam Whisperer. Detective Kyle O'Neill, in Greenwich, Connecticut, has seen his share, and was as eager as Jack to set a trap for these predators.
[00:11:47] Kyle O'Neill: My partner, Crystal Bosey, and I, when we found out about this scam, we kind of looked at each other and said, let's see if we can get this guy to come back to town.
[00:11:56] Michelle: They hatch a plan that has Jack calling the scammer back and continuing to play along.
[00:12:02] Jack: I'm, I'm getting them to do the same thing, the UPS office, and I said, "By the way, how's my granddaughter?" "Oh, she's, she's fine, and but she's anxious to get out of jail, and uh, and we don't have her in a, in the jail per se, it's a holding cell, which she's not in with the general public in the jail.
[00:12:18] Michelle: You must have just been enraged at this point knowing this is all fake.
[00:12:24] Jack: I'm getting excited just reliving it with you.
[00:12:26] Michelle: I can tell.
[00:12:28] Michelle: Jack now has the scammer on the hook. He's turned the tables making the scammer think he's about to get another six grand. The police tell Jack to put together a package that looks and feels the same as the previous ones using paper cut out of magazines or something that has about the same size and weight as real cash.
[00:12:48] Michelle: I love it.
[00:12:49] Kyle O'Neill: We didn't know how sophisticated the scammers were. We didn't know if they were monitoring the weight of the package, so it was very imperative. God bless him, he was, he was a good sport about it.
[00:12:59] Michelle: Jack, down in Texas, is in fact, practically gleeful about this; about the prospect of a plan to actually catch these guys in the act. He says he felt like James Bond, and he executes his mission to a "T."
[00:13:14] Jack: The police officers and other detectives, I guess, they, they really had to laugh the way I packed up the, the fake money, you know?
[00:13:20] Michelle: The trap is now set. Police in Greenwich have six undercover detectives in unmarked cars, positioned and ready to catch that package and the criminal soon to be attached to it. They communicate by radio watching as many potential escape routes as possible.
[00:13:39] Michelle: And so, was the address that they were using, was it just some random address?
[00:13:45] Kyle O'Neill: So that's also a part of the scam. There's a lot of pieces to the puzzle. The scammers do their research, um, so what they'll do is they'll go onto the, the real estate websites, you know, and they'll see what houses are for sale. What apartments are for rent. They'll look at the pictures, and if there's no furniture in the house, they can pretty well guarantee that that house is vacant. So they'll start sending packages to that address knowing that nobody's home, nobody will be there to intercept the package, and that the package doesn't have to be signed for, so the UPS driver, the FedEx driver, or the courier, whoever it is, drops the package on the front steps or in the mailbox and the mules or the perpetrators, whoever it is, can come pick it up with almost no interference.
[00:14:33] Michelle: This is quite sophisticated.
[00:14:35] Kyle O'Neill: Yeah, they certainly do their homework but um, you know sometimes when there's this much money involved, uh they kind of get blinded by the greed and um, it's ultimately their undoing.
[00:14:46] Michelle: Hah, blinded by greed. That, that could be the title of many a podcast.
[00:14:51] Michelle: The painstaking police operation now knows precisely when that package is coming, and they also think they know who the suspect is, because of a phone number he had previously used with UPS. The package arrives at this apartment complex followed, soon after, by a white minivan. Boom. The scammer has now unwittingly stepped into his own web.
[00:15:15] Kyle O'Neill: The second he walked out of that car, the detective with eyes on his car says, "Hey, that's him." Three or four guys converge on him and uh, they're off to the races.
[00:15:24] Michelle: The guy tries to run away.
[00:15:26] Kyle O'Neill: But fortunately we had our runners out there and he didn't get too far, and you know, he tried ditching the package on the way out, and we could tell that he was on the phone with somebody. um, so we knew that news was spreading fast amongst his criminal group that he was getting chased by the police.
[00:15:42] Michelle: It has to feel so good to see this work out and catch someone like this.
[00:15:47] Kyle O'Neill: It was, especially because typically in these scenarios, these people that go to pick up these packages are actually kind of victims themselves. They're not told what they're doing, are not aware of what's in the package and how that package came to be. You know, they don't know the story, they don't know that there's some poor victim out in Texas that's out $20,000 now. All they know is they were told to go pick up a package, they're getting paid 100 bucks to do it, and drop it off at this address.
[00:16:13] Michelle: Oh, I see. I assumed that this guy was like the perpetrator, but this is just some minion.
[00:16:19] Kyle O'Neill: Well, initially he tried to play it off that he was a mule.
[00:16:22] Michelle: Of course.
[00:16:23] Kyle O'Neill: Um, he was just going to pick up a package. I don't know what's in it, but through the interview that we had with him after we took him into custody, and through the evidence that we had gathered in the investigation up to this point, on top of his criminal history and the newspaper articles that had been published about him, we knew that this wasn't his first rodeo and that he knew exactly what he was doing. So, I wouldn't go as far as to say he was the brains of the operation, but he certainly wasn't the low man on the totem pole.
[00:16:51] Michelle: The scammer is caught, jailed, and manages to get out on bail. But as it turns out, it would have been in his own interest to stay in.
[00:17:00] Michelle: So tell me about this guy. How old is he? What kind of record does he have?
[00:17:05] Kyle O'Neill: Turns out, he's, he has a very long criminal history, and the majority of his, his arrests, his convictions and his incarcerations were for violent felonies. You know, one of them was robbery, the other was assault with a deadly weapon, and there were some things in his criminal history that suggests he wasn't exactly friendly with the police.
[00:17:25] Michelle: Oh, god. How old a guy is this?
[00:17:27] Kyle O'Neill: Uh, he's, he was 30.
[00:17:29] Michelle: And he, he had already been in prison multiple times?
[00:17:32] Kyle O'Neill: Multiple times, multiple arrests, convictions, uh he had a, one of the longer criminal histories I've come across. It's almost like a phonebook of paperwork. I believe he was on parole and uh...
[00:17:46] Michelle: God. Any idea how many other people he had done this kind of scam to?
[00:17:53] Kyle O'Neill: Judging by the videos and the text messages and the pictures that he had on his phone, he had participated in, in quite a bunch. I can't exactly pinpoint a number because again, some of the elderly, some of the victims out there may not actually even know that they've been victimized. They may actually think that they saved their grandkid from being in trouble. The grandparent does it out of the kindness of their heart, they...
[00:18:18] Michelle: Are you saying that this guy might have done this dozens of times? Or like, are we talking hundreds?
[00:18:23] Kyle O'Neill: Definitely more than 10. He had been arrested in New Jersey about six months prior to our incident, and uh it was almost a carbon copy of what had transpired in Greenwich, Connecticut. There are videos of him on his phone, you know, holding wads of cash.
[00:18:44] Michelle: Wow. And do you know where the case stands right now? Has he, is he still awaiting trial, or did he plead guilty, or you know, what happened?
[00:18:54] Kyle O'Neill: I do know what happened.
[00:18:56] Michelle: Okay.
[00:18:57] Kyle O'Neill: Uh, he's uh, he won't be facing any charges as far as the Greenwich, Connecticut, case is concerned.
[00:19:04] Michelle: Why?
[00:19:05] Kyle O'Neill: He's deceased.
[00:19:09] Michelle: Well that was a surprise. His name was Freddie Delacruz. He lived in the Bronx. Police say he had been in and out of jail since he was 13 years old, that he was a high-ranking member of the hard-core, violent Trinitarios Gang, and that the man he had scammed in New Jersey, just before targeting Jack, was 82 years old. Then days after he was arrested in Greenwich in this case, he was found on Long Island in the middle of the night on the side of a road, in the darkness, shot to death.
[00:19:43] Kyle O'Neill: Got a phone call from Suffolk County, that says, hey, this guy just got murdered.
[00:19:47] Michelle: And when you say that this was part of a bigger operation, how big are we talking? Like what does this look like when you see all the tentacles of it?
[00:19:56] Kyle O'Neill: We had unrav--, you know, started peeling back the layers of the onion, we realized that the suspect in this case had a, a middleman who he was delivering the packages to. Somebody depositing the money or somebody washing the money, somebody making fake IDs because the suspect in this case actually had a fake ID with his picture on it, but with the granddaughter's information. It's got to be related to, to some type of hack or some type of network intrusion against some company or individual where this information was readily available and then sold on the, on the Dark Web for a certain price. There are plenty of people out here like this guy. If these people applied themselves to something worthy, a worthy cause, they would be millionaires.
[00:20:42] Michelle: Detective O'Neill has worked some of these cases where they actually got the victim their money back. Unfortunately, that didn't happen for Jack. He lost almost $20,000, and he's processing all that happened.
[00:20:54] Michelle: What do you think about somebody who would, who would do something like this, and target someone and, and you know, just manipulate their emotions?
[00:21:03] Jack: I, I don't think they really have any emotions, and this, they're in it for the money you know, I mean this, the people are tough, and especially crooks, I mean they have no morals.
[00:21:13] Michelle: Well you're, what this shows is you're the greatest grandfather. Your family must have been really touched that you were willing to do this for your granddaughter.
[00:21:23] Jack: She was really, uh, you know, emotional.
[00:21:27] Michelle: Yeah. You would do all of this for her.
[00:21:30] Jack: That's right, and so she wrote me a very nice note, uh, saying how much love there was in the family etc., etc., and she didn't realize it before.
[00:21:39] Michelle: Even though this dark story has an even darker end for the career criminal, there's always some satisfaction for Detective O'Neill in uncovering any part of this scam or network.
[00:21:50] Michelle: To prey on elderly people on, on their love for their family members and their fear, does that make this kind of crime particularly galling?
[00:22:00] Kyle O'Neill: Particularly vile. I just think about in my case, my grandparents would, would go to hell and back to try and save me, if, if I was in a, in a situation that's, that's described to these people. Um, and they wouldn't even ask, they wouldn't ask any questions. Hey, you know, uh, Kyle's in trouble, he needs money. Where in this case, and in many cases, um, especially the ones that I'm doing recently, this all could have been prevented with one simple phone call.
[00:22:28] Michelle: Yeah, and what's amazing in this is that they're using fear and like a, a panic situation and those emotions generally cloud people's judgment anyway, don't they?
[00:22:39] Kyle O'Neill: Without a doubt, without a doubt, because at that point you're just trying to figure out how can I get my granddaughter out of this situation, and we'll deal with everything else after the fact. And so, they go pretty overdramatic with their ploys, knowing that the grandparents will simply focus on doing what's best for their grandchild and then dealing with the aftermath afterwards. These criminals, they adapt and they overcome, and they figure out what's working and what's not working, and you know, they sit here and think like, hey, why would I go rob somebody of their, you know, thousand dollar iPhone on a subway platform when I can just make a simple phone call and get 10x on my money, you know, 10 times multiplied and I don't have to hurt anybody.
[00:23:23] Michelle: So any advice for people out there who could fall prey to something like this?
[00:23:29] Kyle O'Neill: Take a step back, take a deep breath. Get the person's name, get a callback phone number and just say, "Hey, you know what, something's going on, whatever it is. Can I give you a call back in, in 30 seconds?" And use that 30 seconds to, to reach out to your daughter, your nephew, your cousin, whatever it is to verify the person that they say is in trouble.
[00:23:50] Jack: Yeah, I would call, I would call the father right away, and uh, get the number and say uh, "Hey, how's Ava doing, 'cause I got this call." Uh, that's what I, I woulda, shoulda done.
[00:24:01] Michelle: Got it.
[00:24:02] Jack: And that's the only thing I could have done.
[00:24:03] Michelle: Our friends over at the FTC who get thousands of complaints from people targeted in these scams recommend that first of all, try to verify the person on the phone's identity. Ask a question that only a family member would know, something that wouldn't be available on their social media accounts, and on the FTC's website, real people concerned about these scams have put up some really helpful comments recently. From one woman, "This happened to me, very convincing but I asked a secret question, and got the caller mixed up. The worst was, he sounded like my relatives on the phone." Another person with a username, Almost Fooled, says, "I was saved from a large financial loss. The same scam. I asked for the names of my daughter's six cats." There are so many people who say they've been targeted by this. One woman writes, "We gave all our family a code word that only they would know in case this happens again." Now that is a great idea, and now that I'm paranoid, I might come up with one for my own family. Frank Abagnale is back now. Hey, Frank, what do you make of all this?
[00:25:06] Frank Abagnale: Being the father of three sons and five grandchildren, and having a granddaughter who's 17 years old, obviously uh, these scams really take heart to me, and I'm very concerned about them. And I see so many of them and so many different ways that the con artists work these scams. Uh, you know, if people very much obviously, very dear to their family care about their family, concerned about their family, and if you didn't know any better and you got that call, you don't start to rationalize and say, well, is this really them? You immediately get very concerned that they're in trouble, something's happened to them, they're in jail, and they need to get out of jail, and that's what they play on. They play on that immediate response that this is your child or your grandchild, and you're going to not be thinking about rational things like, is this really a scam or could this really happen? So this is why, you know, when I look at these scams, I realize they're playing very much on people's emotions. They're using technology to make it believable like the caller ID in saying it is the police department. So it's very convincing. And I think that if you tell people about these scams, you educate them about them, then when they get the call, before they let that emotion run in that this is my granddaughter or this is my grandson, I've got to do something immediately, they'll stop for a second and think, you know, I know there's also a scam that works like this, and I need to make sure this is real. I need to verify where is my granddaughter, where is my grandson before I part with any money from this person calling me on the telephone.
[00:26:48] Michelle: And now, a lot of, you know, grandkids are posting information about where they are every minute of the day from the time they're like 11 or 12 years old. So there is a lot of information out there for scammers to play on, isn't there?
[00:27:01] Frank Abagnale: Absolutely. If I'm that supposed policeman calling that say that we arrested your grandson on the interstate for being DWI, drunk while driving, then we're basically saying to that person, listen, they were driving this type of vehicle, they had a passenger in the car, her name was this, and the grandparent's thinking, well that is his car, uh, that is his girlfriend's name. We met her many times. Uh, he asked us not to call his parents, he asked us to call you, so the grandparents realize well, he doesn't want his parents to know, so I, let me try to help him. They get so much from social media that again, it's very, very convincing that, that it is real, and this is why it's important to, before you, you jump on the emotional part of it, you have to ask yourself, is this really my grandson, is this really my granddaughter? And it doesn't take but a minute or two to verify those things and you, you need to do that before you part with any money.
[00:27:57] Michelle: For sure. Thanks so much, Frank.
[00:27:59] Frank Abagnale: Thank you.
[00:28:02] Michelle: 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. Their trained Fraud Specialists can help you know what to do next and how to avoid scams in the future. Thank you to our team of scambusters; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; Producer, Brook Ellis; Associate Producer and Researcher, Megan DeMagnus; our Audio Engineer, Julio Gonzalez; and of course, Fraud Expert, Frank Abagnale. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Michelle Kosinski.
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