Joined: 11 Nov 2008
Location: in my invisible airplane
Sat Jan 31, 2009 4:18 pm
This story is from the Saturday, January 31st edition of the Press Enterprise < Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, USA >
Scammers target grandmas
By PETER KENDRON
Press Enterprise Writer
Scammers have tricked at least three elderly residents out of thousands of dollars by pretending to be their grandchildren over the phone.
The story goes like this: The grandkids are stuck in Canada, in trouble with the law and need bail money.
One 81-year-old woman in Catawissa lost $4,500 to the scam, police say. And a couple in Hemlock Township lost $3,600.
It's "big business" for con men, said MoneyGram spokeswoman Lynda Michielutti, complete with fake ID machines and centers that make hundreds of calls until they find a victim.
The local senior citizens fell victim to nearly identical scams. Here's how it works, according to police:
The scammer calls, and when someone answers, says "Grandma?" or "Grandpa?"
Once the resident responds, often by saying their grandchild's name, the scammer tells them he is in police custody.
In the Hemlock Township case, the man on the phone told the couple he had traveled to Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada, to see a concert.
The scammer told them he had been drinking while there, and then wrecked a rental car. He told the couple police were keeping him until he could pay for the damage to the car.
When the couple questioned the man on the phone, "because his voice sounded a little off," the man said he had a cold, said Hemlock Officer Jessica Shoup.
He asked if they could send money over the Internet or wire the money to Vancouver via a MoneyGram.
The couple went to Wal-Mart in Buckhorn and sent the cash by MoneyGram, Shoup said.
A little later, they called their grandson on his cell phone to make sure he had the money. That's when they found out he was in Pennsylvania, not Canada.
The couple tried to cancel the MoneyGram, but the scammer had picked up the cash within a half-hour of the couple sending it, police said.
Catawissa woman tricked
The Catawissa case was nearly identical, except the scammer told the South Fourth Street resident he was in London, Ontario. Sgt. Tony Kopitsky of Catawissa Police said at first, the woman was confused because she doesn't have any grandchildren, just a great-nephew she was close to.
"But she thought she had just misunderstood him," Kopitsky said.
Her nephew often visited Canada to hunt and fish, "so the parts seemed to fit together," she said.
She sent her money from Wal-Mart on Tuesday, he said. On Wednesday, she got another call from the same people asking for more money, but this time, she called the great-nephew's parents.
And that's when she learned her great-nephew was at his home in North Carolina, not Canada.
Police did not release any of the victims' names.
While Hemlock and Catawissa officers said they hadn't heard of any similar scams, MoneyGram's Michielutti gets "two calls a month from reporters asking about this."
She said criminals are making 200 to 300 calls a day trying to find someone who has a grandchild.
Once they find a victim, the scammers have two variations on their story, she said.
The first is the story the local couples were told, about a grandchild being in an accident and in police custody. In the second, scammers say they are in the hospital and need cash.
The scammers also usually tell the victim not to call any other relatives because they are "embarrassed," or they say "Mom and Dad will kill me," Michielutti said.
She said MoneyGram workers who take money transfer orders are trained to spot scams.
"If they hear someone talking about their relative being in jail in Canada, they're not going to process that transaction."
But people who use the service don't usually offer explanations about who they're sending money to, she said.
Anywhere in Canada
The company also makes those sending cash sign a form that warns against sending money to people they don't know, and tells them to treat the transaction "like cash."
Once someone puts money into MoneyGram's system and designates it to be picked up in a Canadian location, Michielutti said it can be picked up at any MoneyGram or Western Union in Canada.
"If (the scammers) told them British Columbia, they were probably in Quebec," she said.
MoneyGram makes those receiving money present a photo ID, but the people making these calls often have machines that can quickly print out fake IDs, she said.
Or in some cases, the scammers ask the victims to make the MoneyGram out to a "friend" since they can't get out of the jail or hospital.
Once the money is picked up, the company has no way to get it back.
Those who feel they were the victim of fraud can call 1-800-MoneyGram to find out where the money was picked up if they have their confirmation number, Michielutti said.
Peter Kendron covers the Town of Bloomsburg and Bloomsburg University. Call him at 387-1234, ext. 1312, or e-mail him at [email protected].