Knowing the warning signs will sound your internal alarm.
“He sounded just like you, Chris.”
Those words came from my embarrassed grandfather, as he finished relaying the story of how he was scammed out of $3,000 by someone over the phone several years ago.
He and my grandmother were in their seventies at the time, living on their own with no cognitive issues. They were a little skeptical, but they were scared that a family member living a thousand miles away was in trouble, and that mindset led to a bad decision.
Scammer Leverages Confusion into Confidence
The ordeal started with a mid-morning phone call.
“Hi, Gramp,” the imposter said.
“Chris?” was my grandfather’s response, giving the scammer my name without being asked for it.
The fake-me went on to say that he got into a fight after a concert the night before and was in jail. ‘I’ needed $3,000 by way of a wire transfer to post bail. The con-man had a sensible answer to every question my grandfather asked.
Why did I sound funny? “I broke my nose in the fight.”
Did I call my wife for help, or my parents? “No, I don’t want them finding out.”
Why a wire transfer? “It’s the only way they take the bail money.”
Can I call you back? “No, I can’t receive any calls.”
My grandfather was told that he would get a call back in an hour to get the wire confirmation number to complete the transaction.
Before he went to a drugstore to send the money, he thought to call both me and my wife. Unfortunately, I was at lunch and my wife was in a meeting, so we both missed the call. Thinking back to what ‘I’ told him about not wanting anyone to find out, he did not leave a voicemail.
The scammer called back as promised, and my grandfather read off the confirmation number that was the key to the cash.
A couple hours later, my grandfather called me again. This time I answered, and he quickly realized that he had been duped.
Once Isn’t Enough
Sadly, that’s not the end of this story. The scammers called back the next day asking for more money – this time, to retain the services of a lawyer. Luckily, my grandparents were not fooled twice. Ever since, they’ll receive a call once or twice a year from ‘me’, in a tough spot – usually a foreign country – and in need of a cash infusion.
This phone scam is known as the “Grandparent Scam”, ranking fifth on the National Council on Aging’s Top 10 list of financial scams targeting seniors.
The key is to know the warning signs in advance, before you’re put into a tough situation.
Don’t Lose Control of the Situation
Here are five tips that can keep you safe from falling victim to a phone scam.
- Verify the identity of the caller
If my grandfather had said, “Who is this?” instead of “Chris?” at the beginning of the scam call, he may have eventually found out that the scammer didn’t know the name of the person he was playing. Turn the tables on the scammer by controlling the conversation and asking the questions.
- Ask for a phone number where you can reach that person
Many seniors don’t have caller ID. If the person on the other line can’t at least try to give a reliable call-back number, raise a red flag.
- Don’t answer the phone if you don’t recognize the number
If you do have caller ID, if you don’t recognize the number, don’t answer it. According to research by the FTC, scammers are unlikely to leave a voicemail and will instead just try the next number.
- Watch the method of payment
The FTC says that anyone only accepting payment via wire transfer or reloading a cash card is a con-artist. Once money is sent via those methods, it’s gone and not traceable. Do not give money to any agency or business insisting you pay only by those methods.
- Create a secret code with family members
A secret code or password shared only by a close circle can be used in times of real emergency and weed out the bad guys.
If You Were Victimized, Report it
If you were duped by this kind of a scam, unfortunately the money is very unlikely to be recovered. But, there are plenty of places that are interested in every detail, so they can try and track the criminals down. Or, at least warn people of the predatory methods being used. AARP has a good listing of places you can notify, including the FTC and the Better Business Bureau.
While it’s too late for my grandparents and the millions of others who were swindled out of their hard-earned money in these scams, an understanding of what these con-artists are trying to do is your best defense to keep your money safe and sound in your account.