June picked up the ringing phone and was thrust into an emergency: “Grandma, Hi it’s me, Jeff. I’m hoping you can help me,” the voice on the phone breathlessly pleaded. Jeff proceeded to tell her how he had gone to Mexico for the long weekend with some of his college buddies, but things went wrong quickly. They were out having a good time but got picked up by the Mexican police, who were looking for some American kids who had allegedly held up a small shop.
“It wasn’t us, I swear, Gramma,” Jeff pleaded. “They’ve taken my wallet, passport, and my cell phone, and they’re going to put me in jail if I can’t post bail! I don’t have that kind of money!”
“Are you OK?” asked June, worried about her grandson. He was a good kid, but he could be impulsive sometimes. He must have wanted to fit in with his friends at school when he had a chance.
“The cops pushed us around a little, but I’m OK. I’m not hurt,” Jeff said. “I’m sure we can work this all out now that I’m at the station, but they won’t talk to me until they get the money.” He then told June about how she could wire him $2700 by Western Union, and that she could use the Western Union desk at the Hen House grocery store not too far from her home.
“I didn’t know you were going to Mexico,” she said, “Don’t you have classes?” Jeff explained that his roommate had a friend who got a great deal on airline tickets.
“But Grandma, the chance came up so fast, I just went. And, please, please! Don’t tell Mom and Dad! You know how Dad is so hard on me to stick to the books! But I was all caught up on my work, and I’ve been so stressed out! I just needed a break.”
June frowned and thought about her bank account. Even though she didn’t keep a lot of cash on hand, she had enough to cover the bail. This was an emergency, surely. Then she pictured Jeff sitting in a Mexican jail cell with all those criminals, and those drug dealers are dangerous guys. He could get beat up or worse. Poor kid, she thought, he thinks he’s invincible at this age.
“Well, I’ve never sent Western Union before,” she ventured. She looked at the caller ID and saw only a series of question marks. “And why aren’t you calling me from your phone?”
“I told you, they took my phone. The battery’s probably dead anyway. OK, so here’s the police chief, he’ll tell you how to do it! Thank you so much, I’ll get the money back as soon as I get back to school, I promise!”
A deeper, accented voice came on the line…
The Crime of the 21st Century
It’s a sad fact, but elders are scammed at an alarming rate here in the United States. The one depicted above is called the Grandparent Scam. A desperate voice on the phone, a young adult grandchild, calls “grandma” out of the blue and is in terrible trouble. They are scared and need money fast to get out of a jam, and their elder loved one is their only hope. They have a logical reason why things might seem a little off, like the unknown phone number depicted above.
Of course, it’s not a grandchild; it’s a scammer. They have been practicing their speech for weeks on other unsuspecting victims. To learn the authentic details, they’ve looked up on the Internet about who they’re calling, to get the proper level of “panic” in their voice, and how to pull on the “heartstrings” of an older Americans to get them to act.
Based a situation my friend told me about her parents, right here in Lenexa, KS, this story is not entirely fiction, though I have changed their names to protect their privacy. They lost almost $5000 to this scam. It was only caught when her bank account was empty, and she asked her daughter for help to transfer more money into the account. The scammers knew details such as the grandson’s name and the nearest Western Union location. It was very believable.
This scam is not the only one I have heard of first-hand among my older friends.
The National Council on Aging reports that “financial scams targeting seniors have become so prevalent that they’re now considered “the crime of the 21st century.” Why? Seniors are thought to have a significant amount of money sitting in their accounts. Financial scams “[are] devastating to many older adults and can leave them in a very vulnerable position with little time to recoup their losses.”
According to the National Council on Aging, these are the top ten scams that target seniors:
- Medicare and health insurance scams
- Counterfeit prescription drugs
- Funeral and cemetery scams
- Fraudulent anti-aging products
- Telemarketing/phone scams
- Internet fraud
- Investment schemes
- Homeowner/reverse mortgage scams
- Sweepstakes and lottery scams
- The grandparent scam
Unfortunately, it’s not always a stranger who takes advantage of older relatives. Family members, friends, caregivers, or neighbors sometimes find a willing victim in your elderly loved one. Maybe it starts out small, like an “accidental” personal item included among your loved one’s groceries, and the abuser grows bolder over time.
In the next part, find out how to avoid becoming a victim and what to do if a loved one has fallen victim to a scam.
American Association of Retired Persons. AARP Foundation ElderWatch: Refuse Fraud. http://www.aarp.org/aarp-foundation/our-work/income/elderwatch/refuse-fraud/ (1/17/17)
American Association of Retired Persons. AARP Foundation ElderWatch: Report Fraud http://www.aarp.org/aarp-foundation/our-work/income/elderwatch/report-fraud/ (1/17/17)
National Council on Aging. Top 10 Financial Scams Targeting Seniors https://www.ncoa.org/economic-security/money-management/scams-security/top-10-scams-targeting-seniors/ (1/15/17)
National Council on Aging. 8 Tips for How Seniors Can Protect Themselves from Money Scams. https://www.ncoa.org/economic-security/money-management/scams-security/protection-from-scams/ (1/17/17)
Protecting the Elderly From Financial Abuse http://www.aba.com/Consumers/Pages/ProtectingTheElderly.aspx (1/15/17)
Common Fraud Schemes https://www.fbi.gov/scams-and-safety/common-fraud-schemes (1/15/17)
Edward Jones, “Fraud Awareness & Prevention” https://www.edwardjones.com/client-resources/fraud/ (1/19/17)
Edward Jones “Fraud Red Flags” https://www.edwardjones.com/client-resources/fraud/red-flags.html (1/19/17)
Edward Jones “What If I’ve Been Scammed?” https://www.edwardjones.com/client-resources/fraud/resources.html (1/19/17)
Edward Jones presentation “Outsmart the Scammers” as presented on 10/18/16 by Keith Winterhalter.
National Crime Prevention Council “Seniors can Shut Down Scoundrels and Scams” https://www.ncpc.org/resources/files/pdf/senior-crime/Senior%20Crime%20Flyer.pdf (1/15/17)
National Credit Union Administration “Scams Targeting Older Adults” https://www.mycreditunion.gov/Pages/scams_targeting_older_adults.aspx (1/17/17)
Forbes “Why Do Elderly Parents Fall For Scams That Seem So Obvious To Us?” http://www.forbes.com/sites/carolynrosenblatt/2014/02/13/why-do-elderly-parents-fall-for-scams-that-seem-so-obvious-to-us/#380dab3a46ec. (1/17/17)