‘Grandma…I need help’

Published 8:04 am Thursday, March 14, 2013

It’s known as the “Grandma, I need help” scam, one that has worked in the past to bilk large sums of cash from unsuspecting victims.

In the recent case of a Murfreesboro woman, she received such a call for help, but her intuitiveness saved the day.

The near-victim, whose name is not being published, told the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald earlier this week that she recently received a frantic telephone call from her granddaughter.

“Even though I knew better, my granddaughter said she was in Mexico,” the grandmother said. “She was there with some friends and they had rented a car that was involved in an accident.

“When the police got to the wreck scene they discovered illegal drugs in the car,” she continued. “My granddaughter said she was arrested and was allowed to contact the American Embassy. She told me not to call her parents because they would only get upset and scold her for her actions.”

She said the next voice on the phone was a man identifying himself as a representative of the American Embassy.”

“He told me my granddaughter needed $1,720 to cover the court costs and I could give him my credit card information to handle that fee,” she stated. “I became very suspicious at that point and when I told him that I had to check this out, he hung up. Of course I then immediately called my granddaughter to confirm that she wasn’t in Mexico and wasn’t in any kind of trouble, which she wasn’t.”

The grandmother said the entire ordeal was very convincing.

“It was the voice of a young woman on the phone, so it kind of matched that of my granddaughter, but the connection was so scratchy that I couldn’t quite make out the name when she first called,” she stressed.

“It’s kind of scary when you think about it….that someone picks your phone number and makes such a call,” she added. “I wanted to make others aware of this type of scam so I decided to call the newspaper in hopes ya’ll would report it in print.”

According to information culled from several sources on the Internet, to include other news organizations, this scam is widespread. Most of the stories deal with a grandchild being detained by police in another country, most of which are in Mexico or the Caribbean.

The grandparent scam is dubbed “the four-step dance” – establish credibility, then emergency, and secrecy. Those three steps can then open the door to the fourth: exploiting grandparents’ natural desire to help their grandchildren.

While these scammers play on a grandparent’s love for their grandchildren, they also frighten and alarm their elderly victims. The best advice to those potential victims is when someone tries to spur you to action by playing on your fears, stop, take a deep breath, and apply a little skepticism before you proceed any further.

What can you do to protect yourself? If this happens to you, ask your caller to recall a pet’s name, or a family vacation spot, or something that only your actual grandchild would know. Be cautious, however — the sophistication of scammers has increased as private details become widely available on the Internet. In one case, for example, police reported that the caller knew that the victim they were calling had an identical twin, and even that the victim was two minutes younger than her sister.

Here are a few tips from the FBI to avoid being scammed:

Resist the pressure to act quickly.

Try to contact your grandchild or another family member to determine whether or not the call is legitimate.

Never wire money based on a request made over the phone or in an e-mail, especially overseas. Wiring money is like giving cash—once you send it, you can’t get it back. The same logic applies to giving out your credit card information.

Report the incident to your local police department, sheriff’s office or state Attorney General.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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