Help Me, Grandma! Wait, This Is a Scam

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MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Md. -- Social media is giving new life to an old con game that targets senior citizens. It is called the "grandparents scam," and in some cases, the crooks end up with the seniors' entire savings.

The crime has the FBI sounding a new warning for all consumers to be careful.

Eric Friedman is the director of Montgomery County Consumer Protection Agency in Maryland. His office has seen a number of complaints about the scam.

"It really is a money transfer scam. It's an opportunity for a crook to figure out a way to get money from consumers," Friedman explained in a recent interview with CBN News.

The Setup

Leon and Nina Merrick recently filed a complaint with Friedman's office after nearly being taken for thousands of dollars. The Merricks spoke with CBN News at their home to recount the details of the potential scam.

They were sitting at the table in their kitchen when the phone rang a few weeks ago. Nina answered the call.

"[The caller] said, 'Hi grandma, how are you doing,'" Nina recalled. "And I said, 'Who is this? He said, 'It's your grandson, Joshua.' And I said, 'Joshua never calls me grandma. He calls me Safta.'"

Safta means grandma in Hebrew.

Their grandson Joshua lives in Israel, but the caller told Nina he was in Greece to attend a friend's wedding.  The caller was also supposedly in jail because he wrecked a rental car.

"Then he said, 'Well, I am in big trouble. Promise you are not going to tell my parents. I am in big trouble. They would not let me go and get out of the country until I pay the damages,'" she continued. "I say, 'How much are the damages? He said, '$3,500.'"

A Four-Step Dance

Nina then gave the phone to her husband, Leon, who pressed the caller for a number to call him back. Leon was also skeptical because the voice on the phone did not sound like his grandson.

He raised that concern on the phone, but the man said his voice sounded different because he had split his lip  in the car accident.

When Leon pressed for a phone number, he said the voice answered, "No, I can't give you the number. I am going to pay you back every penny, don't worry, don't worry. If you are not going to give me the money they are not going to let me leave the country."

"Josh, it just doesn't sound like you," Leon replied. "You have to give me the telephone number. Let me think, and maybe I have to talk to somebody."

"He didn't want to give me the telephone number. And at that point, we got disengaged," Leon told CBN News. "That's it. No money."

Leon quickly hung up the phone and called his grandson, who was safe at home in Israel.

Friedman said the Merrick's phone call followed what he has dubbed "the four-step dance" to the grandparent scam: 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.

"We have heard from seniors who have wired several thousand dollars, $3,000, $3,800, to these crooks," Freidman said.

"To be able to exploit seniors and their love for their grandchildren is about a low as it comes," he added.

Social Scamming

The age of social media is also making it easier for these crooks to get information on their possible targets.

Facebook is the perfect example. Millions connect on the site to share pictures and personal details about their lives with friends and family. 

However, that knowledge is handy for thieves trying to con unsuspecting grandparents, who aren't likely to have a Facebook page.

Grandparents aren't the only ones who need to be careful. Friedman encourages all consumers to avoid rushing to wire money anywhere unless they know for sure who will get it.

"Typically, wiring money is no different than handing cash to someone," he said. "Once they run away, the money is gone."

Ask the Questions

Nina Merrick has her own advice to share after almost becoming a victim.

"It is important for people to ask questions, personal questions, to make sure that this is their loved ones," she told CBN News.  

Family means everything to everything to Nina and her husband. As young children, the holocaust survivors lost everyone and everything.

"My daughter and my grandchildren are the only relatives we have," Leon said.

"I am the only survivor of my family," his wife, Nina, added. "So my grandson means a lot to me."

Here's 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.
  • If you have received a scam e-mail, please notify the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) by filing a complaint at www.ic3.gov.
  • For more information on e-scams, please visit the FBI’s New E-Scams and Warnings webpage.

*Original broadcast June 15, 2012.

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Efrem Graham is an award-winning journalist, who comes to CBN News from the ABC owned and operated station in Toledo, Ohio.  He received his master's degree from the Columbia University Journalism School. He also holds a bachelor's degree in English Literature from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.  Follow Efrem on Twitter @EfremGraham and "like" him at Facebook.com/EfremGrahamCBN.