It works like this: A con artist calls senior citizens, posing as a grandchild in need and asks for money to be sent through a wire service or via money order. The hardship stories they tell can be very convincing, as Nellie Harper of Charlestown, W.Va., found out last week.Harper got a tear-filled, panic-stricken call from someone claiming to be her grandson. The caller said he'd been driving a friend to North Carolina, got into a car accident and now needed money to help get the charges reduced.
"I was terrified," Harper said in a statement released through the West Virginia attorney general's office. "My grandkids are everything to me. I don't think anyone would want to hear a grandchild upset to the point where they can barely catch their breath."
But Harper soon realized that even though the crying disguised his voice, the caller wasn't her grandson. What really tipped her off was that he kept asking for money, which she refused to send. After the caller hung up, she called her real grandson and learned he was fine.
Unfortunately, it's a scenario that plays out far too often: The U.S. Federal Trade Commission received more than 60,000 complaints nationwide last year about the grandparent scam and related "imposter scams," the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) reported. CFA recently teamed up with New Jersey's attorney general to teach consumers about the scams through an awareness campaign that includes video and safety tips.
"The key to protecting consumers from fraud is public awareness," said Susan Grant, CFA's director of consumer protection. Scam artists often use marketing lists and get details of family members from social networking sites. The callers will also insist on immediate action and tell victims not to tell anyone else.
In West Virginia, that state's attorney general's office has received 44 complaints about the grandparent scam since 2009. The scammers usually asked for the money to be wired through Western Union.
The state urged consumers to be wary of any calls where the number on the caller ID shows up as "private" and also cautioned people never to give out any account numbers or personal ID numbers over the phone.
The FTC asked consumers to watch out for the following signs of a scam:
- The caller wants you to wire money. Don't do it! Wiring money is just like sending cash -- once it's gone, you can't get it back.
- They want you to pay to get your winnings. Real sweepstakes don't require payment to claim the prize.
- The caller claims to be from a government agency. No federal agency ever runs a sweepstakes.
- The caller claims to be someone you care about.
- The person wants you to act now.