Jeff Jardine

‘Grandparents scam’ takes county resident for $20k

About two weeks apart recently, private investigator Ralph Swenson received calls from two men who don’t know each other, each detailing the same problem. Or nearly the same.

Both got calls from their “grandsons” claiming they were in jail somewhere – one for certain claiming he was in Canada – and needed lots of money to post bond. And please don’t tell their parents, they pleaded with the grandparents. Yes, the grandparents scam. Again.

These gents generally aren’t so gullible. One rose to assistant superintendent of an area school district, Swenson told me, before retiring. He’d probably heard every kid con excuse from “My dog ate my homework” to “I don’t know where that marijuana came from. Someone must have planted it in my backpack.” Yet, when his “grandson” called and needed help, he reacted first and thought about later – too much later, as it turned out.

The crook happened to first reach the man’s wife, who has some dementia and really believed she was talking to her grandson. The crook took the couple for the $20,000, using PayPal get the money, Swenson said.

The other retired after a career as the general manager of manufacturing plant in the Modesto area in Modesto. After giving the crook the necessary information,the gent called Swenson and told him what happened.

“I told him to stop right here, get down to the bank and stop it before it went through,” Swenson said.

The man did exactly that, and barely avoided being ripped off.

Indeed, with the holiday season under way, people tend to let their guards down a bit when they should be more alert than ever. From scams to leaving packages in plain view in the car while shopping, opportunists lurk just waiting to steal.

Swenson himself had to laugh this week when he received an e-mail he quickly recognized as the Nigerian scam. In that one, they claim they have millions of dollars frozen in the accounts in the United States. The money, they say, can only be defrosted if first transferred to another account in this country. Let them use your account, and they promise to tip you $5,000 or so for your trouble. Those who actually fall for this ruse, of course, see their accounts cleaned out entirely.

The IRS scam is still making money somebody for other than the IRS, which gets enough on its own. You’ll get a call from someone with a thick foreign accent, and in a threatening tone saying you have an outstanding tax debt only they can help you with. They’ll tell you to buy a gift card and sent it to them. Guess what? The IRS never will call you about about a tax problem. That will come only by official mail, and on official letterhead.

Then there’s the Microsoft scam, in which they claim you have a problem with your computer. You’ll need to give them remote access so they can correct it, stealing all of your account numbers in the process. The decades-old lottery scam pops up a couple of times each year, with victims giving up $5,000 for the right to hold a “winning ticket” that is absolutely worthless.

For as many times as these scams have been exposed, written about and featured in the media, you’d think people would be leery of them. But whether its through instilling fear, capitalizing on folks’ lack of technology skills, the promise of easy money or through the heartstrings, the scams continue to work just enough to keep the scam artists trying them. Swenson came to me, he said, to remind people once again.

The grandparents scam relies on the instant reaction of hearing that a grandchild is in distress. The FBI said it first began receiving complaints about this one in 2008. Numerous times over the years, seniors have called to tell me they received a call from a person claiming to be their grandchild and in some kind of trouble: trouble with the law, car trouble or a wallet stolen while on vacation – anything to elicit sympathy and a reaction based upon emotion as instead of reason. In a couple of cases, the recipients had just visited with the real grandchildren and knew better. They didn’t bite.

These “grandkids”, they all said, seemed to know things that broke down grandma’s or grandpa’s defenses to a point. They’d done their homework and were relatively convincing, no pun intended. Indeed, they use social media accounts to gain information from family photos and other posts.

Other versions of the scam involve crooks posing as law enforcement who claim they have the grandchild in custody, demanding whatever amount of money for bail. Often, the FBI said, the crooks ask for smaller amounts of money that “typically don’t meet the FBI’s financial thresholds for opening an investigation.”

While I’ve heard of valley residents falling for these scams in the past, $20,000 is on the higher end.

The agency’s advice is about what you’d expect: Try to reach the grandchild, siblings or parents to know whether the problem is real. And never wire money, especially overseas.

These two men, like others before them, don’t want you to make the same mistakes they made.