The phone rings, and the person on the other end of the line seems scared or upset.
“Grandma is that you,” they ask. “I need your help.”
That’s how the scam begins, and, all too often, it ends with a defrauded senior wiring money or cashiers checks to someone they believe is their grandchild trapped far away with a broken down car or locked in jail and in need of money. Almost every week, a local senior reports being contacted by the scammers in addition to the many fraud attempts that go undiscovered or unreported. Police in Los Alamitos and Seal Beach this week are warning seniors and their loved-ones to protect themselves.
“It kills me,” said Seal Beach Police Sgt. Steve Bowles. “People take advantage of our elderly population. They call and say, ‘Grandma, I am in jail, or I am stuck on the side of the road. Can you wire me money?’”
“We call it the Grandson scheme,” said Seal Beach Detective Joe Hardin. “They call, and wait for the victim to volunteer information. It’s called fishing. Unless you initiate the phone call, don’t give out any information. Ask the grandchild to identify themselves before you say their name.”
Recently a woman wired a large sum of money to a man she thought was her grandson, said Hardin. “She saw him three days later at a function and asked him if everything was OK. For a while, she thought, ‘I helped him, and now my grandson is being very rude.’ After a bit they figured out what happened.”
The money is sent by wire to places such as Texas or Canada, but it can be collected from locations in places such as New York without having to provide much identification, making it very difficult to catch the scammers, said Hardin.
“We probably only get a small percentage of what goes on in Leisure World fraud-wise,” said Hardin. “People either don’t know they have been taken advantage of, or they are too embarrassed to come forward.”
Recently a resident in Los Alamitos was taken in by the scheme and others received similar fishing calls. The Los Alamitos Police Department is urging residents to take steps to verify the identity of callers. If someone claims to be a family member, either call the number you have on record for that relative, call the police agency where the relative claims to have been arrested, or call the Los Alamitos and Seal Beach Police Departments to assist in verifying the information.
Two victims in Seal Beach were recently saved from the scam. A clerk at Wal-Mart’s wire service recognized what was happening and stopped one victim from wiring the money, and the family attorney intervened in the second case.
Seniors are more vulnerable to these scams for a number of reasons—and not just because of declining cognitive functions due to aging, dementia or Alzheimer’s. There are cultural and generational reasons as well, said Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Henderson, who heads the Orange County District Attorney’s Fraud Unit.
“People in their 70s, 80s and 90s are of a generation where people trust each other more,” said Henderson.
Scammers may be targeting people who live in certain geographic areas—such as Leisure World. In some cases, the scammers will try their luck with multiple “cold” calls or visits, hoping a percentage of them will pan out. In other cases, they might have some information about their target gleaned from various sources, including going through their mailboxes.
Police and prosecutors have outlined some of the common scams police are seeing and how seniors—and their concerned family and friends—can protect against fraud and financial abuse.
In these often complicated, emotional cases, a caretaker—more often than not a child or other close relative—will steal checks or other valuables. Or, the caretaker will accompany a vulnerable older person to the bank and coax him into making cash withdrawals. It gets even more complicated when the plotting caretaker assumes control of the elderly person’s financial decision making and obtains power of attorney.
In addition to the maze-like financial transactions involved, these cases also are complicated by the relationships involved and the state of the senior’s physical or mental health. The abusive caretaker usually has gained a position of trust and the victim may be in declining physical or mental health, or not know they are being taken advantage of or be too ashamed to report it. Outsiders—not the victim—often report these cases, including bank employees who begin to notice unusual transactions on a customer’s account.
The senior depends on the caretaker for so many things: transportation, food. They may be aware that the caretaker is taking liberties, but they are not in a position to report it, or they are ashamed. This is more often the case if the person taking advantage of is someone close to the victim.
Tips: Before your health starts to decline, designate someone you trust to help with your finances, whether that is a close relative or a professional.
Always keep all your financial documents—records and checkbooks—in a secure place so you won’t have anyone, including caretakers, snooping around and getting access to your information.
Consult an attorney before signing a power of attorney.
"Grandchild in jail" scam
Typically, someone calls a senior claiming to be his or her grandchild in jail. The phone line might have static or some other noise that muffles the caller’s voice. The caller might have enough information about the family to sound plausible or prey on the grandparent’s wish to help the grandchild hide his or her arrest and shame from parents.
Tip: Never wire money to an unknown business or person unless it is a transaction that you initiated.
"You have a dent in your car" scam
The scammer will approach a senior and point out a dent in her vehicle and claim he can fix it. The scammer will offer to follow the senior home to fix the dent but often will charge far more than was agreed upon. In the meantime, the scammer has the senior’s address and gained the opportunity to learn other valuable knowledge about the senior for future scams.
Tip: Walk on by and don’t let anyone follow you home.
Lottery and inheritance scams
Scammers will contact intended victims by phone or email and tell the victim he has won a large amount of money, and ask the victim to send a check to cover taxes and fees. Similarly, scammers will contact the intended victim, and say he is set to receive a large inheritance from a long-lost relative in a foreign country who shares the same surname—as long as he sends money to cover taxes and other fees.
Tips: Do not provide any personal or identifying information over the phone or via email unless you initiated the phone call.
Always consult the websites of businesses that are offering you deals or money.
Other tips for seniors and their families:
- Never sign any blank checks.
- Take an inventory and photographs of your valuables, checks and financial documents.
- Never leave outgoing mail in your mailbox. Drop it off at the post office or in a postal box while out doing other errands.
- Don’t open your door to strangers—and this includes the people who offer to paint your address on your front curb. You are putting yourself at risk of allowing someone into your home who could steal property or obtain enough information to defraud you later. You also are jeopardizing your personal safety. A door-to-door solicitor with a legitimate purpose will be willing to talk to you through a closed and locked door.