Phone scams prey on seniors by feigning kin in trouble

Jun 10 2011 - 1:41pm

SAN ANGELO, Texas -- The call came from Canada, and the voice on the other line wanted money.

The elderly San Angelo citizen receiving the call Monday said the person on the line claimed to be a teenage grandson on a trip to Canada with friends. The caller said police in Canada had stopped them and found drugs in the car.

"The subject told the elderly citizen to speak to a Canadian police officer to get more details on where to send the money before handing the phone off to another subject," San Angelo police said in a news release. "The citizen spoke briefly to the alleged Canadian police officer and asked for a contact number. The alleged officer refused."

Police said the elderly citizen, who wished to remain anonymous, didn't fall for the scam.

Not everyone is able to detect such a call is fake right away, said Glenna Friedrich, the president of the San Angelo, Tex., Better Business Bureau, which investigates and raises awareness about consumer scams.

"One guy lost $10,000," she said.

That man was told that his relative needed $5,000, so he wired it to him. Then the caller claimed to need another $5,000.

Using the "I'm-injured-or-in-jail-or-broke-down" scheme on grandparents is a common scam, said Tracy Gonzalez, a public information officer for the San Angelo Police Department.

And it is cropping up across the country.

The best way to prevent future crimes is to raise awareness of them, Gonzalez said.

Many people are too embarrassed to admit they have been taken advantage of, but the police need people to come forward to warn others about what has happened to them, Gonzalez said.

The only way to begin to apprehend the criminals is to follow a paper trail of money that has been stolen.

"It has probably been going on for well over a year off and on," Friedrich said.

The calls come in spurts, with four or five in a week, then nothing for several weeks, Friedrich said.

They operate by renting out a building, obtaining a marketing list of people above a certain age and their phone numbers and getting runners to receive the money when it's wired. After a while, they move to another office space and start over again.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have set up a special investigations team to look into the scam calls.

The amount of money lost from scam calls went from about $240,000 in 2007 to about $5.4 million in 2009 and about $4.6 million in 2010, according to statistics from the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.

Senior citizens need to be careful about what they say to the telephone trickster, Friedrich said.

"If they introduce themselves as your favorite grandson and say, 'Is that you Blake?' " the scammers will say that's who they are, Friedrich said.

If senior citizens say they don't have a grandson, the con artists may call back and use that information later, Friedrich said.

"Used to, you just had door-to-door salesmen and land lines," which were easier to trace, Friedrich said. "Nowadays, with cellphones and the Internet, you can be victimized by someone in the Netherlands."

(Matthew Waller is a reporter for the Standard Times in San Angelo, Texas.)


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