How do I scam thee? Let me count the ways…

October 10, 2019 12:15 am
cell phone

Credit: Flickr

The voice on the telephone belonged to a young woman.

“Gramma,’’ she began. “I need help. I was in a car that got stopped for having a broken tail light,’’ she began. “The driver had a fake ID and police found cocaine and a loaded handgun in the car. I tried to tell them we had nothing to do with the gun or the drugs. But we’ve been here two days now. I’m not too sure when I’ll be coming back.”

Since we have eight grandchildren, it would have been easy to believe that one of them could be in trouble. But from the very start of the call something seemed off. We speak to our grandchildren enough to recognize their voices and this one didn’t sound familiar. My antenna went up.

We’ve played this game before.

My husband took a call from a young tearful male calling him “Grampa’’ who told him he had been in a minor traffic accident in Canada and needed $400 to pay for the damage before they would let him leave the country. Husband made the mistake of asking if the caller was Christopher, a grandson who lived in Philadelphia and the caller immediately became “Chris.’’

Senior citizens like us are prime targets for con artists and these kind of calls. We have special soft spots for grandchildren, too.

The first time one of the calls came, my husband declined to send the money, but did call our daughter to see if one of her sons was in Canada.

Of course not. The call, tears and all, was a total fake.

Fortunately, we did not bite and wire money to Canada. Over the few years that have elapsed since that first call we’ve received at least a half dozen additional calls from fake grandchildren.

When the young woman called, I sort of played along until she got her entire story out. Then I asked her to tell me the names of her sister and brother, knowing that my granddaughter had two brothers and no sister. She flunked the test and I hung up with a lecture on the evils of trying to scam old people.

I suspect many kind-hearted senior citizens have dutifully wired money to thieves like this.

There was a recent Facebook post from a police captain who happened to take one of these calls while sitting at her desk in the police department. She played along until the end before advising the caller he could be in “big trouble’’ and shared a video of the call on the police department’s Facebook page.

Capt. Ann Stephens took the call on her cellphone at her desk at police headquarters in Apex, N.C. The caller wanted her Social Security number and information about her bank accounts and told her she was going to be charged with drug trafficking and money laundering unless she cooperated.

After the officer played with the caller for a few minutes and refused to cough up personal information, the scammers threatened to have her arrested and hung up the phone, apparently unaware he was talking to a law enforcement officer. The department has used the video of the call to help educate consumers.

It is a great lesson in handling scam calls.

Florida is expected to have a population of 23.5-million people with more than 28 percent over 60 by the end of this year. The state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services recently distributed a list of some of the top scams that target senior citizens. The grandparent scam is on the list for fraud attempts that include pretending to be a grandchild who needs money in an emergency and for claims to have kidnapped a grandchild for ransom. Some people actually respond with cash, only to regret it later.

Most of us have become quite familiar with some of these scams.

There is the IRS scam. A caller claims that you owe back taxes and penalties and demands immediate payment with a warning that you could be arrested or lose your home if you don’t respond.

The IRS does not call you. Its demands more often come by mail if it’s a real debt.

Then there is the Social Security Scam. A voice tells you that your Social Security account has been compromised and seeks information such as your SS number, bank account, or your date of birth. It’s mostly an effort to steal your identity and use it for something else.

The caller also says your SS benefits have been canceled. But don’t be fooled and don’t ever disclose personal information to the caller. Social Security and other government employees don’t call you up and threaten to take away your benefits.

We often get the “Tech Support’’ scam at our house. A caller who says he is with Microsoft calls and wants access to our computers to fix a problem with a virus or some other problem. Once he gains access, he has your credit card numbers, access to your bank account and other information.

I have noticed that this scam frequently features a heavily accented male voice – someone who obviously does not speak good English. That’s a clue. And at our house Microsoft is not the principle supplier of computer programs, so that’s another clue.

There is also a Medicare scam. The caller poses as a Medicare representative and makes an effort to get your Medicare number and other identifying information he can use it to seek payment for unnecessary services.

If you listen carefully, it is clear many of these calls are being made from a room crowded with other people who are also on nearby telephones making similar calls.

Some folks have also reported what state investigators call the “Romance Scam,’’ when fraudsters contact seniors through social media, strike up a relationship, and ask for money for some kind of emergency or a trip to visit the senior citizen.

If you are a woman on Facebook, you likely have received friend requests from people who use pictures of reasonably good looking fellows with a request for friendship. Most of the time they have few, if any, other friends and supposedly have jobs in foreign countries. Don’t bite. Mostly they want your money and not your company. Ignore them.

The easiest thing to do is hang up on suspicious calls. If the caller is legitimate, he or she will find another way to contact you.

Play it safe. Don’t divulge sensitive information unless you are sure who you are giving it to and know they are legitimate. Don’t believe promises of easy money or fall for that bouquet of beautiful flowers on his Facebook page.

And don’t pay any attention to the caller ID. Fraudulent calls are often made by faking the name and phone number of a legitimate company or agency.

And check your bank accounts and credit card statements frequently so you are sure what is being charged or withdrawn.

If you suspect fraud you can also call Consumer Services at 1-800-HELP-Fla (435-7352) or visit FloridaConsumerHelp.Com.

Or log onto Google and describe the details of the suspected call. You will often find lots of news stories about those that are scams. Sadly, many of them are about elderly victims who lost a lot of money.

Be safe out there.

Correction: This column has been updated to correct the portion of Florida’s population expected to be over 60 years old by the end of the year.

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Lucy Morgan
Lucy Morgan

Pulitzer Prize-winner Lucy Morgan was chief of the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times capital bureau in Tallahassee for 20 years, retiring in 2006 and serving as senior correspondent until 2013. She was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame and the Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame. The Florida Senate named its press gallery after Morgan, in honor of her two decades covering the Legislature.