Grandparent scams are still around

No, I didn’t get hit.  Someone even older than I am (although he’s got fewer grandchildren) almost got hit.  Twice.

This is not a stupid guy.  He still runs his own investment company.  A few years ago he recounted a weird call that he thought came from one of his grandkids-in-law.  Everybody who heard the story recognized it for what it was, particularly when it was determined that the grandkid-in-law in question, who does travel a lot, had never made the call.  The scam was explained to the call recipient.

Well, today he sent his whole family into an uproar.  He’d got another call, and seems to have been one phone call away from wiring off $2500.  Fortunately, a couple of family members determined what was happening, in time, and explained the situation.  Again.

Let me try to explain a bit how this works.

The recipient gets a phone call.

Recipient: [answers phone] Hello?
Caller: Grandpa?
Recipient: Is that you, Mary?

OK, at this point the caller knows that whoever answered the phone has a grandchild named “Mary.”  Allow me to theorize why this is the grandparent scam.  Many (older) people may have more grandchildren than they have children, so the odds of hitting someone with a grandchild of the same gender as the caller increase.  Also, most people don’t know their grandchildren, and the doings of said grandchildren, as well as that of their kids.

The fraudsters who make these calls may do it at random, or they may have bought calling lists of those with interests, demographic information, or medication purchasing patterns indicating that they are older.  These calls may also be targeted at geographic areas with a higher proportion of retired people.

Caller: Yeah.
Recipient: Gee, your voice sounds different/that doesn’t sound like you.
Caller: I’m not feeling well/have a cold.

This answer serves two purposes: it explains the differences in voice (although it might not explain an Asian, Russian, or south Asian accent), and also calls on the sympathy of the recipient.

R: That’s too bad.
C: Yeah.  Actually grandpa, [caller launches into story of woe, ending with a requirement for funds for a) medical services, b) legal fees or bail, c) documentation expenses, d) travel expenses, e) etc.]

This particular call added a few refinements.  The explanation ended with a plea that this situation was all very embarrassing, and so would grandpa please not let anyone know.  Grandpa apparently complied with this request: grandpa did do some checking with the family to try and find the grandchild, and, coyly, wouldn’t tell what was going on.  It wasn’t until a) a few family members had had frustrating attempts to find out what the calls were about, and b) the grandchild had been found (well, but busy with an event for one of the great-grandchildren) that the whole story came out.

Fortunately, there was a second refinement.  In an attempt to add verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative, the caller had finished with the statement that a lawyer would be calling to make arrangements for the money transfer.  Lawyers are trustworthy, of course (no laughing down there in the cheap seats), and the fact that you can no more authenticate the person who claims to be a lawyer than the person who claims to be your grandchild is probably lost on most people.

I say “fortunately,” because the calls grandpa made to the family probably blocked the second call, at least for a while.  It is quite possible that the scammer or scammers, hitting a busy signal a couple of times, suspected that calls were being made to family, and cut their losses rather than carry on with a now likely compromised scam.

This is not a new scam.  It’s a variation on 419s, which were, themselves, variations on the postal mail based “Nigerian” scam, which was a variation on the “Spanish prisoner” scam going back to the middle ages (which was probably based on a similar and even older scam).  But the scam is widespread, targets generosity rather than greed, and seems to be somewhat resistant to eradication.

Please raise this issue with, and explain it to, older friends and relatives.  The media reports on the scam tend to be minimal, and don’t explain how easy, and likely, it is to give away information in what you think is normal conversation.

Oh, and just to conclude, when you answer the phone and someone says “Grandpa?” or “Grandma?”, the correct answer is, “Who’s speaking, please?”

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