November 27, 2011

New twist in Facebook scam on seniors

Facebook not only connects family and friends around the globe, it also gives con artists a window into your life.

In a new twist on an old criminal theme, the Facebook social-networking site is being used to target senior citizens in what authorities call the "grandma scam."

The scam is as simple as it is insidious. Someone calls a senior citizen claiming to be a grandchild in desperate need of cash. It might involve an accident, an eviction or some other crisis. The Arizona version often often revolves around a Mexican jail and a plea for bail money.

Unlike in years past, where con artists relied primarily on cold calls to convince seniors to wire money, more sophisticated perpetrators are calling up Facebook to custom-tailor stories.

Names, photos, phone numbers, family histories and up-to-the minute accounts of daily movements are providing con artists with important tools that give their stories depth and believability. So now when an unsuspecting grandparent picks up the phone, their "grandchild" might know what they look like, who their parents are, where the family vacationed and other convincing details.

"It is an outrageous scam on grandparents and their love for their grandkids," Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said. "We are seeing a lot of police reports about it."

Horne says his office in the past few months has seen an upsurge in the number of Facebook grandma scams. Last week, he sent letters to 1,100 Western Union and other money-wire services facilities in the state urging caution.

The letters detail how the scam works, then asks wire-service employees to question senior citizens eager to send emergency cash.

"Even a simple question such as, 'Have you confirmed that (the 'loved one' calling for help) is really in need? You need to be sure for your own protection,' could make a significant difference," Horne said in the letter.

It's a warning Mesa grandparents Kathleen and Bob Denton wished someone had given them this year when they twice sent money to someone claiming to be their grandson.

"He said he was in jail in Mexico and needed money to get out," Kathleen Denton, 76, said. "He asked us to keep it to ourselves, and we sent him the money."

The fake grandson claimed he had been in an accident and had been arrested. And after the Dentons sent the first wire, they got a second call a few hours later. Now their "grandson" said he needed money to pay an attorney so he could leave Mexico.

"Yes, we sent even more cash," Kathleen Denton said. "It was just so natural, that's how they get you."

A component of the scam almost always involves a plea from the grandchild not to tell anyone what happened, especially parents. So the grandparents don't try to verify the information until long after the money has been sent.

The Dentons didn't make the call until two days later, on a Sunday, when they discovered that their grandson had never left the country and had been working the whole time.

Kathleen Denton said the money was immaterial compared with the worry they felt over the fate of the grandson.

"The money, that's one thing," she said. "But your grandson in a Mexican jail ..."

Despite the rise in reports of Facebook grandma scams, Horne said the cases are hard to track and even harder to prosecute. In many cases the grandparents are embarrassed about being tricked and don't some forward right away, if they come forward at all.

Horne says individuals should consider what information they post on Facebook and control privacy settings to limit who can view profiles. Horne said he would avoid posting frequent updates about daily activities to keep scam artists from knowing your movements.

His office also recommends that seniors contacted about sending money to a desperate grandchild:

Verify the family member's whereabouts.

Do not call the caller with the phone number that person provided.

Don't fill in the blanks for the caller. For instance, if the caller says, "This is your favorite grandson," ask "Which one?"

by Robert Anglen The Arizona Republic Nov. 22, 2011 12:00 AM

New twist in Facebook scam on seniors

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