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Auburn man recovers money after being targeted by ‘grandparents scam’

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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When Wright Pierce got the phone call from Canada for help from a voice on the other end of the line that he thought was his grandson’s, he sprang into action. The young man had been in an accident and landed in jail. He needed $5,200 wired to him to get out and back to California. But it wasn’t his grandson and Pierce, like hundreds and maybe thousands of others, had unwittingly become embroiled in what is commonly called the “grandparents scam.” Unlike many, however, the 82-year-old Auburn resident was able to use pluck and perseverance to extricate himself from the scam and recover $5,200 that was earmarked for a Canadian crook’s hands. Pierce received the call Aug. 6. The man said he was his grandson, and even knew his nickname. It’s not uncommon for people to mine personal information from Facebook and other Web locations to ingratiate themselves with a potential victim. The voice sounded not quite right but was close enough after the man on the other line said he broken his nose and dislocated his jaw. Typically, the scammer says he’s embarrassed and gets the victim to agree not to tell other family members. Pierce went out immediately after the call and visited several businesses — including one that declined to wire the large amounts because, he was told, there were too many scams going on. Eventually, he was able to find a downtown bank to send out the money order. Overnight, though, Pierce began to piece together the events of the previous day and remembered little things — like the man giving an old address — that didn’t quite add up. He had caller I.D. and checked the telephone area code, finding that the money wasn’t going to British Columbia in Western Canada, where his grandson was supposedly jailed. The phone number was in the Eastern Canadian province of Ontario. That Friday morning, Pierce called his son and daughter-in-law about the whereabouts of the grandson, only to learn that he was in Colusa and not anywhere near Canada. That led him to make a phone call to Western Union. After nearly two hours on the line, he reached the company’s fraud division. But they said they were too busy and advised to get on the Web site to register a problem. Pierce eventually was able to e-mail them with his concerns. With the help of his family, he also learned that the checks had not been picked up. “Everyone was helping me,” Pierce said. “It became a family affair.” Pierce also contacted the Placer County Sheriff’s Department and initially ran into problems getting through on a furlough day. He visited the closed headquarters in Auburn but couldn’t reach a law-enforcement officer to report the fraud case. Returning home, Pierce did get through on the phone and 15 minutes later, was making his report to an officer. Western Union was able to stop the check and within three days, Pierce had his money back. Dena Erwin, sheriff’s spokeswoman, confirmed Friday that the report had been filed by Pierce. It’s a type of fraud that Placer County investigators she discussed the case with indicated it hasn’t become widespread in this area yet. The fraud is becoming more prevalent, according to one statistical analysis. Statistics by the Canadian Anti-Fraud Call Center reported nearly 350 complaints this year, including nearly 170 in July and August. That compares with 128 in all of 2007. It’s also becoming more well-known. On Aug. 3, a Loomis resident was almost a victim to the same type of crime. The elderly woman was about to wire $2,942 to Canada after receiving a call from a man, pretending to be her grandson, who told her he needed the money to get out of jail. Fortunately, the MoneyGram agent was familiar with the scam and alerted the grandmother. It turns out the young man was nowhere near Canada. He was at his family’s Placer County home where he lives.. Gold Country Media’s Martha Garcia contributed to this report. Gus Thomson can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com. ---------- Fast facts: Be on guard for the grandparents scam • Confirm the status of the “grandchild” on the other end of the line requesting emergency money by calling them directly on their phone or verifying the story with other family members before deciding what course to take. • Be on guard if the “grandchild” says that he’s suffering from a cold or has a broken jaw or other injury that makes him sound differently than he normally does. • Scammers will let victims “fill in the blanks.” If the conversations starts out with “It’s me, you’re No. 1 grandchild,” don’t give a name for the fraud artist to take on. • Requests to wire money through Western Union or MoneyGram should be suspect. Wired funds are hard to track once they’re in the hands of scammers. • Victims of the “distressed loved one call” should immediately contact local police and the state Attorney General’s office. If the request was to wire money to Canada, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Call Center has a PhoneBusters hotline and Web site to make reports. The site is phonebusters.com. The phone number is 1-888-495-8501. Source: Better Business Bureau