Granny scam: Local woman bilked out of $4K
Betty Paine has no qualms about telling people how she fell "hook, line and sinker" for a scam that cost her $4,000. What she doesn't want is her grandson's name used, even though he had nothing to do with his 78-year-old grandmother getting ripped off. So in this story, we'll call the innocent grandson and the scam artist "Lyle."
When she picked up the phone at 9:58am on April 28–- Paine keeps meticulous notes–- the person on the line sounded like he had a very bad cold and was in distress.
"I said, 'Who is this?'" she recounts. "He said, 'Your grandson.' I said, 'Lyle?'"
The fake Lyle said he was in Canada, something Paine didn't find unusual because the real Lyle lives in Utah and takes frequent ski trips. The "grandson" wove a tale for Paine about going north with buddies who picked up some prostitutes, and the police kicked in their door and arrested them all, even Lyle, who was asleep.
Lyle then handed off the phone to someone who identified himself as "Constable Parker," who seconded the Lyle-in-jail tale–- and claimed Lyle was sick and throwing up.
The faux Lyle asked Paine to send money through MoneyGram International (because it was the safest way, he told her). "He begged me to not tell his parents," she says. "He wanted to tell them himself."
Concerned at the thought of Lyle sick and in jail, Paine raced up to Walmart and wired $4,000 to "Steve Yale," Lyle's alleged attorney in Kirkland, Quebec. Shortly after that, she got a phone call from "Mr. Pardini," who claimed to be with MoneyGram security and telling her that Lyle would be calling in two to three hours. The call never came, so Paine dialed the real Lyle.
"He picked up immediately at his job in Park City, and I knew I'd been duped," says Paine. "I'm the perfect patsy."
Paine, who worked for more than 42 years for the Charlottesville School Board, has since learned she's not the only one who's fallen for the "grandparent scam." Last year, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, American grandparents lost more than $4.5 million, with one grandmother bilked out of $19,000.
So far this year, there have been 818 attempts of what's also called the "emergency pitch," with 625 victims robbed of $2.17 million, according to the Canadian Anti Fraud Centre, a.k.a. Phonebusters, one of the few agencies tracking fraudulent phone schemes.
"No one thinks of Canada as home of fraud," says Steve Baker, the Federal Trade Commission's Midwest director and commissar of phone scams. "And even if they're caught and convicted, people rarely go to jail."
Just catching these cons is difficult. They may use stolen credit cards to buy a throw-away cell phone, says Baker. And if the victim is told to send money to, for instance, 123 Street in Toronto, the fraudsters can pick it up at any MoneyGram or Western Union location in the province.
The wire fraud business in Canada is so prevalent–- perhaps accounting for 80 percent of MoneyGram transactions in Canada last year–- that the company settled an FTC complaint last October by paying $18 million in damages and implementing new fraud-busting programs.
"They'd known about if for years," says Baker. "We alleged that about 10 percent of their Canadian agents are crooks or associates of crooks."
MoneyGram spokeswoman Lynda Michielutti doesn't mention the settlement in an interview, but she says the "person-in-need" scam is the third most popular wire fraud, after Internet fraud, such as buying a car or renting an apartment, and the lottery scam, in which victims are advised they've won a huge sum in a foreign lottery.
"The majority of our customers are immigrants," says Michielutti. "If you have a 90-year-old woman who's never used MoneyGram before trying to wire $3,000 to Canada, that's a red flag."
It wasn't enough of a red flag for the Charlottesville Walmart location of MoneyGram–- one of at least 15 local locations and 198,000 worldwide. Nor was Paine dissuaded by the printed warning on the front of the MoneyGram form.
Paine wonders how she was targeted, because her phone number is still in her late husband's name and she doesn't use social networking.
"Even if she isn't, her grandkids are," says the FTC's Baker. Other criminals look at recent obituaries, which provide a treasure trove of family names.
Reporting the grandparent scam can be tricky, as Paine discovered. She called the Albemarle police, which has limited out-of-area jurisdiction, and the FBI, which referred a reporter to the FTC.
"It's best to call us," agrees Baker, because the FTC keeps a database into which other law enforcement agencies are supposed to send their information. That number is 877-FTC-HELP, or victims can go to the website at FTC.gov.
Paine says she's been telling her story because she doesn't want anyone else to fall for the scam. And since she was swindled, Paine says she has heard of other local victims, including a woman, now deceased, at Lake Monticello, who lost over $3,000.
Albemarle Police Lieutenant Shawn Schwertfeger counts at least two other known victims of the scam and notes that at least 20 such attempts have failed, such as the woman who told Paine that she simply didn't have the money when the fake grandson called.
"The best thing to do is education," says Schwertfeger. "People need to be a little more conscious of this type of criminal activity."
"Most of us think we can tell if someone is lying to us," says the FTC's Baker. "You can't. These guys are professionals. They say, 'Don't tell mom and dad.' What kind of grandparent wouldn't help their grandchild?"