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Column: Amid your Black Friday shopping, keep watch for holiday scams

2017 photo of Black Friday shoppers at the Westfield Century City mall in Los Angeles.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

It’s Black Friday so you’re probably thinking about holiday shopping. Maybe you’re still counting your Thanksgiving blessings.

What you shouldn’t have to think about is being ripped off.

Yet the holiday season — particularly amid this disorienting moment in the nation’s history — never fails to bring out scammers intent on catching people, especially seniors, with their guard down.

Today, therefore, some cautionary tales about what to watch for.

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Sharon Sloan, 79, and her husband recently came this close to wiring $30,000 to their grandson to get him out of jail.

“I swear to God it sounded just like him,” the Long Beach resident told me.

The long and short of it is that the caller — spoiler alert: not really Sloan’s grandson — said he’d been arrested in New York for having an open liquor bottle in the car. If Grandma and Grandpa didn’t send the cash, he’d be stuck behind bars.

Sloan said her 81-year-old husband, a retired doctor, did what many grandparents might do in such a situation and immediately set about securing the funds.

“After all,” she said, “they knew our grandson’s name. They knew he lived in New York. How could they know that?”

Good question. Social media such as Facebook and Instagram can betray many details of our lives. But scammers are clever. They find prospective victims in all sorts of ways.

This particular racket is so common, and effective, it has a name: the grandparent scam. I wrote earlier this year about a 79-year-old Montrose man who got hoodwinked to the tune of $27,000.

AARP warned in June that authorities were seeing an increase in reported incidents of the grandparent scam, with stuck-at-home seniors particularly vulnerable to falling for the anguished pleas from a supposed loved one.

“In these days of coronavirus concerns, their lies can be particularly compelling,” the Federal Trade Commission observed. “But we all need to save our money for the real family emergencies.”

The FTC said in a report last month that consumers ages 60 and older filed nearly 319,000 fraud reports in 2019, with reported losses topping $440 million.

This year’s figures almost certainly will be higher.

One common denominator to all grandparent scams is the fraudster insisting that the victim not call anyone while arranging the fund transfer. This is typically done by keeping victims on the phone or saying that a “gag order” is in place.

Sloan was having none of it. While her husband scrambled to get the money, she managed to reach her grandson’s wife, who quickly tracked down her hubby and had him call Grandma. Needless to say, he wasn’t in jail.

Sloan said she took the phone from her husband, exchanged some tart words with the caller that I can’t repeat here, and hung up.

Her advice?

“Don’t listen to these people,” Sloan replied. “They tell you not to call your grandchild to find out what’s really happening. Call them!”

Another sleazy con on the rise as many households struggle to make ends meet during the pandemic is bogus claims that you’ve inherited a ton of money from a long-lost relative.

I’ve received a number of emails recently about this one, with people across the country saying they weren’t sure what to make of the inheritance offer until they went online and found a column I wrote in February about the racket.

What happened recently to Michael Blanks Sr., 56, is typical of what most people go through.

The Kansas resident received an email ostensibly from a Swedish lawyer named Olof Ragmark saying that a Peter Blanks had died overseas, leaving behind a fortune of $12 million in search of an heir.

According to Ragmark’s research, that lucky person was Blanks, who, for the record, has no rich Swedish relative named Peter.

“My kids immediately said it was a scam, but I figured what the heck, maybe it was true,” Blanks told me. “Like winning the lottery.”

Out of work because of a disability, he had some time on his hands and decided to see what would happen if he expressed interest.

A common element to the inheritance scam is the huge volume of official-looking paperwork that the fraudster will produce to create the illusion of legitimacy.

“It looked so real,” Blanks recalled. “It was perfect.”

I had the same experience a couple of years ago when my wife was targeted with this con and I decided to see how far down the rabbit hole it would lead. The complexity of the ruse was impressive.

Blanks shared with me his email exchanges with Ragmark, who grew increasingly confident as he drew Blanks deeper into his clutches.

It’s an insidious fraud. Once you suspend your disbelief and start cooperating, the scam looks increasingly authentic as the hoped-for payday gets closer.

“I want to assure you once again that this process is 100% legal,” Ragmark told Blanks.

Pro tip: Any lawyer who has to insist on the legality of a scheme is probably not on the up and up.

Eventually, Blanks grew bored. He told Ragmark to get lost.

Not long after, Blanks said, someone else claiming to be a Swedish lawyer got in touch with word that another long-lost relative had left him nearly 7 million euros.

Blanks let that one play out as well. This time, though, the scammer guessed he was being toyed with.

“Even so, he asked me to send him $700 worth of iTunes cards,” Blanks said. “He was just down to begging for something.”

Chutzpah award, right there.

Finally, a quick word of warning from Nan Williams, 82, who related how she’s been receiving calls in recent days from a man and woman claiming she’d won $18 million in a lottery.

“I do not have caller ID and am quarantined, so I had to keep answering the ring,” the West Hollywood resident told me. “I kept telling them to stop calling. They were very persistent.”

The calls ended only after Williams said she was about to contact the police and county sheriff.

“Thankfully, I have not heard any more since then,” she said.

She also didn’t really win the lottery. Go figure.


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