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Scammers prey on the goodwill of senior citizens

Scammers prey on the goodwill of senior citizens
“Grandparents are seen as easy prey because most love their grandchildren fiercely and feel compelled to protect them, so they have difficulty saying no when these scammers — who are practiced at sounding scared and desperate — plead for money.” (Photo by Andrey Popov / Getty Images/iStockphoto)

My father-in-law is a wonderful man. A former firefighter, he’s tough but loving, sharp as a tack and certainly nobody’s fool.

But when he answered his home phone one day a few years ago, his abiding devotion to his family led him to fall for one of the most common scams around, one that’s right up there with the fraudulent “Nigerian Prince” story.

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It’s known as the Grandparent Scam, and this one played the script to the letter. “Hi Grandpa,” the caller said, to which my father-in-law replied by asking if it was my son, and even used his name.

The fake grandson claimed that he was in trouble. He was traveling in Canada, he said, and had been arrested. Could grandpa wire him bail money, and “Oh, by the way I’m begging you; please don’t tell dad because he’ll be furious”?

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My dear father-in-law, completely convinced that he had been speaking with my son, complied, and sent $700 by wire transfer. Shortly afterward, he called my husband and asked a mysterious question about our son’s whereabouts.

“He’s home in L.A.,” my husband replied, and when he asked what prompted the question, my father-in-law refused to say. It was only after more phone calls and repeated prodding that the full story emerged, and we had the unfortunate task of convincing grandpa that he had fallen victim to a con artist.

Stories like this are common. Grandparents are seen as easy prey because most love their grandchildren fiercely and feel compelled to protect them, so they have difficulty saying no when these scammers — who are practiced at sounding scared and desperate — plead for money.

Grandparents are also targeted because information on them — including age, landline phone numbers, addresses and financial details — is often easily available online. This can help con artists find likely victims and tailor their fictional stories of being arrested, involved in an accident or hospitalized in order to improve their odds of success.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, 350,000 such scams were reported in 2017, with losses amounting to $328 million.

The real numbers are probably much higher, authorities say, as many of these scams are never reported.

While there’s no way to completely shut down these fraudsters, experts say that increased awareness can go a long way to reduce such incidents. Family members should let grandparents know about the prevalence of this type of illicit activity and how these scams are carried out.

And by all means, grandparents — and everyone else, for that matter — should know that they should never give out personal or financial information over the phone, and never wire money to anyone without being absolutely certain that they are doing so for a legitimate reason.

My father-in-law has put up with some good-natured teasing after falling for one of these scams, but in truth victims are often smart, well-educated people who simply let their emotions override their doubts.

Many have been taken for far more than the amount my father-in-law lost, leading to financial hardship. And some victims have reported that after realizing they’ve been duped, they’ve felt humiliated and depressed over their gullibility.

This cautionary tale is a good reminder that, with Christmas approaching, we’re now in prime fraud season. Grandparent scams are just one of many that are shamelessly employed by con artists. Who hasn’t received phone messages from callers making bogus claims of overdue tax payments, fake charity solicitations, and ploys from fictional financial institutions?

The Better Business Bureau warns consumers to be particularly wary when shopping online. Always use a credit (not debit) card for online purchases and shop only on websites that are known to be secure.

Be extremely suspicious when unusual payment methods are requested; when clicking on social media posts or links to unfamiliar websites; if deals sound too good to be true (they almost always are); when receiving electronic greeting cards from unknown sources; and if a “delivery” service claims to need additional information.

One common Christmastime scam involves offering charming “letters to Santa” as a pretense to gather personal information to use for fraudulent purposes. When ordering such letters, authorities say, always make sure to deal with known and reputable sources.

And never underestimate the ingenuity and persistence of scammers.

Indeed, not long after my father-in-law sent the money to the person posing as his grandson, he received a second call pleading for more. By that time he had wised up, and told the caller he’d be happy to refer the request to his local sheriff’s department.

And just recently, while recovering from hip surgery, my father-in-law received yet another call from someone purporting to be my son with a tale of woe similar to the first phone scam.

My sister-in-law, who had been helping out during her father’s recovery, took the call. And promptly hung up.

In this season of giving and goodwill, we still need to keep our common sense radar tuned to skeptical. Unfortunately, con artists’ lists are just as long as Santa’s.

Patrice Apodaca is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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