Whistleblower: Grandma swindled with call for help

  • Article by: JAMES ELI SHIFFER
  • Star Tribune
  • March 11, 2010 - 11:16 PM

Lois Foster was waking up with a cup of coffee in bed when the call for help came.

Someone pretending to be her grandson claimed he'd been caught driving drunk while in Canada for a hockey game. The voice on the phone sounded uncannily like her grandson Adam. Within hours, Foster drove to her bank, withdrew $2,500 and wired it to someone in Canada so her "grandson" could get out of jail. She never called his parents because he begged her to keep the embarrassing incident quiet.

Foster, 78, learned the truth four days later: Adam had never left Minnesota.

Foster fell victim to the "grandparent scam," a high-pressure hoax in which thieves pose as family members in dire straits. While most swindlers depend on greed to con their victims, this crime is all about exploiting a grandparent's willingness to do anything to help a grandchild in need.

"It gets you right in the heart," Foster said.

A rash of such thefts prompted warnings in recent months from the Ontario Provincial Police and the Better Business Bureau. Last year, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Call Centre got 1,250 reports from "emergency scam" victims in the United States, who were taken for nearly $5.3 million. Staff Sgt. Paul Proulx of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police figures less than 5 percent of victims actually report the crime. He said the typical victim loses $2,000 to $4,000, and the perpetrators usually get away with it.

"It's extremely popular" among criminals, said Proulx, who manages the Canadian Anti-Fraud Call Centre task force. "It works very well."

The scams usually follow the same story line: A senior is duped into giving up the name of a grandchild. The con artist spins a tale of woe involving an arrest, a car accident or maybe trouble at the border. Secrecy is key. "Don't tell my parents," the impostor pleads, and then a bogus lawyer comes on the phone asking for money. Grandparents are told to mislead anybody who asks where the money is going. The scams depend on money wiring services with thousands of branches across the world. To collect money through a wire transfer, a recipient merely has to know the name and location of the sender, the amount and a reference number. They must also provide a government-issued ID card or driver's license, easily faked, police and company officials said.

Industry representatives say they take the fraudulent use of their services seriously. But making it harder to receive wired money in the name of fraud prevention would violate the privacy of law-abiding customers. The better approach, they said, is making victims aware of the risks of wiring money to strangers.

At MoneyGram, a global payment services company based in St. Louis Park, customers fill out a form containing a "fraud warning" that includes the phrase, "Are you sending money to someone out of the state or country who claims to be a relative needing cash for an emergency?"

Grandma lost $17,000

Agents at MoneyGram and Western Union are expected to ask skeptical questions when they spot a customer who seems nervous or doesn't understand the procedure.

"When somebody comes in and says 'I'm sending $500 to Canada,' they say, 'Do you know the person you're sending it to?'" Western Union spokeswoman Kristin Kelly said.

That kind of questioning didn't deter a Bloomington grandmother from making six wire transfers to resolve a bogus crisis in January. Altogether, she lost $17,000, records show.

"I've never lied so much in my life as I did that week," said the woman, 80, who did not want her name used because she's still embarrassed and worried more criminals will target her.

It started with a phone call Jan. 22. "Who's your favorite grandson?" asked the caller.

Grandma has three grandsons, but she thought the caller sounded like Robert, so that's what she told him. When the man heard the name, he broke into sobs. He claimed some friends had been caught with drugs and he was stuck in a Canadian jail cell. He needed $3,000 for bail, but he wasn't ready to ask his parents.

Call for more money

Grandma took money she had been saving for home repairs, drove to a MoneyGram outlet and wired it to Canada. The following day, a phony lawyer called, saying the judge needed more money. Grandma cashed in a certificate of deposit and later borrowed $10,000 to meet ever-rising demands for cash.

"All I could think of was to get him out of there, to get him home," she said.

The spell was broken eight days later when another family member overheard one of grandma's conversations with the con artist and got in touch with the grandson.

Bloomington police took a report, but Cmdr. Mark Stehlik said it's hard to investigate a crime originating in Canada. The theft also was reported to Niagara Regional Police and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Call Centre, but it doesn't appear anyone is trying to find the $17,000, which police say is large for this kind of scam.

Foster doesn't expect to recover her money, either. Without any leads, Brooklyn Center police put her case in the "inactive" file.

Foster can't believe she fell for the scam, but she wised up fast. The second time "Mr. Cole" called from a Calgary jail, she refused his request for money.

"I just had this creepy, icky, icky feeling," Foster said. "It just didn't feel right."

While she tried to reach her grandson, the con artists kept calling her. Finally, a few days after the scam began, Adam answered his grandmother's call. When she asked about his ordeal in Canada, he thought she'd lost her mind.

Foster wonders how much the scammers really knew about her grandson. "How in the heck did they know he liked hockey?" she said.

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