Grandparent Scam

Scam Alert issued November 2010

"Of course, we were thinking, ‘Here’s our granddaughter in a foreign country. Anything could have happened.’"

— Terry Knight, of Fairfield. Scammers bilked her and her husband out of almost $6,000 after convincing them their granddaughter was imprisoned in Spain and needed help

Grandparents Scammed: The Story of Jack and Terry KnightWatch their story. Jack and Terry Knight, of Fairfield, would do anything for their family. When they got a desperate phone call from a woman who claimed to be their granddaughter in trouble, they acted quickly, wiring thousands of dollars to who they thought was an international bail bondsman. It was a scam.

A scam targeting elderly Montanans called the “Grandparent Scam” goes like this: An older person receives a call from someone who pretends to be his or her grandchild. The caller often identifies himself or herself with a general line like “Grandma, it’s me.” Sometimes, the caller is crying and sounds distressed. The caller rarely volunteers a name, instead relies on the grandparent to identify him or her.The scam has several forms: Sometimes the “grandchild” claims to be in a European country. He or she was picked up by authorities with traveling companions who had drugs. Sometimes the “grandchild” claims to be in Canada and was picked up for driving while intoxicated or was in a car accident.

Despite differences in the details, the call always leads to one thing: the grandparent must wire cash to help the grandchild. That story is pure fiction. Once a grandparent wires the money, it is usually gone for good.

In 2010 alone, scammers bilked Montana seniors out of more than $68,000 using “the grandparent scam.” But that figure reflects only those people who reported the scam to the Montana Department of Justice. The true cost of this scheme to Montana’s grandparents is certainly much higher.

Avoid the Grandparent Scam

  • Ask the grandchild a question only he or she would be likely know, such as “What is the name of my dog?” or “What did I get you for Christmas last year?”
  • The scammer asks the grandparent not to talk to the grandchild’s parents. Disregard this. Do not wire money to anyone without checking out the story. Once money has been wired, it is usually gone forever.
  • Buying a bail bond is a complicated process. If you are asked to post a bond, be suspicious if the process involves little more than wiring money.

Montana Victims: You Are Not Alone

Many smart, thoughtful people fell victim to the grandparent scam.

This is a sampling of real incidents:

A Helena couple received a call from a girl who claimed she was their granddaughter. She said she’d been picked up in Canada for selling drugs and needed $2,800 for bail money. The girl begged the couple not to tell her parents. She started crying when the grandfather told her they did not have the money. The grandmother, who had been listening nearby, outed the caller as a scam artist. The couple never received another call.

This scammer used a common ploy when introducing herself. She began the conversation by saying simply, “Grandpa?” After the grandfather asked who the caller was, she responded with, “Who do you think it is?” In this fashion, she baited him into providing the name of one of his granddaughters.

A Billings grandfather got a call from a scam artist posing as the man’s grandson — and he used the grandson’s real name. The young man said he needed $5,500 wired to him because he had been arrested in Canada. The “grandson” begged the Billings man not to tell his parents or anyone else. The grandfather and his wife did as they were asked, wiring $5,500 to a supposed bail bondsman in Los Angeles. The next day they received a second call from an officer who said he had received the money, but needed more to pay the fines. By then, the grandparents realized that they had been scammed. They called their grandson; he was in Utah, where he lives and works. They were unable to recover the money.

Looking back, the Billings grandfather wondered how the scam artist had known his real grandson’s name. He remembered a phone call he received a few weeks earlier from a young man. The caller had said, “Hi Grandpa,” and the Billings grandfather asked, “Who is this?” The young man replied, “Who do you think it is?” The grandfather said he thought it sounded like his grandson, John, and the young man replied, “You’re right, I’m just calling to say hello.” But before they could start talking the young man said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I have an important call coming in… I’ll call you back soon.” Fast forward a month later, and the Billings grandfather received the distressing call which led him to wire thousands of dollars to the scammer.

A World War II veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor in Lewistown received a phone call this summer from a man who said he was an officer in the Niagara Falls, Canada police department. The caller said Canadian authorities had the man’s grandson in jail. A young man then came on the phone.

“Grandpa,” he said. “Will you help me?”

The purported Canadian sergeant later explained that he would release the young man for $3,000 bail, and that it had to be sent to a bondsman in Spain. He insisted that an international bail bondsman must receive the bail in order for the funds to be applied to a Canadian jail. The Lewistown grandfather was so moved by this story, he drove 130 miles to a pawn shop in Billings, the closest place where he knew he could wire money. Luckily, the pawn shop owner was a real bail bondsman and told the Lewistown veteran that it was all a scam. When the grandfather later spoke to his family, he found out that his grandson, who according to the scammers had driven up to Canada a few days before, had actually been with his parents in California the entire time.

The next day, the grandfather received another call from the scammer who scolded him for not sending the money. The grandfather replied that he would have sent it, if it weren’t a scam. To which the “sergeant” replied: “You had better lock your doors.”