An out-of-the-blue phone call from a grandchild needing help and asking for money is not a new scam, but it has been making the rounds in the Tri-Cities again and even has federal law enforcers putting out a warning.
Last week, a 91-year-old Kennewick woman fell victim to the scam and wired $3,000 through Western Union to the Dominican Republic after she received a call from someone claiming to be her 17-year-old grandson, said Mike Blatman, Kennewick police's crime prevention specialist.
During the conversation, the woman slipped up and asked, "Is that you, Cody?" The scammer then took advantage of the situation and said that yes, he was Cody and that he was in jail and needed $3,000 to be freed.
After the grandmother wired the money, the scammer called again and said he needed $900, Blatman said. That is when she got suspicious and called her son, who said her grandson was home safe in Kennewick.
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Blatman said he got a similar report two weeks ago when a caller claimed to be in jail in Canada, but the money had to be wired to a different country.
"This is the generation that was very trusting," he said. "Their background and development came at a much more innocent time."
The FBI recently put out an alert warning people that the grandparent scam is still circulating, but with the use of technology and social networking sites, scammers are getting more sophisticated.
Scammers can sometimes find out personal information about their targets and use it to sell the story.
For example, if a grandson mentions he is a photographer, the scammer can use that info to call the grandparents and say someone stole his camera equipment and passport in Mexico and he needs money, the FBI news release said.
Typically the scam involves a foreign country and a bad event, such as a crash, being arrested for drugs or being mugged, authorities said.
Sometimes the call doesn't come from the grandson or granddaughter, but rather a purported officer or lawyer calling on their behalf.
One Tri-Citian recently called the Herald after she got a call from her "oldest granddaughter" saying she was in a car with someone in Canada and police found drugs in the car. The granddaughter said the police knew the drugs didn't belong to her, but she still needed money to post bail.
The woman told the Herald about the scam -- but didn't disclose how much she lost -- because she said she knew about the grandparent scam, had warned others about it and still managed to fall victim to it.
"It's a confidence game," Blatman said. "It's very similar to those other scams where someone is trying to convince you that you can get something for nothing. It's also a numbers game. If they call enough people, they'll find someone who hasn't heard about it or just doesn't think about it."
Blatman said victims typically end up saying the grandchild's name during the conversation, which the scammers then use.
The woman who called the Herald said she was convinced because the scammer knew she had more than one granddaughter and at some point used her name and her husband's name. She said she also had someone at Western Union tell her it was a scam, but she didn't believe them.
"It's really simple. It's a bluff. That's all they're doing," Blatman said. "The bottom line is never send money via Western Union or MoneyGram unless you're originating the transaction."
Grandparents should also stop to consider how often they actually hear from their grandchildren -- if it's unusual that they called, that's a red flag, he said. Other red flags include the caller telling them not to tell anybody about what happened, that they're in jail in Canada, and requesting the money be sent somewhere else.
Blatman also noted that an officer in a foreign country typically is not going to offer to pick up a wire transfer for someone who is in jail to help them bail out.
The FBI news release said victims can also avoid falling for the scam by resisting the pressure to act quickly and taking the time to call someone else in the family first.
The financial losses typically don't meet the threshold for the FBI to open an investigation, but a complaint can be filed through the Internet Crime Complaint Center, which forwards the information to the appropriate agency and collects and analyzes the data to look for common threads to try to identify the scammers.