It’s a grandparent’s worst nightmare.
A crying grandchild calls on the phone, pleading for help.
The heartstrings go out and the wallets open.
Exactly like the thief on the other end of the line planned.
Suspects are calling victims, saying they are their grandchild and are in an emergency, needing money.
“Preying on the emotions of a grandparent is reprehensible,” said Marco Island Police Chief Thom Carr.
Reports of what law enforcement officials are calling the “grandparent scam” began in January and spiked in prevalence this March in Collier and Lee counties, as well as across the nation.
Gail Crichton, a southern Naples resident, was a near-victim on Tuesday.
“Grandma, I am in a big mess and need bail money,” the male caller told Crichton.
He told her not to call his mom and dad about his reported marijuana arrest in Buffalo, N.Y., rather, he would do that after the trial, she said.
“That was strange for the particular grandson I was thinking it was at that point,” Crichton said.
He asked for bail money to be wired using Western Union and said he’d call later to get the wire transfer number, police reported.
A Canadian accent made Crichton suspicious, so instead of sending the $2,752 for bail, she called her grandson’s father and then the fraud hotline, police said.
“The kids, I assume they were kids, well they were messing with the wrong grandma. I don’t dole out money that easily,” Crichton said.
The call, which came up all zeros on the caller I.D., could not be traced, police reported. A second phony call came in from 000-012-3456 later the same day, Crichton said.
Marco didn’t create an investigative report of an Island woman who also avoided falling prey to a similar attempted hustle, Carr said.
Not everyone is so lucky as losses have been as high as $30,000 for one Lee County resident, who requested not to share his name.
They are scared of repercussions, such as their kids deciding they can longer handle their own finances, Payne said.
It’s helpful for victims to report their stories, she said, because they may prevent future victims.
Particularly because catching these suspected crooks is difficult.
Identifying that a crime was committed is a challenge. Reports are often not taken, although the Collier County Sheriff’s Office documented the Crichton case as a “suspicious phone call.”
“It’s not a criminal issue at this point,” Payne said. “The closest you could really come to that is theft by deception.”
Criminal charges of exploiting the elderly are difficult too, because, thus far, the victims are competent and coherent, Payne said. “They fell victim to someone’s really good, but horrible scam.”
The swindlers disguise their voices by crying, as they did with Crichton, coughing or by being frantically upset.
Using the wire transfer number to get the cash, con artists can say they’re receiving the money in New York, but actually pick it up at a Western Union anywhere in the world.
If a scam can be identified, information is sent to the U.S. Secret Service, and in the case of these recent Canadian calls, the Canadian antifraud center is working with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and U.S. government, Payne said.
Phone numbers can be hijacked, so it’s important not to answer the phone if you don’t recognize the number, even if it’s a local number, Payne advised.
“If you hear ‘wire money’ or ‘MoneyGram,’ bells, whistles and rockets should be going off as a warning,” she said.