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$8,000 mistake a lesson to others on “family member scam”

A witness who asked to be referred to only as “Mr. W.” testifies in 2014 before the Senate Special Committee on Aging at a hearing on scams against the elderly. Telephone con artists, one posing as his grandson and one as a policeman, persuaded him to send thousands of dollars to them via MoneyPak cards.
A witness who asked to be referred to only as “Mr. W.” testifies in 2014 before the Senate Special Committee on Aging at a hearing on scams against the elderly. Telephone con artists, one posing as his grandson and one as a policeman, persuaded him to send thousands of dollars to them via MoneyPak cards. AP

You’ve probably learned a lesson or two the hard way, or lost a dollar or two and chalked it up to living and learning.

One Idaho woman shared her $8,000 mistake with me this week, in hopes others could learn from her experience.

It started with a phone call you’ve probably heard of: a family member in trouble, seeking help.

In this case, the caller claimed to be the woman’s grandson-in-law, who had supposedly been pulled over in a vehicle with a friend who had drugs. Through tears, the “grandson” said he’d been arrested and was going to be taken to Pennsylvania unless someone could post bail.

“It sounded just like him,” said the woman, who asked me not to use her name. “He has a unique voice. So I didn’t question it wasn’t him.”

The caller said he was in the Salt Lake City area, where her real family members live. The scammers had done their homework.

The “police” who joined the call provided names and badge numbers, taking great efforts to make the situation sound legitimate.

The grandson could be freed and keep a clean record, the woman was told, if he could come up with $8,150. There was one other condition: the deal had to be kept strictly confidential.

“I knew the rest of the family probably couldn’t come up with the money, so yeah, we sent it,” the woman told me. “You get to be emotionally stressed and you don’t think these things through.”

She sent the money as the scammers instructed: cash spread out inside several magazines, so the post office “wouldn’t get suspicious.” She said she felt uneasy, but the situation seemed so urgent and rushed that there wasn’t time for questions. The next day, she received a call that the money and been received, but the officers had found more drugs, so her grandson-in-law would need another $8,000.

The woman said she didn’t have that money, but she was worried. Despite being sworn to secrecy, she confided the situation to her granddaughter who was visiting her from Boise. Her granddaughter was suspicious and got to work right away. Eventually, they got hold of the real grandson-in-law. He knew nothing of the whole thing.

It was then that she reached out to the Better Business Bureau — and got caller ID.

Her advice to others? Don’t pick up the phone if you don’t recognize the number, and take your time if someone starts asking for money.

“It was an expensive lesson to learn,” she said. “I’m very careful now, and I don’t believe anybody.”

Take the time to have conversations with family members about what to do if they get these sorts of calls. Discuss with whom they should verify requests for money or personal financial information.

Remind each other to never send money to strangers via prepaid card, wire transfer or cash, no matter the story. These methods are untraceable, and as in this story, gone for good.

Emily Valla, emily.valla@thebbb.org, is the Idaho marketplace director for the Better Business Bureau Northwest. To check a business or report a scam, go to www.bbb.org or call (208) 342-4649.

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