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‘Grandkid in distress’ may be cruelest hoax of all

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Count Agatha Bowden among those New Mexico residents not surprised by the rash of national stories circulating in the media these days about what has become known as the “Grandparents Scam.”

That’s when someone posing as your grandson or granddaughter calls you to say they have been in an accident or arrested in a foreign country and need money – fast.

Bowden knows better. The Farmington resident remembers getting such a call about a year ago.

When she first heard a young man’s voice on the line, she assumed it was her grandson, she says, because “he’s the only kid who ever calls me.”

“Is that you, Anthony?” she said.

“Yes, it is, grandma,” the caller said. “I’m in trouble and I need some money.”

But Bowden knew right away it wasn’t her Anthony. She knew his voice, having helped to raise him as a child.

“I said, ‘No, you’re not my grandson … This is nothing but a scam.’”

With that, she slammed down the phone. When she looked down at the caller ID, all she saw was a string of zeros.

Unfortunately, she says, one of her good friends wasn’t so discerning.

This woman’s granddaughter belongs to a church organization that does mission work overseas. So when the girl’s impostor called one day to say she had been in an accident and needed money, Bowden says her friend did what many grandparents would do if they thought their loved ones were in distress.

She wired the money as instructed – all $7,500 of it.

Sadly, it wasn’t until she got a second call notifying her that the money hadn’t arrived yet that she became suspicious. At that point, she did what she now realizes all too well she should have done in the first place: She called the girl’s mother, who told her that her granddaughter was fine.

Nationally, the Federal Trade Commission reports that it has received more than 40,000 complaints about this clever ruse since 2010, resulting in losses in the “tens of millions” of dollars. Of course, those numbers don’t include countless people too embarrassed to admit they have been conned.

In New Mexico, Bowden and her friend aren’t the only ones to have been targeted by this insidious scam.

Connie Quillen, executive assistant at the Albuquerque-based Better Business Bureau Serving New Mexico and Southwest Colorado, says her office receives calls on this scam almost daily.

In fact, while doing a recent presentation attended by many seniors at a local church, Quillen asked how many either had received such a call themselves or knew of someone who had.

More than half the people in the room raised their hands.

Mining social media, obits

“It’s pretty commonplace and has been on the rise for years,” she says, noting social-media sites such as Facebook have made it easier for scammers to pick up key details about their targeted victims.

Quillen says obituaries are another rich source of information, since they generally include whether the deceased had grandchildren among the list of survivors.

To that point, she recalls receiving a phone call from a local grandmother who was the recipient of one of these calls – even though that woman’s grandson was only 10.

The BBB office isn’t the only one in the state to get calls about this scam. A spokesman for the Attorney General Office’s Consumer Protection Division says they get roughly four to five calls a week, too.

So what should you do if you get one of these bogus calls?

Here’s what the FTC advises:

• As difficult as it may be, resist the urge to do something immediately.

• Try to verify the caller’s identity by asking questions only your grandchild could answer.

• Call your grandchild directly. If you don’t know his or her number, get it from a family member.

• Even though the caller will instruct you not to tell anyone, check out details of the story with other family members or friends who might be in a better position to know if the scenario is even plausible.

• Don’t wire money. Once your money is transferred electronically, you can pretty much kiss it goodbye.

• And report the incident to the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint or by calling 1-877-FTC-HELP.

Patricia Tubb of Los Alamos followed the FTC’s advice to the letter a few years ago, when she and her husband received a late-night call from her “grandson.” He said he had been arrested on drug charges in Toronto and needed bail money.

“The spooky thing about this is that it sounded exactly like my grandson Adam,” she says. “It was really spooky.”

Even though he begged her not to tell his parents – he said he would be in “big, big trouble” – she did just that despite the lateness of the hour.

Sure enough, when she woke up her daughter in Michigan at 1 a.m. to tell her about the call, she was assured her real grandson was “sleeping in the other room.”

“This is a very cruel scam,” Tubb told the Journal . “Parents and grandparents want to help and protect their children.”

Nick Pappas is assistant business editor at the Albuquerque Journal. Contact him at npappas@abqjournal.com, 505-823-3847 or on Twitter at @nickpapp if you are aware of what sounds like a scam. To report a scam to law enforcement, contact the New Mexico Consumer Protection Division toll-free at 1-800-678-1508.

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