Beware of the 'grandparents scam'

The call comes at 10 in the morning, frantic and feverish.

Grandma? Is that you? This is Michael!

--Yes, are you okay?

No, I'm in jail -- in Canada.

--What? Where?

I was fishing, but without a license, and now I'm jail, and I need $2,900 in bail money, and please don't tell Mom and Dad -- can you help me?

What would you do if this was your grandson?

Welcome to the "grandparents scam," a trick as old as the hills, or at least grandparents themselves, but it's a scheme that's made a comeback in recent months. Obviously, some con men know no bounds.
Think about it, though, because while you might believe, "Are these victims idiots? Surely, I'd recognize my grandson's voice," maybe you wouldn't -- it's occasionally hard to distinguish voices on another line for anyone, young or older, and if you're a little hard of hearing, it might be even worse.

In any case, these calls have been coming lately, particularly to states fairly close in geographical location to Canada -- after all, it would make sense if a grandson was over the border, fishing or engaging in some other type of activity.

That said, it happened in Missouri recently. It happened in North Dakota. It happened in Montana.

Earlier this month, a newspaper in Illinois, did a story about how the scam had targeted some grandparents in Naperville. A couple named George and Becky (their last names weren't used) detailed how they wound up spending $3,200 and sending it to their "grandson" in Canada. The man on the other end was believable, sounding like their 22-year-old grandson, and the phone line was a bad connection, which obviously disguised the man's voice -- in a plausible way that didn't make the couple question that they might be in the midst of being scammed.

The grandson sounded panicked, begged them not to tell his mother (their daughter), and he said that his cell phone didn't work in Canada. He also had another man come on the line, telling the couple that he was a sergeant from Windsor, Ontario, and the "officer" gave them the address of where they could send a MoneyGram from a nearby Wal-Mart.

It was only after the rush to the bank and wiring off the money that the couple suddenly became suspicious and called their grandson's cell number -- only to learn he was nowhere near Canada.

The same type of story happened to Jane Bologna, 89, from Fargo, North Dakota. She, too, had a call from her panicked grandson, Michael, who was being detained in Canada for fishing without a license. Ms. Bologna took out her money and called her granddaughter, the sister of the allegedly jailed grandson, and asked for help in wiring the cash. The sister called the Winnipeg police station where her brother was apparently being held and was told he wasn't in the system, and that it seemed unlikely he would be incarcerated for fishing without a license.

But she was worried and wanted to help her grandmother and brother and thus wired Ms. Bologna's money: $2,900.

Later, they found out that Michael was at work. If they had called his office number before wiring the almost three grand, they would have located him.

So how, you wonder, do these con men learn the names of the grandparents' grandsons? Easy as pie, apparently. I don't think anyone really knows for sure, but authorities have speculated that they're cherry picking the information off personal web sites and social networking hubs like Facebook and MySpace. It certainly sounds plausible.

Sigh. I miss the old days when grandparents were only conned by their real grandchildren, who would offer up some cheesy sob story in order to get a few bucks so they could buy comic books or go to the movies. Not that I, um, ever did that...

Geoff Williams is a business journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale). He fondly remembers trying to con his grandmother into buying him an ice cream come from the ice cream truck.
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