The scam that preys on love and trust hit home for a suburban Cary woman recently, and hard -- to the devastating tune of $35,000.
Perpetrators of the so-called "Grandparent Scam" found a willing and loving victim when they targeted Alice Solinski, a grandmother to 11 and great-grandmother to 13.
It started as it usually does" with a phone call.
"I heard a young girl. It sounded like she was upset and she said, 'Grandma can you help me?’ And I said, ‘Well, who are you?’ And again she repeated, ‘Grandma, can you help me?’ and I said, ‘Well, who are you?’ and she said, ‘Grandma, I’m you’re oldest granddaughter’ and I said, ‘Oh, Kim,’ and she said, ‘Yeah, Kim," Solinski explained.
But saying her granddaughter’s name was Solinski’s first mistake and a common tactic, according to the experts who warn of this scam.
"They may just start with that: 'Grandma? Grandpa?' and let that older person fill in the information,” explained Jason Echols, a consumer protection specialist with Age Options of Oak Park. The agency serves seniors in a variety of areas and has seen this scam strike too often.
"Absolutely it’s a big scam. It’s something that is very common and we do hear a lot about it," said Echols.
After Solinski did fill in that information, the predators quickly went in for the kill.
"I said, ‘What do u need?’ She said,’I’m in California… I’m at a girlfriends wedding, but we’ve had an accident.’ And I said, ‘Well, how come you sound so funny?’ and she said, ‘I hit my nose and I broke my nose… I need some money to get out of jail," Solinski said.
“So then she said, ‘I can’t pay for lawyers, so they gave me a court-appointed lawyer. Can you talk with her grandma because I, they’ll tell you how much I need.’ And so the woman talked to me, she gave me her name but I can’t remember the name. She said, 'We need $15,000 for bond money and I need you to send it to this address and this account.’”
The giant red flag here, according to FBI Special Agent Zack Lowe: the request to wire money.
"Be extremely cautious when asked to send money. Most law enforcement agencies or hospitals, they’re going to accept checks and different forms of payment," he said.
Solinski made two trips to the bank, first for the alleged jail bond money and again for a payment to the would-be lawyer. A bank manager tried to deter her, but Solinski said she felt she needed to help her granddaughter. She was snared for about $35,000, an amount that makes her real granddaughter cringe.
"I kept thinking about was her being worried about me," said Kim Finely. "It was like emotional blackmail is what I felt the situation was; where they like hijacked her emotions. And to have her that upset, it was unbelievable and of course she said she would do anything for me and I know she would have… It just breaks your heart, absolutely breaks your heart. And the fact I was pulled into it inadvertently and that she thought I was hurt or in trouble. It was horrible to think that.”
Agent Lowe said if there is one thing he could tell seniors everywhere: take the time to verify the details of the "emergency."
"The goal of all of these schemes is to separate someone very quickly from their money as quickly as possible before you are able to verify the story," he said.
“Victims shouldn’t be embarrassed. Very intelligent people are victimized by these schemes all the time. It has nothing to do with how intelligent you are or how worldly you are. Criminals are very good at these schemes and they use information that is out there against you. Usually its one piece of verifiable information and then they’ll attach that scheme to that information so you’ll believe everything else that they say," Lowe said.
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Alice Solinski's name.