Target: Grandma

Social media may be playing into nasty scam targeting grandparents

Social media may be putting a new wrinkle in a nasty old scam that's snaring grandparents nationwide.

It seems some crooks are using social networking sites, like Facebook, to glean bits and pieces of information about someone before making a phone call to their relatives to report a feigned emergency.

In one Chicago suburb alone, police say they've heard from dozens of intended victims of the "Grandparent Scam," at least half of whom have lost thousands of dollars.

"He said, 'Grandma, I'm in trouble," recalled Park Ridge grandmother Jackie Steigerwald of the call that came in one January morning. "I said, 'What kind of trouble, honey?'"

The caller claimed to be her grandson, and said he was visiting Canada when he and his buddy got into a car accident. The rental car was totaled, he said, and Canadian authorities wouldn't let him leave the country until he paid restitution.

"I said, 'How much do you need?' and he said '$9,600' and I thought, 'Oooooh, woooo!'" Steigerwald explained.

But the caller then said his buddy's family had already wired $5,000, so he would only need $4,600. Steigerwald said she woke up her husband and the two went to the bank.

"He asked me not to tell his mother and father. He wanted to tell them himself. I don't know whether I was stupid or what, but I said this child has never asked us for a favor in 26 years and the first time he's in trouble? He is an Eagle Scout and a college graduate. I said, we're not gonna turn him down."

And that, authorities say, is the key to this scheme: con artists prey on every loving emotion a grandparent has. The scammer creates a sense of urgency, emergency, panic and stress. Logic goes out the window.

"When someone calls you and they are very upset and they create a crisis and a sense of urgency, it is very easy for logic to fly to the wayside," according to Age Options' Licensed Social Worker Erin Weir. Her agency has received numerous calls on the scam recently, and Weir says the best thing a grandparent can do is to listen carefully, and not fill in any of the blanks. Callers will often ID themselves as "your favorite grandson"-- waiting for the grandparent to offer up a name.

"What happens is they will go on Facebook or MySpace and target the elderly through the account," explained Park Ridge Det. John Anderson.

He said there are also sites where anyone can punch in a name and get an address, phone number, or any kind of personal information.

"That is just enough to call, to then call with vague information to have the victims fill in the blank areas," Anderson said, adding that his department is getting dozens of reports every month on the scam. About half of those reporting have bitten and sent the money, he said.

A spokesperson for Facebook said its users have complete control over who may access their profile, and that the company had not yet heard of the "Grandparent Scam" in relation to its social networking site.

Headlines from across the country show the problem is raging, with no telling how much money has been wired. Canadian authorities have issued warnings and alerts, and urge citizens to report any suspicious call to their local police department. But catching a scammer who picks up wired money and then moves on to the next boiler room phonebank has proven elusive.

The best weapon against this scam, experts say, is to take time to verify the situation.  Canadian authorities say they do not barter passports for money, and they do not take detainees to Wal-Mart to pick up money.

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