Scam Targets Family Safety and Nets Big Money

A vicious new iteration of the “Grandparent Scam,” first reported by NBC5 Investigates four years ago, is snaring big money across the country, and sparing no victims. Law enforcement officials say the ever-evolving scheme targets anyone who answers the phone, and preys on the most basic fears.

“They’re rotten people who really try to push all the hot buttons they can, and hit people who are most vulnerable,” Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said. “The undeniable trend is that the number of scams are increasing.”

For Janis Havranek, the call that came in late last month started simply enough. “There’s a girl on the phone and she wants to talk to grandma. So I automatically think it’s my niece. So I say, ‘Is this Carly?’ and she goes, ‘Yes! This is Carly!’ and she says please don’t tell my mom or dad. Promise? I’ve been arrested.”

Janis says the rest of the story was heart-stopping: the young woman went on to explain that she was riding in a car with a friend who was, unbeknownst to her, carrying marijuana. They were pulled over by police, who found the drugs and arrested both of them. The “niece” then said the friend framed her as the one carrying the drugs, and “Carly” was in big trouble.

“She was crying, I was crying…I mean, these people are good. They really got me,” Havranek said. And as she now knows, Havranek stepped into the most common traps of this kind of scheme: she offered the name of her niece, and the caller ran with it. She agreed to keep the incident a secret, thus preventing her from calling Carly’s parents and finding out that her niece was actually not anywhere near California, but instead in a classroom in downtown Chicago.

Then, she bit on the what is becoming a major red flag in law enforcement circles nationwide: the caller asked Aunt Janis to put bail money on reloadable money cards, called GreenDot MoneyPak cards. Billed as a convenient way to send cash, some versions of the product are also untraceable and the tool of choice for a growing number of scammers, according to law enforcement and consumer protection advocates nationwide. Janis put $500 on four cards, and gave the PIN numbers to the man impersonating her niece’s attorney.

That is when the scammers really smelled blood.

“The man who said he was Carly’s attorney called after the hearing…he said, ‘Oh boy, the judge was really hard on Carly,’” Havranek says. The so-called lawyer told her that Carly would need more money to get home, in order to avoid extensive jail time and massive community service in a dangerous inner city neighborhood.

Aunt Janis agreed. She sent another $5,000 in GreenDot cards.

But there is a happy ending, of sorts, here. Enter Havranek’s sister-in-law, Diane Slezak. The scam hit a bit too close for Slezak, who is the consumer protection expert at an area agency on aging, Age Options of suburban Cook County.

“I can’t believe this happened in my own family! How could this happen?” Slezak told NBC5 Investigates. Slezak spends her days warning seniors about this and related scams, so the fact her sister-in-law was targeted prompted a fast reaction. “”No way, not me! They are not going to get away with this on my watch!”

And in a rare victory, Slezak managed to stop $5,000 of the total $7K Janis shared with the scammers. Slezak hopped on the phone with an overseas GreenDot operator, whom she says was helpful in cancelling the uncashed portion of the purchase—10 of the 14 card PINs given to the attorney impersonator.

Both Slezak and Sheriff Dart now say the word needs to get out about the inherent dangers connected to both the phone scam and reloadable cash cards.

For its part, GreenDot says it is changing the version of the card that is untraceable, and moving to a more secure type of card. The company says March of 2015 is the target date for the transition, which may not be fast enough for some in law enforcement, but which all agree is a positive development overall.

A GreenDot spokesperson offered the following statement to NBC5 Investigates:

“Green Dot is committed to educating consumers about how to avoid becoming victims of financial fraud scams and has partnered with the Consumer Federation of America to help enhance these efforts. Consumers should protect their MoneyPak numbers just as they would cash, and Green Dot makes vigorous efforts to remind consumers on the MoneyPak packaging and website never to give their information to a private individual, to someone claiming you have won a prize or lottery, or to pay for items purchased from classified ads. Consumers are encouraged to immediately report fraudulent activity to Green Dot by calling 1-800-GREENDOT (800-473-3636) so we can attempt to recover any funds that have not already been removed by a scammer and continue working with law enforcement to identify the origin of these activities and end these abuses.” –Green Dot Corp.

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