Two weeks ago, Flathead County Sheriff's Office deputies responded to a fraud complaint on Harbin Hill Road in Kalispell. An elderly woman thought she had wired $6,400 to her grandson who needed to be bailed out of a Canadian jail. But it wasn't her grandson—it was a scammer calling from Haiti.
The recent swindling is just the latest of 40 similar complaints reported so far in 2010, according to the Montana Office of Consumer Protection. Scammers have bilked seniors out of more than $68,000 in what's known as the "grandparent scam."
According to AARP, in 2009 American grandparents were scammed into sending at least $4.5 million to Canada alone. But since that number only accounts for those who admitted being scammed, the actual ammount is thought to be in the tens or even hundreds of millions.
"The biggest thing in the grandparent scam is education and awareness," says Montana Department of Justice Spokesperson Kevin O'Brien, "because once money is wired overseas—regardless of it being related to the grandparent scam or any other similar scam—it's virtually impossible to return."
The problem has become so severe the Department of Justice has turned to a creative strategy to warn potential victims. It recently printed 20,000 educational place mats, paid for by AARP, and is distributing them to 170 senior centers around the state in hopes that fewer old timers will be fooled. The place mats display a letter from Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock warning of the grandparent scam. It also includes a word search game—with words like "grifter" and "crying"—for seniors to play while they eat.
Bullock's letter details how the scammers operate: A senior receives a phone call, and the person on the other end is often crying. The caller, claiming to be a grandchild, then says he or she is in trouble, usually in a foreign country. The caller begs the grandparent not to tell his or her parents, and then puts a "police officer" or "attorney" on the phone to provide instructions for wiring money.
"If it's going on here in Kalispell, it's going on everywhere," says Jim Atkinson, director of the Flathead County Agency on Aging.
Atkinson expects to receive a stack of place mats any day from the state Department of Health and Human Services, and plans to distribute them to six sites around the county that are part of the state's Congregate Meals Program.
"We are getting the word out and there are several organizations getting the word out about the grandparent scam," Atkinson says. "And that's just the latest thing that's going on. There are 100,000 different ways to go about ripping people off and the elderly are particularly susceptible, probably for a couple of reasons. One, they're from a different era when you trusted one another. That's probably the big one. And two, a lot of times seniors are homebound and lacking a lot of companionship and human connection, and these scammers get on the telephone and they're just as friendly as they could possibly be. They're your best bud. And they suck these folks in and then take them for a ride. A big ride."
Missoula Aging Services CEO Susan Kohler says her office received the place mats a couple weeks ago, and they've been distributed to eight sites around Missoula and Ravalli counties.
Place mats are just one part of an aggressive educational campaign to protect seniors from scammers. Three weeks ago Bullock's office posted a video on YouTube telling the story of Jack and Terry Knight, of Fairfield, who recently wired almost $6,000 overseas. The Knights received a call from a girl crying hysterically and claiming she was in jail in Barcelona. In the video, Jack Knight explains he wasn't sure who the caller was, so he asked if it was Tiffy, one of his granddaughters, and the caller said yes. But then he thought the caller sounded more like another granddaughter, Breanne, so he asked if it was her, and the caller said, "Yes, I must have misunderstood you."
The Knights had their doubts, but still wired nearly $3,000.
"I said, 'Please tell Breanne, give her a big hug from Grandma and Grandpa, and please tell her we love her,'" Terry Knight says in the video.
The scammers called back the next day. They needed another $2,600 for "fines." Jack obliged and sent the money. He and Terry later called to confirm it had arrived, but the phone at the "Spanish jail" had been disconnected.
"[Seniors] should never do any business with folks on the telephone if they haven't solicited that business," Atkinson advises. "If somebody calls them they shouldn't give out their numbers or send anything, especially if it's wiring money to the Philippines or Haiti or someplace like that. That's ridiculous. If somebody asks you to do that then that's a huge red flag."
Bullock's campaign against the grandparent scam also included a presentation at a Billings retirement community three weeks ago. He urged Montanans to sign up for a new service through the Department of Consumer Protection called Scam Alerts, which provides subscribers with warnings via e-mail as new rip-offs emerge.
And Atkinson says new scams will, no doubt, emerge.
"About the time you explain scams happening now, somebody will come up with a new one and try to sneak it in on people," Atkinson says. "It's a moving target."