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Monday, December 10 , 2018, 5:08 pm | Mostly Cloudy 63º


Santa Barbara County Residents Fall Victim to ‘Grandparents Scam’

Con artists use fake emergencies to prey on the elderly, including a Santa Barbara woman who thought she was bailing her grandson out of trouble

Her grandson’s trembling voice is heard on the other end of the telephone. He drank champagne at the wedding and crashed his rental car in Canada. He is allowed one phone call. Please help.

Santa Barbara resident Patricia Wall wired $976 to the man she thought was her grandson. She is one of many who have been victimized by the “Grandparents Scam.”

“I felt certain I was speaking to my grandson and wanted with all my heart to help him,” Wall said.

In Santa Barbara County, there have been at least six cases in the past eight months, according to Tony Durham, a crime prevention specialist for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department.

“It’s getting worse,” he said. “It’s really sad how they are targeting the elderly.”

Scammers prey on the vulnerability that an emergency situation creates. The victim jumps into action without suspecting the small discrepancies.

“He knew all the angles,” Wall said of the con artist who called her. “It was a very slick operation, and I was completely bamboozled.”

Any difference in voice was masked by his “cold.” One glass of champagne and several doses of cold medication explained the DUI charges. He begged her not to tell his parents. She knew her grandson had almost flunked out of his sophomore year of college and that his parents were already angry with him. So, she agreed to secrecy.

“I was convinced it was Tyler,” she said. “I just fell right into it.”

The con artist called hours later and explained that there was a glitch in her grandson’s release from jail. He needed more money. This time, Wall said no.

After agonizing for hours, she finally decided to break her promise and call Tyler’s parents in Cincinnati to break the troubling news. Her grandson was safe. He was not in Canada. He had been shopping that very afternoon for an air-conditioning unit for his apartment in Cincinnati. She frantically grilled her son, “Did you see him today? Did you see the whites of his eyes?”

Similar to the many victims of the Grandparents Scam, she sent money to Canada through Western Union. Money sent through a wire transfer is difficult to track once received by scammers. According to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Call Center, there were 278 reports of failed and 88 reports of successful Grandparents Scams from January through October in 2009, totaling $317,732.63 in fraud.

“I didn’t think I was likely to be targeted by a criminal,” Wall said. “I never realized someone could get my phone number. It’s not even listed.”

Many elderly survive on meager retirement and Social Security checks. As with most of these cases, the investigator told Wall there was a next-to-nothing chance of getting her money back. Although thinking about the financial loss makes her “grind her teeth,” it’s the emotional impact that has stuck her hard.

“I’m still a basket case,” she said. “I can’t sleep anymore.”

Wall now takes sleeping pills to help her through the night, but she is considering therapy. “I don’t want to become a person who doesn’t believe in humanity,” she said. “I don’t want to be afraid and not trust anyone.”

Grandparents are not the only ones scammers are targeting in this way. Recently, a con artist hacked into a local publisher’s e-mail account and pleaded with her friends to send money. She requested to remain anonymous for this article. The scammer’s e-mail claimed she was in London held at gunpoint.

“People started calling at 6 a.m. asking if I was safe,” the woman said. “I was in L.A. the whole time. I found out how many people really care about me.”

One worried friend sent $1,600 for her release. Wired through Western Union, there is no way to recover his money.

Immediately after the incident, she changed all of her bank accounts and created stronger passwords. The scammer wiped out her entire e-mail account. All of her business and personal contacts were erased. Now, she has four e-mail accounts to keep her address book safe.

“I was very visible online, and I intend to continue to be out there,” she said. “But now I know how to protect myself.”

Later, she even received an “emergency scam” e-mail claiming the same situation: London gunpoint.

“At first, I kept asking, ‘Why me?’” she said. “But, it’s all over the place. We are all vulnerable.”

Police Protection Suggestions

If you receive a call urgently requesting money (for bail, hospital bills or any other fees):

» Contact your grandchild directly or call other family members to verify information before sending any money.

» Contact the police department in that area. If your grandchild was incarcerated, there would be a record of it at the jail.

» Contact the hospital to check its records.

Red Flags (source: Better Business Bureau)

» The “grandchild” asks you to wire money to Canada or another foreign country through companies such as Western Union or Moneygram.

» The “grandchild” says he or she is suffering from a cold or has a broken jaw or other injury that makes him or her sound different.

» Scammers will let victims “fill in the blanks.” If the conversation starts out with, “It’s me, your No. 1 grandchild,” don’t give a name for the scammer to take on.

Anyone victimized by the Grandparents Scam should report the incident immediately to local police departments and state attorneys general offices. If the incident involved a request to wire money to Canada, the fraud should be reported to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Call Center by calling 888.495.8501 or filing a complaint on its Web site.

Click here for a list of scams in California and ways to avoid them.

Noozhawk intern Andrea Ellickson, a UCSB graduate, is a journalism student at SBCC. She can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Noozhawk reporter Lara Cooper contributed to this report.

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