PRIMER ON FRAUD PREVENTION – Lesson #3

Advance Fee Schemes – Variations on a Theme

In lesson #2, we addressed the typical advance fee scheme. As the public gets smarter, crooks must develop variations that lack the ring of familiarity.

Take, for instance, the “Grandparent Scam”. This scam relies on the susceptibility of doting grandparents who would do anything for kith and kin. Out of the blue one night, they receive a call from someone purporting to be a close relative – grandchild, nephew, cousin – any relationship will do, provided the target is willing to pay to protect them.

The Setup

Like every other Advance Fee Scheme, this con starts with a story. Billie is in trouble. He has been arrested, or lost his passport, or been robbed, or been involved in some terrible accident. He is terrified of his parents finding out, and had no one else to turn to but you. He needs money, and must have it immediately, or some profound consequence will befall him. He is usually traveling out of the country, and has no other way to get money.

The Proof

The skeptical and wily grandparent is too smart to take the story at face value; he must speak to someone in authority. In the case of an arrest, that someone may be a police desk sergeant. In the case of an accident, it may be the admitting nurse at the hospital. It may be a clerk at Western Union, or a consular officer. Conveniently, that person is always within reach of the telephone. The person confirms the story, and provides whatever other information may be necessary to sweeten the bait. Often, the sweetener is important information that Billie left out, usually with extraordinary detail. Of course, the entire story is false.

The Hook

The hook is the tricky part in the Grandparent Scam. There are too many ways that a cautious target can detect the scam. The thieves will usually have pre-arranged a story that prevents the target from checking them out and calling back. For example, if Billie is arrested and must post bail (even more interesting if Billie is arrested in Mexico where he is presumed guilty until proven innocent), he may be entitled to one telephone call. If bail cannot be arranged during the call, he will be booked, or imprisoned, or left in a cold dark cage to vegetate.

In the case of an accident, Billie may not be available at all. He may be in emergency surgery to stop the bleeding. (This story is compelling if there is concern that the grandparent may know Billie too well to be tricked by a fake voice.) His medical insurance card has been rejected or cancelled, and the hospital requires payment by wire transfer, postal money order, or Green Dot MoneyPaks.

Curiously, even if the target has a chance to speak with Billie, more often than not there is not enough familiarity to detect the fraud. Youngster’s voices tend to be sufficiently fungible to fool the most devoted grandparent.

Most important to the success of this scam is that the child is too afraid to call his parents, and asks that the grandparent not tell them. The child will straighten it out with his parents when he returns, and all money paid will be promptly paid back.

The Sting

Once the grandparent performs the ultimate act of love by sending money to “save” Billie, the scam is completed. The next morning, grandpa will call Billie’s parents, only to find that Billie spent the night safe in bed. Grandpa has become another victim.

How can I avoid the scam?

The shrewd grandparent avoids the scam by seeing it for what it is before the thieves set the hook. Grandpa can place the thieves on hold while he calls his children to get more information about Billie’s whereabouts. Of course, the thieves will hang up.

A cool game of “Columbo”, in which the grandparent asks an endless litany of questions, will yield the same result. When the thieves know that Grandpa knows, they will hang up.

Alternatively, Grandpa can wish Billie well, and advise him to be straight with his parents, and hang up. Once the thieves know that the grandparent is not an easy target, they will try the scam on someone less gullible.

The truly shrewd grandparent might obtain an address to which a check can be sent, then turn the information over to the authorities.

The bottom line is that avoiding the scam requires mental preparation. One must decide not to be a victim.

And if, by some chance, Billie really does get in trouble, congratulate him on being related to such wise grandparents, and hang up.

Copyright © Gregory D. Lucas 2014

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