Last week, 88-year-old Bath resident Sandra Johnson lost $9,500 after phone scammers posing as her grandson and an attorney convinced her to overnight the cash to get the grandson out of trouble.
“He said, ‘Hi Gram, it’s me, Dan. I’m in jail,’” Johnson said, recalling the phone conversation.
The caller claimed to have been in a car accident on Main Street in Brunswick and told Johnson he’d failed a blood alcohol test and was being held in jail in Portland. Johnson said she didn’t question the call because the man sounded just like her grandson, who is also a Bath resident.
“I said, ‘Well, let me call your mom,’ and he said, ‘No, please don’t call my parents. I don’t want them to know,’” Johnson said.
The fake grandson then provided a phone number to call his “appointed lawyer,” who was another fraudster in on the scam. The fake lawyer explained the severity of her grandson’s crime and said he had hit a pregnant woman with his car and that if she miscarried, the charges would be vehicular manslaughter. The law said she’d need to send $9,500 to a Lawrence, Massachusetts, address to get her grandchild out of jail.
“And me, like a total idiot, I [swallowed] it hook, line and sinker,” said Johnson.
After the scammers received the money, they called back the next day asking for another $9,500. They claimed the pregnant woman miscarried and the bail requirement had doubled.
That’s when Johnson realized she was being lied to. She called her daughter, confirming her grandson had not been involved in an accident. Her daughter reported the fraud to Bath police.
Bath Police Chief Andrew Booth said phone scams like this have been around for over a decade.
“These scams can be very deceptive and utilize information gained online from social media accounts, such as who your relatives are and where they live, etc.,” Booth said. “Suspects are well versed and can be very persuasive. Unfortunately, there usually isn’t much we can do with these scams, especially when there is little information to go on and the scammers have covered their tracks so well.”
Johnson said she felt embarrassed for believing the caller because she had read so many articles about senior fraud attacks in the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) magazine. AARP refers to the scam that duped Johnson as the “grandparent scam.”
“Grandparent scams and related cons are common — from 2015 through the first quarter of 2020, the Federal Trade Commission logged more than 91,000 reports of crooks posing as a relative or friend of the victim,” according to the AARP website. “Eight people, charged in a July 2021 federal indictment, allegedly ran a nationwide scam network that used this ruse to steal some $2 million from more than 70 older Americans, over an 11-month period in 2019 and 2020.”
Johnson said she sent the bail money to an apartment in Lawrence, but even that specific address is unlikely to help police find and shut down the fraudsters or recover Johnson’s money.
Booth said most addresses used are fake or “borrowed” for the scam just once before fraudsters move on.
“Scammers’ efforts focus on creating an exigency or emergency to try to get an emotive and panicked response from their victims, making them act before really thinking about what they’re doing,” said Booth. “They target their victim pool to seniors, as they have had the best luck victimizing them, for various reasons.”
Stacy Frizzle-Edgerton, executive director of People Plus — a community center for seniors in Brunswick — said over a dozen People Plus members have shared scam stories with her in recent months, including the grandparent scam.
In an attempt to prevent such scams, she said, the center has run programs about fraud prevention and sends out pamphlets and regular email blasts to educate seniors about current scams and how to spot them.
“Really highly intelligent people are pulled into it,” Frizzle-Edgerton said. “People shouldn’t beat themselves up for becoming a victim because it’s very common and these people are very savvy.”
Booth said police work to spread awareness about scams through social media outreach, senior newsletters and meetings with TRIAD — an elder-abuse task force aimed at protecting seniors from crime.
“The best advice for seniors, or anyone, is to verify the information they are receiving before acting,” said Booth. “When in doubt, call your local law enforcement agency before acting, to see if they can assist in determining if it is a scam.”
For more information on senior scams and fraud visit aarp.org/money/scams-fraud/.
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