June 14, 2012 | Volume 42, No.24

'Grandma?' Phone scams target seniors

Two elderly Haines residents were targeted two weeks ago as part of a scam in which the caller pretended to be a grandson in trouble and desperately needing money.  Another reported scam last week involved a caller impersonating an attorney.

  Barb Blackwell awoke at 9:30 on a Thursday morning to the ringing of her phone.  “Blackwells,” she answered. “Grandma?” the voice on the other end replied.  Figuring that the voice must belong to one of her grandsons, she asked, “Is this Aaron?”  “Yes, it’s Aaron,” the caller responded. 

  But it wasn’t Aaron. The voice on the phone was that of a con artist, and when Blackwell asked, “What’s wrong Aaron?” he began his spiel. He said that he was in a courthouse in Anchorage, that he was in trouble and needed $1,600. “He had the whole story planned out,” Blackwell said. 

He said he was being sued by foreign tourists because he cut them off driving last summer. The suit, he said, had dragged on over the year and if he didn’t pay the money he now owed, he’d go to jail.

  “At this point, what’s running through my mind is, ‘How can I raise enough money to help him?’” Blackwell said. “I was racking my brain as to where I can come up with this kind of money.” 

  Suddenly, the caller, who “kept apologizing” for calling so early, said he needed to hang up and get more information and that he’d call back. He hung up, leaving her puzzled.      

  She wondered why Aaron – who lives in Haines – was being held in Anchorage.  “Looking back, that was one of my first clues,” she said. Other inconsistencies included that her grandson had spent last summer fishing.

That he was calling for money was also curious. “Aaron would never call me for money,” she said.  “That’s not like him.” But, she explained, it happened quickly and at the time, “you’re not assuming that someone’s trying to trick you. You’re willing to help this grandkid.”   

  Three or four minutes later, the phone rang and the conversation resumed. The caller explained to her what he needed her to do.  He said it was urgent and he needed cash. 

She was trying to figure out how to come up with the money when he asked, “You have credit cards, don’t you?”  She recalled wondering how much she could get out of them. “I thought, ‘How many credit cards will I have to max out?’” 

Again the caller hung up, claiming that he’d get more information and call back.  He hung up three or four times, then called back after a few minutes. Another clue that heightened her skepticism was that he didn’t understand why she couldn’t simply run downtown to the bank and leave “grandpa.” 

  But it was the caller’s ignorance regarding her proximity to Juneau that gave him away. He told her that the money had to be sent by Western Union and that the closest one to her was in Juneau. When she replied, “That doesn’t help,” he asked, “Is that too far?”

It was then she realized she was being scammed. “I just started laughing!” she said.  “He just didn’t know the layout of Alaska.”  The caller hung up without saying another word.        

  One week earlier, resident Faith Tuohy’s mother received a similar call. The caller began with “‘Grandma, I’m in trouble,’” Tuohy said. The scammer – pretending to be grandson Dalton – said he and his friend “Chris” were in jail in the Bahamas, where they went to attend a wedding and ended up in a car accident in which “Chris” was charged with driving drunk.

Tuohy said that when her mother told the caller that he sounded different, he reassured her, saying, “It’s me grandma,” and explaining that his nose was broken in the accident. 

  The caller, who said he needed $1,500 to get out of jail, also told Tuohy’s mother to keep this between the two of them. “He said ‘Don’t tell my mom. It’ll just make her worry.’”  When Tuohy’s mother said she had only $100, the caller hung up.    

  “My mom was terrified,” Tuohy said, adding that she called her in a panic, asking where Dalton was. Tuohy told her that she just had lunch with Dalton. “I said, ‘He’s at school,’ and she’s like, ‘He’s not in the Bahamas?’”      

  The would-be victims said they do not know how or why they were targeted. “I have no idea how they got the number,” Tuohy stated.  “I was really mad that someone messed with my mom.”         

  Blackwell, who noted the phone’s “*69” function could not trace the call, said that there are a few things she hopes the Haines community can take away from her experience.  “If this happens, make them think that you have no money.  Also, start asking them questions,” she said. “I want people to realize that even Haines can get targeted.”

Another scam call last week reported to police involved a caller claiming to be an attorney demanding $500 payment for a non-existent bill.

Haines Borough Police Chief Gary Lowe said such calls are continual here, and often target senior citizens. “The elderly are particularly susceptible to this. If they think some family member or friend is in trouble, and they can get them out of it for $500, they’re going to send the money.”

Lowe advises residents not to provide personal information, or conduct business, over the phone. “If you believe it’s true, have them send it in the mail.” People also should be careful about divulging personal information, like pet names or mothers’ maiden names, on Internet sites such as Facebook. Such information can be used to answer “security questions” for access to private information, he said.