MANITOULIN—“Grandma? I need help. I’m in big trouble. Here, hold on.”
The shaking, teary voice on the other end of the phone line hands the phone off to his lawyer, who quickly explains to the confused and worried grandmother that her grandson is in jail on a charge of drunk driving. Her grandson is embarrassed and scared to tell his parents, so he has asked his lawyer to contact her to have her wire $900 for bail.
“It’s better that he is able to tell his parents in person,” the lawyer suggests.
She asks questions. “How did he get down there?” The lawyer explains her grandson was in a car accident following a wedding.
It all makes sense.
Unable to bear the thought of her grandson in jail, grandma rushes off to the post office to send out money, only to find out the office in Manitowaning can’t help her. So she drives out to Little Current.
In only 15 minutes on the phone, a scammer almost made $900. In a few minutes, they’re on the line, sobbing about being in jail to another vulnerable grandparent. The Manitowaning grandmother, who asked The Expositor to not use her name, is saved by the staff at the Little Current post office who recognize the scam and tell her to make sure her grandson isn’t at home. When grandma phones, she finds out she had a near miss—her grandson is at work, not in jail.
The grandparent scam is one of the most prevalent and lucrative phone scams out there, Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Constable and Community Officer Al Boyd explained.
“What is so despicable is that they’re playing on the emotions of the senior,” he said. “They know these people have money, because they’ve saved their entire lives. They’re putting such a sense of fear and urgency behind the pleas that these grandparents rush off to help, without double-checking.”
The grandparent scam and the computer scam—where someone phones claiming to be from Microsoft or a computer repair company and attempts to gain access to the household computer—are the two biggest scams out there today. According to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (once known as Phone Busters), the revenue from these two scams is as lucrative as the drug trade, while being much safer for those running the scam.
“These guys are hard to catch,” Constable Boyd noted. “They set up what are called ‘boiler rooms,’ an office space where they operate for about a month. They install phones, register a formal-looking 1-800 number, set up an answering machine and get to work.”
One of the reasons why these scammers are able to so successfully target grandparents is because they seem to know personal details about the grandchild. They know their ages, where they live and go to school, their hobbies and more.
“It’s social media,” Constable Boyd explained. “People think they’re secure and just sharing information with their friends and they put up too much information. Scammers surf these sites until they find a victim.”
After researching the mark, scammers then use online directories like 411.ca to locate the grandparent’s phone number and contact is made.
With the grandson or granddaughter on the phone for such a short time, while talking in a distraught fashion, it can be hard for a grandparent to tell if it’s really their grandchild. Factor in that many seniors have hearing-loss issues and it becomes even easier.
When police, usually the RCMP, try to close in on the scammers, the boiler room has moved to a new location. An empty office greets the police, while somewhere else in Canada the scammers keep calling.
In order for the scams to work, the victims need to be able to send money. One of the easiest way to send money is through the post office’s MoneyGram service. The Manitowaning grandmother who was contacted by her grandson rushed to the post office, on the advice of the scammers, but found she couldn’t send a MoneyGram from there due to technical challenges. In a panic because of a time deadline the scammer gave her, she hopped in her vehicle and headed to Little Current.
That’s where Erin Heise stopped her.
The Canada Post employee has worked in Little Current for the past five years and she’s seen her share of scam victims come into the post office.
“It’s just a gut feeling,” she explained to The Expositor. Though she was worried she would be in trouble for refusing a client post office services, Ms. Heise delayed and asked question after question. The grandmother’s “upset and agitated” state made her nervous.
“I just had an awful feeling,” she recalled. The victim had written information down on a spare envelope and had been so upset that the handwriting wasn’t legible. She was “practically vibrating,” Marion Knapp, the senior assistant at the post office, said.
“I ask every person ‘Do you know this person well?’ ‘Do you know why you’re sending money?’ We’re trained to do this,” Ms. Heise explained.
Since scammers tell their victims to not talk to anyone about the money being sent to prevent ‘rumours,’ it can be very hard to get information out of people. This grandmother was no different, with her “grandson’s lawyer” advising her to keep the information on the down low.
“She eventually opened up and said it was for a lawyer,” Ms. Heise said. “We told her we thought it was a scam and she should really call police.”
It took a bit to convince her, but after the police were called in it took just a quick phone call to find out the grandson was not in jail, but at work and fine.
“She came back in after and thanked us,” Ms. Heise said with a smile. “This is our job. We need to do this.”
In the past several years, money-sending organizations like Western Union and Canada Post have tightened up rules to help prevent scammers from victimizing the unwary. There are increased security precautions built into money orders, and when wiring money, any amount over $1,000 requires the sender and the receiver to provide identification.
“You used to see amounts in the thousands,” Ms. Knapp said. “Now, you’ll see $900. That’s another give-away for us.”
Post Master Kirsten McIvor said her staff has prevented scam targets from sending money to con artists in the past, but if they are adamant, they have no option but to comply.
The three postal workers recalled an incident, prior to security changes, where a woman wanted to send more than $3,000 to someone. They tried to stop her but she insisted, so the money order was sent. A while later, she came back, frantic, and the post office managed to stop the money before it left the country.
“We were really lucky that day,” Ms. McIvor remembered.
Constable Boyd said there are some “dead giveaways” that there’s a scammer on the phone, not a grandchild or lawyer. “If you are posting someone’s bail, it has to be done at the courthouse,” he said. “If the grandson is in Kitchener, it means you need to be in Kitchener. You’ll probably need to sign papers, too.”