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Resurgence Of The ‘Granny Scam’

The phone rings and the caller claims to a relative who is in trouble in a foreign country, they need money wired right away and you can't tell anyone about it. That's the premise for the "granny scam," and victims, mostly grandmothers, in San Diego County have been duped out of at least $141,000 over the last two years. We'll find out how to protect loved ones who might be vulnerable to this scam.

Con games that work often resurface and San Diego County officials report a resurgence of the so-called "Granny scam." They say con artists have stolen at least $141,000 from San Diego seniors in the last two years. Local law enforcement officials suspect there are additional victims who have not come forward because they are too embarrassed to admit they've been duped.


Paul Greenwood is deputy district attorney for San Diego County and head of the elder abuse prosecution unit.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Con games that work often resurface. And San Diego County officials report a resurgence of the so called granny scam. They say con artists have stolen at least a hundred 41 thousand dollars from San Diego seniors in the last two years. And my guest says many more victims remain unknown because they're two embarrassed to admit they have been duped. Joining me is Paul Greenwood, Deputy District Attorney for San Diego County, and head of the elder abuse prosecution unit. Paul, hi.

GREENWOOD: Good afternoon, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for joining us.

GREENWOOD: My pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us, how does the granny scam work?

GREENWOOD: The basic call comes from the suspect posing as the grandson to grandma and informing her over the telephone that he is in trouble, and he starts by saying, grandma, you're the only person I can think of that would help me. But you've gotta keep this between you and me. Don't tell mum and dad. Don't tell anybody else, because I could lose my job, and it's very embarrassing. He then proceeds to tell grandma he's in jail in some other location than California, Canada or Mexico typically, and he's in jail because he came down for a friend's wedding party and had a crash in a rented car, and he needs money quickly to get out of jail. And that's the basic synopsis. He then encourages grandma to go to the bank and wire some money through one of the money lending, wiring institutions, to a friend of his who's gonna pick it up and post the bail. And typically the amount they ask for ranges between 2 and $5,000. But unfortunately we've seen an increase in recent weeks of the demands.

CAVANAUGH: I would to tell our listeners that we would love them to join this conversation, if perhaps they've ever received one of those phone calls. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. How are the victims of this scam fooled into thinking that the person calling is actually a relative, the grandson, the granddaughter?

GREENWOOD: A variety of ways. Some of the victims have even indicated that, well, Mr. Greenwood, he sounded a little bit like my grandson but the voice was different. So when I asked him about it, he said I'm just getting over a cold. Sometimes the suspects have a little more knowledge and information about the victim, grandmother, which convinces them of that. Now, of course the question Maureen, is how do these suspects get that information in the first place? We're speculating here, but possibly where grand children, and I speak for my own teen aimed son and daughter here, that they're on Facebook. So they give up information about parents and grandparents which other people may pick up and use to convince the victim that they are in fact the grand child.

CAVANAUGH: Are there certain similarities in this line that always pop up in these calls? In other words, is it always don't tell anyone else?

GREENWOOD: It is. Because they don't want the grandmother to be going to the bank telling the story because the suspect thinks that possibly the bank teller will have been alerted before and then caution the victim not to send the money. That's the underlying common denominator: Don't tell anybody else, I'm in trouble, I need the money now, I'm in jail, and the reason I'm down in another country is because I came from a friend's wedding. The twist to this is, recently, in a couple times during the last few weeks, it's been a second suspect posing as the grandson's attorney calling the victim first.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, I see. To make is seem even more legitimate. Of.

GREENWOOD: More legitimate and urgent. You don't argue with your grandson's attorney. If he tells me to send the money, I have to send the money.

CAVANAUGH: Have you ever been able to recover money for any of the victims?

GREENWOOD: In a very limited number of cases, I've been able to persuade a financial institution, and this is very rare, but I have been able to persuade a financial institution to take the loss rather than forward it to the victim. I try and convince the financial institution that maybe they should have spotted this and red flagged and not allowed the transaction to go through.

CAVANAUGH: Do banks and lending institution vs any responsibility to protect their customers from scams like this? .

GREENWOOD: This is a great question, and philosophically I would say yes. In the last three years, California has had a new law that several of us pushed for, which requires every financial institution to be a mandated reporter of suspected financial elder abuse transactions. I've spend a long time trying to talk to banks and credit unions about their duties to their customers and members, which includes looking for red flags . For example when an 82-year-old widow comes into a bank in San Diego this afternoon and asks to withdraw $5,000 in cash, that should immediately raise a red flag.

CAVANAUGH: There any way that you can prove that a bank or some financial institution has been negligent in light of this new law?

GREENWOOD: I think some civil litigators would relish the opportunity to try and prove that. And there have been I think a number of occasions where lawsuits have been filed against an institution for alleged negligence. But I think it is common sense now to most institutions that because of the prevalence of these scams, they should be paying more attention to an elderly customer coming in and asking to was money in cash. That's what the suspect wants them to do, withdraw the cash from the bank then go over to another institution such as western union and wire the money through western union over to the suspects.

CAVANAUGH: I am speaking with Deputy District Attorney for San Diego County, and head of the elder abuse prosecution unit, Paul green wood. We're talking about the resurgence of the granny scam in San Diego. As I said, you're invited to join our conversation at 1-888-895-5727. Pall, is there any way to know if this scam can be traced to one person or a group, you know, operation a lot of scams on a lot of different people, or if there are just individuals out there trying to con seniors?

GREENWOOD: I think it's more a question of a lot of different crooks out there who have heard from one another that this is an easy mark. They spend half their lifetime, their days at random calling different people. Sometimes they use the telephone directory to look for first names that indicate an elderly person such as Gertrude or Eleanor or Agnus. Hit and miss there. Out of 300 calls they may get lucky with 3 or 4. I don't think it's an organized group of people. It's widespread and it covers different origins from north America right through the globe. Of course you don't have to be in north America to pick up the cash. That's the beauty of asking the victim to wire the money via western union. It can be picked up anywhere in the world.

CAVANAUGH: Do we have any idea how many people have been tricked by the grandma scam here in San Diego County?

GREENWOOD: No, but in the 15†years that I've been responsible for prosecuting these kinds of cases, we have noticed, as you said in the beginning, a resurgence. More victims are finally coming forward in the last three months. We have had about 15 reported cases. Which is very unusual. I would suspect that we have many, many more unreported cases as well, for the reason that you indicated. Victims get very embarrassed and they do not want anyone to find out that they have been tricked in this way.

CAVANAUGH: We have a caller on the line. Pamela is calling from San Diego. Of hi, Pamela. Welcome to Midday Edition.


CAVANAUGH: Hi. Yes, what is your question Pamela?

NEW SPEAKER: I don't have a question. That scam happened to my mother. And she didn't give them the money but she told us about it, and we couldn't figure out why, you know, how the person got the information.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Right.

NEW SPEAKER: But we were fortunate because we pay attention. My mother is 86†years old.

CAVANAUGH: How much information, personal information, did the caller have?

NEW SPEAKER: They had his name and that -- what the story was was exactly the same story that the -- that was told.


NEW SPEAKER: Over the air. Is that my nephew had gone to Canada supposedly to attend a wedding. But his version was that he was DUI.


GREENWOOD: We had been arrested for driving under the influence. But my mother suspected that there was something not quite right. And she says, well, I don't have any money. And she hung up.

CAVANAUGH: Well, good for her. And thank you for the call, Pamela. Aaron is calling us from La Jolla. Hi Aaron. Hi Aaron welcome to the show.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you very much. I had I quick comment for the District Attorney. I lived in Japan for many years. They have had she's scams over there for a long time. I believe they're called "Ore-ore" scam, and that mean, it's me, it's me! And it's the same thing where young people are calling, and tricking grandmas into making these payment. I thought it would be interesting for the District Attorney to look into how the Japanese authorities have dealt with the issue. Maybe that would give some insight into how to tackle this very bad problem.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you Aaron. Do you know what Japan does about these scams?

GREENWOOD: No, not that particular one. Obviously I'm aware that this is a global problem. It's not limited to victims in the United States or north America. And I think it raises an interesting point that I think countries need to be -- and law enforcement agencies across the globe need to be getting together much more readily and talking about ways to over come and actually reaching out much more aggressively to financial institutions to see if they can link up to try to put a dent in these scams. What concerns me is where some of this money is going. Is it in fact going into the hands of international terrorists?

CAVANAUGH: Has there been any research done along those lines?

GREENWOOD: Speculation. And of course the research would only be effective if they could trace where the money goes. Unfortunately a lot of it is just presumptuous and speculative. When you add up the millions of dollars that is being drained out of these victims, one does question in fact if these terrorists are using these simple scams to get their income.

CAVANAUGH: Another caller on the line. Hi, Suzie.

NEW SPEAKER: Thanks for taking my call.

CAVANAUGH: How can we help you?

NEW SPEAKER: The same scam ended up happening to my grandmother. She lost about $10,000. It was devastating and was just very in the know. They called saying it was my cousin, her grand son, that he was in Canada and needed help, please don't tell my mom, and she just wired it over to them. There was no way she could get it back.

CAVANAUGH: Did she tell authorities?

NEW SPEAKER: I think it's really true that they're embarrassed. I think it took a while for her to tell anyone in the family. And then of course her grandson felt so bad about it. But they think that they got all the information from Facebook. So it's important for people to keep tabs on who has access to their information on Facebook. Look at those privacy controls that are on there.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you very much for the call, Suzie. Paul, I understand you got a call yesterday from a woman who didn't fall for the granny scam because of a -- of those news reports last week?

GREENWOOD: Exactly. She got the call, I believe, the day after the press release. And the call came in apparently from the grandson in Mexico City saying that, yes, he had crashed a rental car and actually demolished a lamp post, and it was being required by the Mexican authorities before being released from jail to pay for the lamp post, which was over two and a half thousand dollars. She was wise and put the phone down. That's the benefit of us reaching out to educate and inform the public. I'm so grateful you've taken your time on your lunch program to do this again today.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us again what seniors should do if they get a suspicious call like that.

GREENWOOD: I'm advocating to seniors, please, please use caller ID for any call. Screen all your calls. I know it costs a few dollars a month, but it's well worth it to have caller ID, because if it's blocked or unknown, it should immediately put you on your guard. Second, any calls that suggest they are in trouble, a friend or relative, it's probably -- in fact I'm 99% sure that it's gonna be a hoax. Before you commit to anything, not just helping a relative, but doing an investment or anything else involving your own life savings, spend time talking over with a trusted relative or professional advisor whether it's something you should be doing. And thirdly, if anyone tells you not to follow anyone, that's a red flag. I think caution, anyone who tells you time is of the essence, that's another red flag. Don't be sucked into this. As I tell grandmothers, the only crime you're guilty of is loving your grand children. And we shouldn't allow our love for our family members to dictate and overrule our logic.

CAVANAUGH: Very good thought upon I've been speaking with San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Paul Greenwood. Thank you Paul.

GREENWOOD: My pleasure Maureen. Thank you.

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