Courier staff writer
ALAMOSA — Americans who grew up in a less cynical era tend to be more trusting and polite than the population as a whole.
Scammers and con artists know this, and they take advantage of those qualities by bilking older people out of nearly $3 billion every year.
They may pose as authority figures, government officials or lawyers, and then convince their victims to hand over sensitive financial information. Or, in the recent case of an elderly Alamosa-area woman, they may pretend to be a grandchild in desperate need of financial help.
According to a press release from Alamosa County Sheriff’s Lt. Jim McCloskey, the woman received a phone call from a man who claimed to be her grandson.
The man said he’d traveled to Mexico to attend a funeral, but he claimed that he’d been arrested and then thrown into jail. A second man who identified himself as a U.S. Embassy employee in Mexico City joined the caller on the other end of the line, and together, they convinced the woman to send her “grandson” $2,000.
The woman rushed down to a local bank and withdrew the money from her account, which she’d set aside to pay for her own funeral. She then wired the full amount off to the caller via MoneyGram, McCloskey reported.
At some point later on, the woman spoke with her real-life grandson in Texas, and he assured her that he was not in any trouble.
When she realized that she’d been scammed, the woman contacted law enforcement.
By that time, however, it was too late.
Her story is all too familiar to federal regulators and law enforcement agents, who note that the “grandparent scam” is one of the most popular cons in the United States.
“Many money transfer scams involve dramatic or convincing stories that play on your optimistic nature, your altruism or your thriftiness,” the Federal Trade Commission says. “But no matter how you parse it, they always cost you money.”
Elderly people make attractive targets for scammers because they typically set aside “nest eggs.” Scammers are also drawn to statistics: Older people generally have higher credit scores, and they’re more likely to own their own houses.
For lack of a better word, victims tend to be more gullible, as well.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) notes that older people are less likely to hang up on a caller, and they often have a harder time saying “no” to someone — especially if that person claims to be a family member.
While many of their targets have sizable nest eggs, scammers don’t just go after wealthy Americans. Low-income senior citizens are among the most vulnerable victims of financial abuse, according to the National Council on Aging.
Regardless of a victim’s background, scammers know that cases involving elderly people are harder to prosecute.
According to the FBI, older Americans in general are less likely to report incidents of fraud or financial abuse.
In many cases, they may be too afraid or ashamed to let anyone know that someone has taken advantage of them. Others may not realize they’ve been conned until weeks or even months have passed, and by that time, they don’t know who they should contact.
As time drags on, their memories tend to be less reliable, and they may not be able to positively identify a perpetrator.
At least one group of researchers claims that elderly people are more susceptible to scams because the parts of their brains that assess risk are less active.
So what can these people do to protect themselves?
McCloskey suggests that others can avoid the Alamosa-area grandmother’s fate by taking simple precautions.
“If you receive a similar call and are not sure if it is a scam, contact your local law enforcement before sending money or releasing information,” he says. “Once you send money and it happens to go overseas, the chances of getting your money back or someone being arrested is doubtful.”
Likewise, the Federal Trade Commission warns that you should never respond immediately to a plea for money — no matter how dramatic a caller’s story may be.
In most cases, it’s impossible to reverse a wire transaction, or to trace the money to a specific location.
You should always try to verify the caller’s narrative with a family member who can be reached at a familiar phone number — especially if the caller asks you to keep his or her request secret.
In order to confirm that person’s identity, you should ask the caller very personal questions that a stranger could never answer. Even then, you should never wire money to that person, or send a money order via overnight delivery.
If you believe that you’ve responded to a scam, contact the money transfer company immediately. You can reach MoneyGram’s complaint department at 1-800-666-3947, or you can call Western Union at 1-800-448-1492.
To report a scam, you can also call the Federal Trade Commission at 1-877-FTC-HELP, or the Colorado Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Section at 1-800-222-4444.