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Con artists using new ways to scam seniors

Bev Orson wasn’t about to let scammers fool her a second time. So when the Annandale grandmother answered the phone not long ago and a young voice said, “Grandma,” she demanded: “Who is this?” He hung up but called again five minutes later. “I said the same thing and they hung up,” she recalled, certain that the caller was trying to pull “the grandparent scam” she had fallen for several months earlier. “I learned,” she smiled. “Nobody’s going to scam me again.” Orson, 73, and others her age in Central Minnesota and across the country are often targets of con artists who use phone, e-mail and regular mail schemes to try to swindle them. Annandale Police Chief Jeff Herr described a number of popular scams and advised seniors not to let anyone pressure them into making a hasty decision to hand over their money. The grandparent scam has been around since about 2008, and the FBI warned last spring that it had resurfaced. A caller posing as the senior’s grandson or granddaughter says he or she is in jail in another state or country for a driving or other offense and asks them to wire money right away for bail. In a variation on the fraud, the caller claims to be an arresting police officer, a lawyer or a doctor at a hospital. More than 25,500 elderly Americans fell for the grandparent scam last year and sent $110 million to the crooks on the other end of the phone line, according to a report in the AARP Bulletin. And MetLife has estimated seniors lose almost $3 billion a year from fraud, half of it at the hands of strangers. Orson was taken in by such a call in December 2010 and was ready to wire $2,000, but when she turned the phone over to her husband for instructions, he was suspicious and started asking questions. The caller hung up, and they found out later that their grandson was at home in Ham Lake. “I should’ve known better,” she said. “I guess a grandma will do just about anything for their grandkids.” The first time she gave the scammer important information by immediately asking, “Is this Tyler?” but she didn’t make that mistake the second time. “Definitely don’t mention any name of your grandkids,” she advised other seniors. “Ask ‘Who is it?’” And if the caller answers with the name of one of your grandchildren, ask other questions, like the name of their childhood pet and grandma’s maiden name. Herr called the scheme an attempt to take advantage of grandparents’ love and concern for their grandchildren. He pointed out that scammers can now get information about grandchildren from social media websites like Facebook to help convince victims that their con is legitimate. The police chief, whose own grandmother was the target of an unsuccessful grandparent scam a few years ago that used his brother as the bait, suggested asking a series of personal questions. The scammer may be able to answer some of them, but something will trip him up, he said. And the grandparent should try to verify the caller’s story through relatives or even calling the jail where the grandchild is purportedly being held. “Before agreeing to anything, contact the parents of the child,” Orson added. In Herr’s experience, many of the targets of scams are seniors. “They’re often more trusting and become more of a target for the scammers,” he said. “Some find it hard to believe that anyone would take advantage of them.” They also get solicited more than other age groups because they’re retired and spend more time at home. But seniors are becoming more aware of scams, he said. “I do think some seniors maybe they sit alone too much,” Orson said, “and when someone calls them, they just fall for that stuff.” Many of them were raised during the Great Depression and have never encountered such behavior, she said. “You trusted people. You never locked your car; you never locked your doors very much. It’s a different world.” Herr estimated that Annandale police receive 30 to 40 reports a year of suspicious calls and e-mails and that two or three people a year suffer losses from scams. He outlined a handful of other familiar schemes: •  Sweepstakes or prize scams that inform the target that he or she has won thousands or millions of dollars but must send a substantial sum of money to pay for delivery of the winnings. According to, a website maintained by a federal government-industry task force, “if you have to pay to play or pay to receive your ‘winnings,’ the promotion is a scam.”  •  419 Nigerian scams, so named because they’re a violation of that section of the Nigerian penal code. The scammers represent themselves as foreign government officials offering the recipient an opportunity to share in a percentage of millions of dollars they want to transfer into an overseas bank account. But they ask the target to send thousands of dollars in advance to pay taxes, attorney costs, bribes or other fees. A young Annandale woman lost $5,000 a few years ago in a similar scheme, Herr said. •  Craigslist scams that attempt to bilk someone offering an item for sale on the website. A “buyer” claiming to live in another state offers to send the seller a cashier’s check for $1,000 more than the asking price. The seller is instructed to keep $500 and give the other $500 to the buyer’s driver, who will be sent to pick up the item. But then the buyer calls back and tells the seller to send the money by mail or wire. The cashier’s check, which takes 10 days to clear the bank, turns out to be fake. •   Identity thefts in which a caller requests a donation for a phony organization in order to obtain the target’s credit card information and make withdrawals from his or her account. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” Herr said. “Check it out.” He warned people to be suspicious of anything that promises a large amount of money or prizes and that they have to act on right away. “You should never have to pay money to get money.” If a caller pressures you to act immediately, “you know that something’s up,” he said. And if you think it’s a scam, hang up. “When people start pressuring you for money, credit card numbers or personal information, tell them you need to stop, and tell them you’ll call them back.” He urged recipients of such offers to check out their claims with sources such as the Better Business Bureau and internet websites and to visit, which describes all kinds of frauds as well as telling victims’ stories. Tell callers asking for donations to send information about the organization by mail, he said, and you can decide when it arrives whether you want to contribute. “These scams can be very believable … but you need to validate or verify their information.” If you’ve received a phone call, e-mail or letter that you think may be a scam, go to, a website operated by a partnership of federal agencies, to report it to the FBI, Herr said. “If you’re a victim of a scam where there’s been a loss, notify local law enforcement,” he said. But he cautioned that “it’s very difficult to prosecute some of these due to the complexity” and the fact they usually originate out of the country, where American police can’t do anything about them. When such cases are linked together and police work with other agencies like the Secret Service and FBI, however, the result is usually a successful prosecution, he said. Don Klitzka is another Annandale senior who’s been the target of unsuccessful scam attempts. The 80-year-old retiree estimated he received three or four of them a couple of years ago that claimed he had won large sums of money. One caller told him he’d won $2.5 million but there was a $175 delivery charge. “I said, ‘I’ll call you back,’” and then he headed straight for the police department to report it. A mail scheme informed him he’d won $50,000 and sent him what it claimed was a check for $4,200 toward payment of more than $2,800 required to collect the prize. Another scammer called him “17 times or more” until police intervened, he said. “Basically ignore them and don’t fall for it,” Klitzka advised other seniors. “And if you continue to get harassed by them, let the police handle them.”

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