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Bothell grandma falls victim to ‘grandparent scam,’ warns others
When 77-year-old Carol Mahre heard who she thought was her grandson plea for her help on the telephone, she had one thought - he’s in trouble.
“First he said, ‘Hi, grandma,’ just like my oldest grandson says,” Mahre recalled of the Nov. 28 phone call. “I said, ‘Hi, Lewis, how are you?’ He said, ‘I’ve got a problem and I’m in jail. I’m being held against my will in a jail in Mexico and I need $2,200 to be released.’”
The man told Mahre that he was in an accident and a woman from the U.S. Embassy would call and tell Mahre how she could help her grandson with his release.
“I was just astounded and thought, oh, he’s been in a car accident,” said Mahre, who lives just blocks from her grandson in Bothell. “I was so sure I was talking to him. I should have tried to contact my grandson first, but he said, ‘Don’t tell anyone in the family, I’ll tell them when I get home.’”
A woman who identified herself as Anna Marie Weston called Mahre and told her that there’s a gag order in place and if she didn’t tell anyone about the accident that the Embassy would send her grandson home right away. The woman, who was very articulate, instructed Mahre to go to the Rite Aid pharmacy in Kirkland’s Totem Lake neighborhood and wire $2,200 in cash to Mexico City via Western Union.
When the transaction did not go through, the woman told Mahre to go to a different Rite Aid in downtown Bothell and wire the money to Manila.
This time, the transaction went through. That night, Weston called Mahre and said the money got there too late for the Embassy to get her grandson out of jail that night. She said she would meet with the judge and prosecutor in the morning to discuss his release.
The next morning, the woman called back and said the accident was alcohol-related and Mahre would need to send $10,000 in cash.
“I just gasped,” said Mahre, noting that the woman reduced that amount to $6,300 based on her reaction and asked Mahre to send the money in two installments.
She went back to the Totem Lake Rite Aid and an employee said, “Weren’t you just in here yesterday? She said, ‘That doesn’t sound right,’” Mahre recalled.
Regardless, she wired another $3,900.
But when she went to wire the second installment of $2,400 via a MoneyGram to Mexico, an employee at the Lynnwood Walmart noticed something was wrong.
“Oh, that’s a scam - don’t you send one more penny,” the employee told Mahre. “The woman said we get people in here all week long that get caught in this scam, don’t send another penny.”
Mahre says she fell for the scam “hook, line and sinker. I just feel so stupid - I should have called (my grandson).”
She said while most people in this situation would want to hide from embarrassment, she wants to warn as many people as she can so that it doesn’t happen to others.
The Washington Attorney General’s Office warns residents about the “grandparent scam,” where cons posing as relatives try to convince elderly victims to wire cash to help pay for emergency car repairs, medical bills, or even post bail.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation said the grandparent scam has been around for several years, noting its Internet Crime Complaint Center has received reports about it since 2008.
But the scam and scam artists have become more sophisticated, the FBI reports.
The Internet and social networking sites like Facebook help criminals uncover personal information about their targets, which makes impersonations more believable.
“They are so slick,” said Mahre. “The police said they call these family names up on a computer and pick people in my age bracket. We love our grandkids so much that we’ll do anything for them.”
Mahre said her grandson, who she is really close to, was “just sickened” when he found out what happened.
“My kids said, ‘Oh, mom, how could you be so gullible?’”
Mahre warns others not to be fooled by the scam. And make the call, she says.
“Even though you’re told not to contact your family member, make the call to the person who supposedly needs the money and you’d prevent all of this heartache.”
She also said to invest in a caller ID, which she now has to identify callers.
Luckily, the cons did not completely ruin Mahre’s Christmas. The Bothell police helped her get her $3,900 back from Western Union. However, they were not able to recover her $2,200.
“That’s still a lot of social security checks,” she added.
Bothell police officer Steve Kerzman, who helped Mahre get some of her money back, said this type of scam is “unfortunately becoming a common trend where elderly people are being targeted.”
Some of the issues the Bothell police have seen are cons calling the elderly and saying they are in jail or the hospital and need money.
“The other thing we’re seeing is callers who say the person has won the sweepstakes and asking them to wire the tax money from the sweepstakes,” said Kerzman. “This is all getting wired to other countries, unfortunately, so this makes it very hard for police enforcement to get it back.”
He said the department has seen several people recently fall prey to similar scams at the Green Acres Mobile Home Park retirement community in Bothell.
“We have people there who’ve been targeted and who have sent well and above $10,000,” he noted.
He said the department is in the process of trying to work with local senior communities to bring awareness about scams that target the elderly.
“The elderly tend to be more giving, so there’s not as much hesitation from them,” noted Kerzman.
The Bothell Police Department has also discussed ways to alert employees at various Western Union locations about the scam, such as creating an informational brochure.
The Washington attorney general made a multi-state agreement with MoneyGram in 2008 that aims to prevent U.S. residents from becoming victims of wire transfer scams. MoneyGram paid $1.1 million to fund a national peer-counseling program to be overseen by the AARP Foundation.
The company also agreed to print an attention-grabbing warning on its form that is used to send money and provide enhanced training to branch agents. State attorneys general reached a similar agreement in 2005 with Western Union.
Kerzman said the biggest way for people to protect themselves from the grandparent scam is to verify and follow-up with their loved one before sending money.
How to detect a scam
The Washington State Office of the Attorney General offers the following tips to detect a scam:
1. Don’t fill in the blanks for the scammer. For example:
Caller: “It’s your granddaughter.”
Grandparent: “Which one?”
Most likely, the con will then hang up.
2. Do whatever is necessary to confirm the real relative’s whereabouts. Call your grandchild’s home, school or work.
3. Don’t send money unless you have verified that your relative is really in trouble. If a caller asks for your bank account number or urges you to send money via Western Union or MoneyGram for any reason, that’s a good indication of a scam. Cons prefer wire transfers because they are fast, there are transfer agents in most communities and funds can be picked up in multiple locations.