W.LEBANON–“Hi, Gramma,” the young man said to Dorothy DeBella last Monday. “What’s wrong,” she asked. The young man told her that he was in jail in Montreal, that he had accompanied a friend for a night in Canada, and that the friend had been carrying marijuana, discovered at a border check. He needed $2,500 wired to him immediately to get out of jail. “Please,” he begged her, “don’t tell anyone.”
And like any grandmother, Mrs. DeBella moved heaven and earth to help her “grandson” in what has become known as the “Grandma scam.” At 9 p.m., when her “grandson” hadn’t made his promised call after she and her husband, Joseph, drove to Chatham in that day’s snowstorm to wire the money, she called her grandson on his cell phone. “‘What are you talking about?’ He thought I’d lost my mind,” she said. Then she called the State Police.
The Grandma scam has been reported coast to coast. It targets older people. One website mentions that as the scammers peruse telephone listings, they pick “old-fashioned names,” like Dorothy. The caller will say something like, “Hi Grandma [or Grandpa]. Do you know who this is?” Or “This is your favorite grandson,” and go on until the victim supplies a name. The scammers ask that money be wired to Canada to cover an emergency expense. One published report, www.khou.com/news/state/stories/khou090228_ks_granny-scam.10f33fe3.html, said that last year, 435 American grandparents were drawn into wiring $2.2 million to Canada for “grandchildren” who were supposed victims of car accidents, under arrest or stranded across the border. The victims’ attempts to help averaged $5,083 each. None of the money is recovered.
Phonebusters.com, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Call Centre, tracks telephone fraud both within Canada and across the border with the U.S. Incidents of what the Canadian site calls the “emergency cash scam” in the first eight months of 2008 more than doubled to 317 over the total of 128 complaints during the full year of 2007. Since June 1 of 2008, a spokesperson told the Columbia Paper in an email, “we’ve had approximately 700 consumers from across North America call nd report that they were victimized by this emergency scheme. Reported ollar loss is approximately 3.5 million.”
When Mrs. DeBella spoke with the police, she was told that the young man would call back, requesting more cash because his car had been impounded or the like. He did. Since she “answered with an attitude,” he didn’t talk long. The next day, he spoke with her husband, who she says is “very devout. He never swears. But he said he ‘talked to him so bad, I’ll have to go to confession twice before I can go to church.'”
One of the police agencies she talked to—she says she called so many, including Canada, that she fears she’ll have a $200 phone bill—told her that “25% of the time, when they call and say ‘Grandma,’ they’ll be right.”
Mrs. DeBella, who says her grandson holds down a near full-time job at the same time as he attends college full time, says that she feels bad that she “even thought he could be involved” in any crime. But the caller “had all the right answers,” she said.