Seniors are often the target of scammers.
In one ongoing fraud, charlatans use what’s most precious to many grandparents in an effort to steal their money: their grandchildren.
It happened to a Bamboozled reader who we’ll call Ella. She was too embarrassed to share her name, but she wasn’t too embarrassed to share her story.
She wants to make sure this never happens to anyone else.
Last summer, Ella, 81, received a phone call from someone who said he was her grandson.
“He said he was in big trouble in Clearwater, Florida, having had an automobile accident. [He said] please don’t tell his parents and he needed financial assistance,” Ella said in a police report. “He sounded so desperate and said that the man he would put on the phone was from National Auto Rental.”
The man, who called himself Michael Burgess, came on the line and explained that he could accept payment for the damage.
“He would be willing to overlook any paperwork if I could send $1,500 to get the necessary repairs done,” Ella said in the police report.
Burgess then gave the payment instructions: purchase three $500 Green Dot MoneyPak cards, which could be found at Rite Aid.
“On the back of the card there was a scratch-off area with many numbers and I was to read those numbers off after Mr. Burgess called me back,” Ella said. “I could not get him to give me a number so I could call him back.”
So Ella went to Rite Aid.
She said she selected three cards, and tried to use her American Express card to get cash to pay. But after $1,000, American Express wouldn’t give out any more money, so Ella used her Wells Fargo debit card for the remaining $500.
Ella said she kept trying to reach her grandson, but she couldn’t contact him.
And then Burgess called. Ella gave him the numbers from the backs of the Green Dot cards. She also asked to speak to her grandson.
“When they put him on the phone, he told me he couldn’t stay on the phone because of roaming charges on his phone,” Ella said in the police report. “I said I would take care of that, but to no avail.”
Ella told her grandson to get a receipt and a business card for the rental car company
But the alleged fraudsters weren’t done with Ella yet.
Burgess soon called again, this time saying Ella needed to pay another $2,500 for repairs to the car her grandson hit.
“Burgess suggested I go to a different store because of the amount I had taken at Rite Aid,” she said in the police report. “I went to CVS and… a wonderful woman at the courtesy counter, she advised me this was a scam.”
The woman insisted Ella go to the police. So she did, without buying any new Green Dot cards.
“The police were wonderful and kept telling me this was not my grandson and I should notify his parents. I didn’t want to upset them until I was sure,” Ella said. “So I called and finally and asked my daughter-in-law how my grandson was and she said he was fine. He was at one of his three jobs he had for the summer.”
While Ella was still at the police department, Burgess called again. This time, Ella put the call on speakerphone.
“My supposed grandson came on again and begged me to comply with the latest request because of what could happen to him,” Ella said. “I asked him his date of birth — there was some talk in the background and I didn’t hear anything again. He hung up.”
Ella left the police department with her police report, labeling what happened to her “theft by deception.”
TRYING TO RECOVER MONEY
Ella said the police told her to contact American Express and Wells Fargo, saying the institutions would reimburse her the money because it was fraud.
But from the perspective of financial institutions, using plastic to pay for scams is not the same as purchasing an item that you never received. From their perspective, it’s also not the same as fraud that results from having your card number stolen.
It’s what people in the business call a “victim-assisted crime.”
A victim-assisted crime is different because the crime couldn’t have happened without some form of help from the victim — in this case, handing over the Green Dot card numbers to the fraudsters.
Yes, the victim was tricked. Yes, the victim was fooled. But of course, had the victim known it was a scam, the victim would never have given the card numbers to the crooks.
Also note that the same scam is run using other payment options, including wire transfers and money orders. These may soon be on the rise as Green Dot eliminated the MoneyPak card because of the challenges of fighting scams.
Ella took her police report and wrote letters to the CEOs of American Express, with whom she’s been a customer for 31 years, and Wells Fargo, with whom she’s been a customer for more than a decade.
She received responses, but neither company offered to help in any way.
So we reached out to the companies to see if they’d reconsider assisting this long-time customer.
American Express said it couldn’t discuss the particulars of Ella’s account for privacy reasons, but it spoke generally about its fraud liability protection.
A spokeswoman said card users are not liable for fraudulent charges on their cards.
“This means American Express credits Card Members for any unauthorized use of their accounts which may result from the loss or theft of a Card or account information,” the spokeswoman said. “Generally, in a case when an American Express Card Member uses their Card to purchase gift cards or send a wire transfer to a fraudster, the Card Member is responsible for those transactions because they were authorized charges.”
So in other words, because this was a victim-assisted crime, Ella would be out of luck.
American Express recommended Ella continue to work with law enforcement, and it suggested customers visit its website for more information on how it handles fraud and what customers can do to protect themselves.
Wells Fargo handled things differently.
A short time after we shared Ella’s story with Wells, she received a phone call from a district manager.
“He advised me that this is not usual, but the bank credited the $500 to my account,” Ella said. “They appreciated my business and length of time. I am very pleased. Now let’s see what happens with American Express.”
We’re not expecting Ella will hear anything else from American Express, but we’ll let you know if she does.
By the way, the only company called “National Auto Rental” that we were able to find was located in Albania, not Florida. We didn’t try to contact the company, given that it probably has nothing to do with the alleged scammers who contacted Ella.
Visit the Federal Trade Commission’s web site to learn more about the so-called “Grandma Scam” and similar schemes.
Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com.