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News Feature

Castine
Originally published in Community News, January 2, 2014
The “grandparent scam” and more
Steering clear of scams, frauds and identity theft

by Anne Berleant

“It’s not that you can’t trust anyone, but you can’t trust everyone.”

So spoke Amy Schram, Community Outreach Specialist for the Better Business Bureau, in a December talk at Witherle Memorial Library.

Titled “Educate Yourself About Scams and Frauds,” the presentation outlined how scam artists try to steal your money and your identity, and ways to prevent being victimized.

Senior citizens are specifically targeted by scam artists because they are more vulnerable to pressure, Schram said, and scam artists are better able to “tug at their heart strings.”

The people who fall victim are the people who don’t know the scam exists, like the “grandparent scam,” she continued.

In the “grandparent scam,” a scam artist works through a list of phone numbers until he or she gets the right response to asking “Grandma?” or Grandpa?” when someone picks up.

Once the person replies with their grandchild’s name—i.e., “Sarah, is that you?”—the scam artist is off and running with a tale of being stranded or in immediate trouble, followed by a request for money wired or a credit card number.

The grandparent scam works, Schram said, because of the emotions involved, from the scam artist who sounds distraught or hysterical to the “grandparent” who reacts out of fear and pressure.

“It’s believable because it worries us immediately…We feel, what if we hang up the phone and it was [the grandchild] and they’re in trouble?” Schram said.

Scam artists work through telephone lists, keeping a record of “active working numbers”—where a voice answers rather than a machine. They sell these lists to other scam artists, which is why “we’re inundated with [such calls] now,” Schram said.

Another common scam is the “fake debt collector,” who reaches someone who already is in trouble with creditors and then “lays it on so thick, it’s really scary,” Schram said. “They threaten to take your kids, your car.”

Or you may receive a call from your “bank,” claiming there’s a discrepancy in your account, and to clear it up the “representative” needs your account number.

“We don’t think to hang up right away,” Schram said, because we get scared or because what we hear is not “an outlandish big red flag-waving story.”

Identity theft has happened to over nine million Americans, said Schram, and is on the rise.

“It’s very simple and easy for our ID to get stolen,” Schram said. All it takes “is a bad seed at a reputable corporation,” who sells personal information, or someone searching trash for bank statements and credit card bills or gathering personal information over the phone.

If you Google your own name, Schram said, information such as your address, phone number and even your siblings is readily available.

And, she added, it takes seven years to “fully get your identity back.”

Simple ways to avoid a scam

According to Schram, there are a few fast rules that help stop a scam before it starts.

Install caller ID on cell phones and land lines, and don’t pick up calls from unknown numbers.

Never handle any business “on that first phone call.”

Never give out your social security number over the telephone.

Keep track of your credit with an annual credit report, and look over every bank statement.

Never use a debit card for online purchases; use a credit card.

Never go online without virus software and/or firewall protection.

Don’t leave outgoing mail in your box for mail carriers to pick up.

And, Schram concluded, “don’t take anything at face value.”

The Better Business Bureau

The BBB was founded in 1912 by business owners “unhappy with how other business owners were advertising,” and served as an “advertising regulator,” Schram said. It is a nonprofit organization supported by the annual dues of businesses who seek and meet its accreditation criteria.

Schram travels throughout Eastern Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island and Vermont to educate people on scams and frauds.

“I speak to people all over on these topics, even though the topics are not happy ones,” said Schram.

The technology of the last 20 years, especially the Internet, has been “a bit of a Catch-22,” she said, as it provides a greater opportunity for fraud yet also provides fast access to information on scams and frauds.

The Better Business Bureau website (locally, boston.bbb.org) is a “cautionary resource tool” for vetting charities and businesses, Schram said, finding out the latest scams, registering complaints and for contractor inquiries for “the big, big purchases we make.”

For more information, call the BBB Massachusetts office at 508-652-4800.