“Grandma Scams” on the Rise in California

It starts with a phone call -- someone posing as your child or grandchild dials you up to beg for money to deal with an emergency, often cast as a dire threat to the loved one you think you’re talking to.

It’s known in law enforcement circles as the “Grandma Scam” and it’s so familiar that no one should be falling for it any more. But state authorities tell NBC4 it’s costing seniors their retirement money, good health and peace of mind.

Seniors like Catherine Lotz.

Lotz, is in her 70s. Her granddaughter, Alexandra, had taken a job in LA and was out of touch. Lotz fell victim and fell hard. When she picked up her cell one morning, she was led to believe it was Alexandra on the line, calling from a jail in Mexico where she was allegedly being held after suffering a traffic accident during a “quickie” vacation across the border.

“It sounded like her and she sounded deeply troubled,” Lotz recalled. “I was heartsick.”

The person posing as Alexandra threw Lotz off her guard by calling her “grandma” right from the get-go, then introduced another person into the conversation who presented himself as a helpful jailhouse lawyer. He told Lotz she could cover bail for her granddaughter by wiring $3,500 via Western Union to a bank, supposedly in Mexico.

“I don’t have a lot of free cash and this was a big thing for me,” Lotz said. “But my family is first for me. I didn’t want her in a holding cell in another country."

Catherine drained her bank account and even borrowed money to meet the demand.

Later that day, the female imposter was audacious enough to call her back to say, “Thank you, Grandma. I love you.”

That was the ultimate insult – “so disgusting,” Lotz said. “They didn’t have to call and thank me.”

Only three days later did she realize she’d been had. The real Alexandra, responding to a frantic voice mail from Lotz, called to say she was just fine and had never been in Mexico, much less in jail there. As Alexandra listened to her grandma break down in sobs, she feared for her health.

“She sounded like she was in excruciating pain,” Alexandra remembered. “Her voice was extremely high-pitched, It sounded like she was running out of air.”

Lotz lives on Social Security and the scam obliterated her finances. Unfortunately it’s an all too typical outcome to what is becoming an epidemic of pain for unwary seniors.

“The reason why a scam like the “Grandma Scam” works is it plays on people’s trusting natures," said Joanne McNabb, chief of California’s Office of Privacy Protection.

Seniors, by her account, are particularly easy marks because they often live alone and suffer from infirmities such as hearing problems that it make it difficult for them to sort wily pretenders from loved ones.

It’s the perfect trap for “somebody who tends to be trusting, who may be lonely,” McNabb said.

Unfortunately, in her estimate, the trap is widening, the "Grandma Scam" becoming ever-more prevalent, and law enforcement doesn’t know how to stop it, in part because victimized seniors are often too embarrassed to alert authorities or family members that it’s happened to them

Lotz felt so ashamed that she waited for two days to let any of her relatives know. Such reticence on the victims’ part only encourages the scammers to pull the trick again on someone else.

“There seems to be a sudden burst of it in California in the last couple of months,” McNabb said. “It is very difficult to find these people."

Based on the meager evidence available, McNabb said, the scammers gather their target information from public records, telemarketer’s lists, and social networking sites, like Facebook. But because law enforcement has had so little luck in tracking down the perpetrators, there’s little protection against them except good public awareness.

What should you do if you think you’ve got a scammer on the line?

“Listen rather than speak,” McNabb said. “Ask questions rather than answer. Ask for a call-back number. The scam artist isn’t going to give a good working call-back number.”

Lotz is currently working with police and hoping to get her money back, but given their poor arrest and conviction record in such cases, the only satisfaction she’s likely to get is in hurling private curses at the people who ripped her off.

“They were so cunning,” she said. “I hope those people rot."

Editorial Note: Alexandria Lotz is a former intern with NBC4 News.

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