When Linda and Ron Spence got a desperate phone call from someone who identified himself as their grandson, Michael, they didn’t think twice.
He was in trouble. Of course they would help.
Michael told the Spences he’d been gambling online. He owed money, his bank account had been frozen and he’d be thrown in jail if he couldn’t come up with cash to pay an attorney.
“Don’t tell Mom and Dad,” he begged the couple from Fort Myers, Fla. He said an attorney would call them to arrange payment, then hung up.
“I was worried about him. I couldn’t get hold of him,” said Linda Spence, who is 67. “I tried to get him on his cellphone and no answer.”
The Spences ended up wiring $1,800 to the Dominican Republic, following instructions from another caller who said he was Michael’s lawyer.
Both callers were impostors. The real Michael hadn’t been gambling. He didn’t need a lawyer. He was at home in Phoenix, not in jail.
The Spences were victims of a “grandparent scam” in which a con artist pretending to be a victim’s grandchild claims to be in trouble and in need of emergency cash. The anxious grandparent rushes to wire money to the impostor or loads it onto a prepaid card and then hands over the PIN.
It’s an old con that’s seeing a resurgence nationwide. Instances of such impostor scams doubled from 2009 to 2013, costing Americans more than $73 million annually, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
The trend has drawn the attention of Congress, where lawmakers held a hearing about the problem Wednesday.
“It’s incredibly despicable,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, who led the hearing before the Senate Special Committee on Aging. “It preys on seniors’ willingness to do anything to help a family member in trouble.”
An area woman who reported a scam to Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri is Carolyn Laughlin of Lee’s Summit. Laughlin dodged a scam, but not before enduring no small amount of anxiety.
She took a call from a man in November who claimed to be her grandson, Kris. She was suspicious, but the voice on the other end of the line was one of somebody badly worried and in crisis.
He told her his best friend had been killed in Mexico City, he had traveled there for the funeral, he was stopped and his car had been found full of drugs.
The man said he was calling from jail and needed $1,900 in bail money before he could get help from the American Embassy.
He had Laughlin speak with his “jailer,” who hung up when her questioning became pointed.
Laughlin, 77, had worked 25 years as a mental health nurse, much of that on an emergency crisis line. That experience made her suspicious and unwilling to send the money.
Laughlin ultimately got hold of her real grandson, confirmed that someone was scamming her and called police.
“I had heard of this kind of scam before, but it still takes you back when you hear a voice saying they are in need,” Laughlin said Wednesday. “I just think that people need to hear more about these things to cause them to be cautious. Older folks need all the help we can get.”
At the congressional hearing, an 81-year-old man testified about how he’d lost $7,000 to an impostor pretending to be his grandson.
Speaking from a wheelchair, the white-haired man from Cincinnati was allowed to testify without revealing his name because he feared the publicity might make him a target for other con artists.
The deception “sent my life into a tailspin,” he said.
Scammers focus on seniors because they’re most likely to have nest eggs, own their homes and have excellent credit, said Joseph Campbell, deputy assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.
Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, said the FBI and other law enforcement agencies need to prosecute such scams more aggressively.
“Until we put in jail a lot of people who are committing these scams, we are not going to see real progress,” Collins said.
“What I’m hearing from law enforcement is they’re too small individually for us to bother with them. Well, you can be sure that the person who ripped off (one person) went on to rip off other people.”
Wednesday’s hearing produced no legislative solutions, but it was part of a push by Collins, Nelson and other members of Congress to bring attention to the problem and to pressure retailers and card makers to protect customers.
Some companies are starting to make changes. In a statement submitted for the record at Wednesday’s hearing, prepaid card maker Green Dot announced that it would discontinue the MoneyPak PIN method of reloading a card, a popular way for scammers to steal victims’ money remotely. The company will move instead to a “card swipe” process that requires the cardholder to be in the store and to swipe the debit card in order to reload funds.
Retail giant Wal-Mart also said in a statement Wednesday that it would stop selling MoneyPak and Vanilla Reload cards, in part because of “increasing instances where customers said they were steered toward these products by fraudsters.”
Looking back, Florida grandma Linda Spence can’t believe she fell for the scam. She retired as a civilian clerk from a sheriff’s office, and her husband, Ron, 73, used to work as a sheriff’s deputy in Denver. They had even heard such scams described on a television show.
But when the couple thought Michael was in trouble, their grandparent instincts kicked in, overriding their better judgment.
“You go into protective mode, like mother bear mode,” Linda Spence said. “It’s ridiculous. I’m smarter than that, and I felt like a total fool.”
She said she wanted to share her experience so others wouldn’t be as easily duped.
“Nobody else needs to be taken like this,” she said.
The Star’s Matt Campbell and Amaris Castillo of The Bradenton Herald contributed to this report.
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