Billings residents Sonia and Herb Alacron have grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “We're not stupid people,” Sonia told a gathering of more than 45 residents of Mission Ridge Retirement Community on Friday.
But, she said, they got conned by the “grandparent scam” this year when they wired $6,000 to Canada thinking they were helping their grandson who supposedly got into trouble while visiting Niagara Falls.
Sonia Alacron shared her story publicly for the first time as part of a state Department of Justice effort to alert seniors about scams.
During an hourlong presentation at Mission Ridge, Attorney General Steve Bullock and Billings Police Detective Brett Lapham warned about the “grandparent scam” and offered suggestions to residents on how to protect themselves.
Bullock also unveiled a new service from his office in which Montanans can sign up for e-mail alerts about scams.
The “grandparent scam” occurs when an elderly person gets a call from someone claiming to be their grandchild. The caller can be in distress or crying or may claim to be in trouble in a foreign country. The details may vary, but the bottom line is the same: The grandparent must send money to help the grandchild.
The whole story is a fiction. But once a trusting grandparent wires the money, it is almost impossible to recover, Bullock said.
“It may sound far-fetched, but in most respects, it works,” he said.
So far this year, DOJ's Office of Consumer Protection has received about 40 reports of the scam with seniors losing more than $68,000, Bullock said. Last year, there were 25 reports, and in 2008 there were six.
The numbers, Bullock said, reflect only those people who reported the scam, but the true cost of the con is higher.
Bullock advised people never to wire money to anyone they don't know.
Another defense is to resist being pressured by a crisis or emotion. “Take time to think it through,” Bullock said.
And before doing anything, people should talk to family, friends or law enforcement, Bullock said.
Starting Friday, Montanans can register for warnings of scams from OCP at www.consumerprotection.mt.gov. The Scam Alerts system is intended to sound an alarm when a new scam hits, Bullock said.
Lapham, who investigates financial crimes, said scams are underreported because victims often feel too embarrassed to come forward.
“We have to do a a better job in prevention and getting the word out,” Lapham said.
A key part of prevention is education, the detective said. He encouraged all Montanans, not only seniors, to share information with families and friends and to report scams or suspected cons to law enforcement.
Many of the scams involve wiring money out of the country to Canada or Nigeria, Lapham said.
Sonia Alacron said she learned the hard way and has since set up a family “code” when talking to relatives.
“When you think it's your family, you forget about the things you already heard about (scams),” she said. “They're really, really convincing.”
Sonia realized she was being scammed when the person called the next day asking for more money. Things weren't adding up, she said.
“It's a scary thing to be this vulnerable when you don't think you are,” she said. “We're out $6,000. That's my new carpet.”
Mission Ridge resident Joe Feist was more fortunate. Feist said he, too, was tagged by the grandparent scam when he got a call about three months ago from a woman who said, “Hello, grandpa.” The woman “sounded exactly like my granddaughter,” he said.
The woman claimed to have been in a car accident in Canada, was about to go to jail and said a lawyer would be calling in five minutes with instructions on how to help, Feist said.
The so-called lawyer followed up with instructions for wiring $1,500 to Canada, Feist said.
Feist and his son went to a Western Union office where the employee, who knew his son, recognized the Canada address and said it was a scam. Feist's son called his daughter, who was at home and was fine, he said.
When the scammer called again, Feist said he told him, “You're just a big scumbag.''
Contact Clair Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 657-1282.