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Originally published April 18, 2012 at 6:47 PM | Page modified April 18, 2012 at 6:55 PM

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Scammers are stealing from elderly by posing as grandkids in trouble

Con artists calling grandparents and pretending to be their grandchildren in desperate need of cash are still striking hard. The FBI, Washington Attorney General's Office and the AARP warn the elderly to be vigilant.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Avoiding the 'Grandparent Scam'

The state Attorney General's Office is warning about the "Grandparent Scam," involving con artists who pose as relatives to convince elderly victims to wire cash to help pay for emergency car repairs or medical bills or to post bail. The office offers these tips:

Do not fill in the blanks for the scammer: If the person on the line says, "It's your grandson," do not reply by offering a name; instead say, "Which one?" Most likely, the con artist will then hang up.

Confirm your grandchild's whereabouts: Call their house, their work, their school, their friends. Find out where they actually are before offering financial help.

Do not send money unless you have verified where your grandchild is: If the caller asks for your bank-account number or urges you to wire money to him or her, it's likely a scam. Con artists prefer wire transfers because they are fast, there are transfer agents in most communities, and funds can be picked up in multiple locations.

Source: Washington state Attorney General's Office

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When the phone rang last week at the home of an 83-year-old Eastside man, the caller identified himself as the man's teenage grandson, Ryan.

Ryan said he had been drinking and driving while attending a wedding in Georgia and had struck a pedestrian. He told his grandfather he was now sitting in jail and needed $4,300 for bail.

Ryan begged his grandfather not to tell his parents, fearing their anger.

"I felt so concerned about my grandson," the man recalled Wednesday. "I wanted to do the right thing to get him released and home as soon as possible."

The man wired the money. After subsequent calls over the next several days, the man wired more than $84,000 more, believing all the time he was helping his 17-year-old grandson out of deep trouble.

Then, last Friday, the man received another call from Ryan, the real Ryan. He told his grandfather he was not in trouble and had been in the Seattle area the whole time.

The man had fallen victim to a well-worn scam that appears to be gaining traction in the era of social media, according to state and federal law-enforcement officials. It's known as the "Grandparent Scam."

"As smart as I am, how dumb I had been," said the man, a retired phone-company employee who asked not to be identified because he is working with King County sheriff's investigators to find the people who scammed him.

An old scam

Washington state Assistant Attorney General Doug Walsh, who heads the agency's Consumer Protection Division, said the Grandparent Scam and its variants have been around for years.

"There are millions of these scams reported to the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) every year," Walsh said. "The Grandparent Scam is happening hundreds of thousands of times a day across the country."

Earlier this month, the FBI sent out an alert saying that its Internet Crime Complaint Center has been receiving reports about the scam since 2008, but that the deception is getting more detailed.

Con artists are spending time searching Facebook and other social-networking sites, as well as conducting basic Internet searches, to learn everything they can about the grandchildren of potential targets, Walsh said. With personal information readily accessible, scam artists are able to learn where grandchildren go to school, where they vacation and even their favorite foods, Walsh said. Through basic Internet searches they can find grandparents' home telephone numbers.

Armed with the information, scammers are calling elderly people at home and claiming to be their grandchild or someone who is with them.

They offer up details about the grandchild's life and then ask for money for anything ranging from bail money to a hospital bill, from attorneys' fees to an airline or bus ticket. They usually follow up by saying, "Don't tell Mom and Dad," Walsh said.

"They want to isolate their victims. The Grandparent Scam engenders trust between the grandparent and grandchild," he said.

Once successful, a scam artist will maintain the ruse and call the victim over the following days with more traumatic stories in a hunt for more cash, Walsh said.

Doug Shadel, Washington state director for AARP, said the organization on a national level has been focusing on the scam and other forms of elder fraud for several years.

"We've interviewed a lot of the cons who have done this kind of thing. They find different ways to get you to react," said Shadel. "What's more emotional than someone calling and posing as your grandson and your granddaughter?"

Shadel, who wrote the book "Outsmarting the Scam Artists," said scammers are also targeting people who are cognitively challenged and might not think as clearly as they had when they were younger.

Walsh said many scam artists work in large-scale operations out of the country. Often, when a person falls for the scam, he or she is placed on what Walsh calls "sucker lists." The lists, he said, are often traded or sold between large scam rings.

Eastside case

In the case of the Eastside man, after the initial call from the individual claiming to be Ryan, a man claiming to be his grandson's lawyer called looking for thousands of dollars more to pay for his fees.

On the third day, it was a plea for another $6,000 to pay for a broken femur suffered by the woman Ryan supposedly hit.

On the fourth day, the man was asked to pay a $500,000 settlement with the woman, who also supposedly miscarried twins after she was struck.

When the man questioned the sum, he was asked to just pay $77,500 to bail his grandson out of jail.

In total, the man said he wired $89,000 from his savings account to help his grandson. He said it never crossed his mind that it could be a scam.

"My wife even said we need to tell his folks and I said no, we promised we wouldn't. I was concerned about him being injured," the man said.

While the Eastside man maintains hope that sheriff's deputies will arrest the people who scammed him, he is certain he will never recoup the money.

King County sheriff's Sgt. Jessica Sullivan said detectives have tracked the con artists to Texas and California. She is working with police in those states to make an arrest.

But, Sullivan added, the only way the man can recover any money is through litigation.

"We know the funds have been spent already in casinos," Sullivan said.

A Belltown couple said they have also received phone calls from would-be scam artists over the past month.

Betty Potter, 87, said the first call came about a month ago from a man claiming that their 24-year-old grandson had been injured in Mexico. The man said he had taken their grandson to the doctor but needed $1,900 to pay the bill and get the man home.

When Potter questioned the man and said she was going to call her daughter to find out whether her grandson was hurt, the man hung up.

About 10 days ago, her husband, Bill Potter, received a call from someone claiming to be his "oldest" grandson.

"He said they had been detained by police in Mexico. He said that they wanted $2,500 and then agreed to lower it to $1,900," said Bill Potter, 88.

"All the time I'm agreeing to pay because I thought it was our grandson. When I asked him for more information he hung up the phone."

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.

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