Crooks in Canada targeting local grandparents

Crooks in Canada targeting local grandparents »Play Video
MILL CREEK, Wash. -- Jane and R.V. Wilson are in their mid-70's, and they have a big family with 13 grandchildren.

A few weeks ago, they got a call from one of them.

"He said, 'Grandma, can you help me? I'm in trouble,'" Jane said recalling the phone conversation. "And I said, 'Mitch, where are you Mitch?' And he said. 'I'm up in Vancouver.'"

But it wasn't Mitch. It was a con artist pretending to be their grandson. And he had a deviously clever story.

"He'd been in a car accident and he was being held in a courthouse in Vancouver, B.C.," Jane said. "But they would not let him go until he came up with the money to pay for the accident."

The caller said he needed $3,500 right away, which the Wilson's wired to him, after they got a second call -- this time from a con artist pretending to be a court bailiff.

"He would take Mitch, because he had to be in the custody of the bailiff, of course, to pick up the MoneyGram," J.V. said. "And when he got the money, then he could be released."

A few days later, wanting to make sure their grandson was OK, the Wilson's called Mitch -- the real Mitch.

"And he said he'd never been to Vancouver." That's when J.V. knew he'd been had.

So why didn't the Wilsons call their grandson's parents before wiring the money? Because the con artist, while pretending to be Mitch, said he wanted to explain everything in person.

It's a common tactic in this type of con, where the scammers normally tell their victims they need to keep the transaction secret. The crooks also capitalize on the emotional impact of pretending to be a family member in need.

Bill Wilson, no relation to Jane and R.V., is a 79-year-old retired Naval aviator living in Western Washington who was taken for $6,500.

The caller was pretending to be Bill's 16-year-old grandson from Virginia and said he was in a car accident and couldn't get a hold of his parents. He told Bill he needed money to pay for the damage.

Bill asked questions and got answers that didn't make sense, but with what he thought was a loved one in trouble, he let down his guard.

"Emotions took over so I went ahead with this," Bill said of his actions after trying unsuccessfully to reach his grandson's parents. "I must say I was a little suspicious, but I thought the kid was in trouble."

The scammer told Bill he was "behind bars," and that clinched it. "It was an emotional-grabber," Bill said.

Bill wired the money and it was picked up in Montreal, Canada. But not by his grandson.

"The scam is really, very effective," said Bill. "I fell for it completely. And after we transferred the money, I said to my wife, 'geez, I hope this really helps the kid out.'"

Jane and J.V. Wilson learned from their experience and now use a family password to verify identities if someone calls and they're not sure it's legit.

It's not clear exactly how the scammers are getting the names of the grandchildren. In some cases it could be as simple as finding the information on public Web sites such as Facebook, or looking through captions on family photo albums online. In others the con artists may simply say "Hi, Grandma!" when the phone is picked up and wait for the victim to provide the name.

The lesson here is to make sure older members of your family are aware of such scams and to always be suspicious of anyone asking to have money wired to them.

An investigation by State Attorney General Rob McKenna several years ago found that one in three dollars wired from the U.S. to Canada is the result of some sort of fraud. In this type of case, he said, the losses are especially tough.

"They're causing real mental anguish plus stealing their money," McKenna said. "It's heartbreaking to see the generosity of this generation being exploited like this."