An 87-year-old woman steps into a cab outside her home in Quincy, Boston, and relays a distressing tale to the driver. “My grandson has had an accident. He’s rear-ended somebody,” she informs the cabbie. “He called me, and he needs $4,000 to get out of this jam.” As the senior tells her story, though, something about it just doesn’t sit right with the driver.
And the details of the incident may certainly leave some skeptical. The man who purported to be the octogenarian’s grandson had claimed, you see, that he needed his grandmother to purchase gift cards from Walmart in a bid to avoid him going to jail. Then, it seems, the old lady had readily agreed to buy what had been demanded of her.
Then, once the woman had got the items, she was supposed to reveal the gift card numbers to the other individual. Yet while such a plan may appear at first to be rather sketchy, the senior was nevertheless utterly convinced that the person on the other end of the phone was indeed her grandson in need of her help. In fact, she’d already embarked on a similar mission that day.
Earlier on, you see, the woman had received a similar phone call from her “grandson” in which he had asked her to go to a Home Depot store to buy $4,000 worth of gift cards. The concerned grandmother had obliged, too, and had thus already handed over a substantial chunk of her savings. Even so, her “grandson” had phoned back wanting more.
When the 87-year-old climbed into Richard Spencer’s yellow cab, then, she instructed him to take her straight to Walmart. But for her driver, something about the tale of woe just didn’t sit right. For him, a call out of the blue requesting that she part with vast sums of money to save her grandson from jail simply didn’t add up.
What’s more, it had been one of Spencer’s cab-driving acquaintances who had taken the woman to the store that morning to purchase two separate gift cards worth $2,000 each. He’d told Spencer about the incident, too, and so the grandmother’s latest tale had understandably set off alarm bells. Not only that, but the cabbie had come across a remarkably similar story before.
A couple of years prior, you see, Spencer had been asked to take another elderly individual to the store. And as with this occasion, the trip had been in order to take out money for a “grandchild” apparently in peril. He’d suspected then – as he did this time – that the story was a hoax and that the old lady was falling victim to a scam.
At that time, Spencer had stepped in to stop his passenger from being duped – and he did so on this occasion, too. “Excuse me, ma’am, but that is not your grandson,” he apparently told the grandmother, as he later recalled to CBS Boston. “It’s someone posing.” And so rather than driving her to Walmart, he changed the destination to Quincy Police Station.
Then, when Spencer and the woman got to the station, the police confirmed what the cab driver had suspected. Yes, it hadn’t been the old lady’s grandson who had phoned her at all; it was, in actuality, a classic example of what the police described as a “grandparent scam.”
The website Fraud.org describes what a grandparent scam entails. According to the site, it’s when “a con artist calls or emails the victim posing as a relative in distress or someone claiming to represent the relative.” This individual could, for instance, purport to be a lawyer or an agent of the law.
And in a scenario in which the fraudster claims to be one of the grandparent’s loved ones, they may directly request money. As Fraud.org puts it, “The ‘relative’ of the grandparent explains she is in trouble and needs their grandparent to wire them funds. [They would then claim] that [the funds] will be used for bail money, lawyer’s fees, hospital bills or another fictitious expense.”
In order for the scammer to avoid detection, then, Fraud.org explains that they may urge the victim to keep quiet about the money transfer. The person affected could be encouraged not to even speak to the parents of the “grandchild” in distress; the scammer may pretend that they’re too ashamed, for example, to let their folks know about the bad situation in which they’re involved.
Scams of this nature may therefore callously prey on the good-hearted nature of grandparents who are simply too concerned about their loved ones to think about the credibility of the story. And such schemes can coax them out of thousands of dollars in some cases, with the fraudsters then potentially able to disappear without a trace.
What’s more, in almost every case of this nature, the scammers are never caught; there is also often little chance of recovering the money that has been lost. All in all, then, the duped grandparent can be left out of pocket – simply for trying to do a good deed for a relative in need.
This, sadly, appeared to be the reality for Spencer’s passenger. And although his intervention meant that he had stopped the victim from handing over further funds, some damage had already been done. After going to the police department, however, the taxi driver took the elderly woman to the bank to try and stop the scammer from getting their hands on her money.
“The bank manager took care of business and closed [the senior’s] accounts,” Spencer told Boston 25 News in February 2019. “Hopefully it was soon enough.” Unfortunately, though, police later confirmed that the $4,000 the grandmother had been tricked out of earlier in the day could not be recovered.
Still, the Quincy Police Department were very grateful for Spencer’s help in preventing the woman from handing over even more money. “There is still good in this world – and he works here in Quincy,” the department later wrote on its Facebook page. “This, ladies and gentlemen, is a textbook grandparent scam.”
“While the victim in this scam may be out $4,000 (which is a substantial amount of money), it could have been much, much worse,” the Quincy police’s post continued. The message also went on to give some advice for shop-workers. And hopefully such information will help people to identify these scams and so prevent them from occurring in future.
“Cashiers, etc: If you work in an environment that sells gift cards, take a moment to ask yourself – does this make sense?” the police department’s post explained. “Why would an 87-year-old individual need $4,000 in gift cards to this particular store/app? Ask questions.”
“Sure, there may be a legitimate reason, but if you take the time and ask the questions, you just might prevent someone from falling victim,” the post concluded. The crux of the department’s advice appears, then, to rest on the assertion that prevention is better than cure. Specifically, it’s easier to stop a scam in the first place than to try to recover the money afterwards.
And the National Consumers League (NCL) Fraud Center also has some advice for spotting grandparent scams. “Beware of any urgent solicitation of funds – especially if it is needed to pay for unexpected bills such as bail money, lawyer’s fees or doctor bills,” the organization has warned. So, if someone’s in a hurry for your money, question it.
And the NCL has some more advice, too. “Before sending funds, [people should] independently contact the relative (or parent of the relative) the scam artist is claiming to be (or represent),” the organization has encouraged. “[They should do this] at a known number to verify the details of the story.”
The NCL has further explained that scammers usually prefer to receive money by wire transfer, meaning people should be suspicious of any urgent request for money in this manner. The group also advises that con artists might phone during the late evening to disorientate elderly victims – perhaps by waking them up.
If anyone has fallen victim to a scam, then, the NCL advises that they should quickly contact the relevant authorities. These could be “local law enforcement, their state attorney general and [the] NCL’s Fraud Center at Fraud.org.” And as Spencer had intervened in just that manner, the Quincy Police Department went on to thank the cab driver effusively.
“Thank you, Mr. Spencer, for caring,” a February 2019 Facebook post from the department read. “You could have chosen to remain silent and ignore the signs. But you didn’t. And for that, we say thank you.” The message concluded with a raising hands emoji.
Spencer himself claimed, meanwhile, that he had been thinking of his own family when he acted so selflessly. “I have an 87-year-old mother,” he said to Boston 25 News, while seemingly holding back his emotions as he talked to the station.
“I think it’s the most reprehensible scumbag crime you can do,” Spencer continued. And the cab driver didn’t hold back in an interview with another network, either. Indeed, he seemed to go a step further in his condemnation of the scammers.
When talking to CBS Boston, you see, Spencer was damning of not only the perpetrators themselves but also the methods that they used to cheat people. “It just goes to show what scumbags they are. They’re too lazy to go out and steal like a real criminal,” he stated. “They go scam people on the phone.”
And Spencer’s words emphasize that not everyone out to do bad approaches their victims in person. As with the scheme he encountered, fraud may take place via telephone calls or on the internet. In fact, the NCL’s “Top Scams of 2018” list has an online trick at the number one spot.
Specifically, the racket in question involves people ordering products online and later not receiving the goods at all – or perhaps the goods may arrive but not in the state that had been advertised. According to the NCL, such ploys accounted for just over 31 percent of all frauds reported by U.S. consumers in 2018.
The number two scam on the NCL list, meanwhile, involves a thief requesting money from a victim so that they can claim a gift they’ve supposedly won. Needless to say, this prize or lottery win turns out to be a fake. And even after the targeted individual has paid the money, the gift never materializes.
Victims being paid with fake checks for goods they’re trying to sell then comes in at number three on the list, followed at number four by refund or fake recovery scams. These schemes see people being told that they owe money on a phony debt or that they have money to be transferred into their account – meaning they are encouraged to provide their personal details in turn.
Next on the NCL list is a type of scam involving advanced fee loans and credit arrangers. Such a trick may see a fraudster making a false claim regarding business or personal loans. After they have made their assertion, then, they may ask the victim for an upfront payment.
Phishing, meanwhile, comes in at number six. This involves emails or phone calls claiming to be from a familiar source and which ask a victim to enter or affirm sensitive information. And that’s followed by friendship and sweetheart swindles, which amount to almost three percent of scams reported in the U.S. in 2018.
Yet although these ploys only amount to a small fraction of the total perpetuated, they can be among the most hurtful and expensive; it’s been reported, in fact, that the average victim loses close to $19,000. And according to John Breyault, the NCL’s vice president of public policy, telecommunications and fraud, “Scammers will stop at nothing to separate victims from their money.”
“[Sweetheart scams] depend on the people they prey on to act on emotions, not reason,” Breyault added. “There’s no stronger emotion than love, and scammers are all too eager to use supposedly romantic connections to defraud their victims.” In the same way, family or friend imposters – which come in at number ten on the NCL list – can also pull on emotional ties in order to dupe their quarry.
Suffice to say, then, that it’s never a good idea to hand over your personal details or money to an organization or individual you’ve not heard of before – even if the person or company claims to be one you know. Instead, contact them independently to verify any details.
After all, if something seems too good to be true, that may very well be the case. And, unfortunately, the U.K.’s Action Fraud website explains that the elderly can be most vulnerable to scams. This can be because tricksters are aware that seniors may have cash saved up.
The Action Fraud website claims, then, that the best thing to do if you receive a suspicious call is simply to put the phone down. That said, scammers often know how to play “psychological games” – including using flattery or false authority – to make merely hanging up more difficult.
So, given all the tools and techniques at a fraudster’s disposal nowadays, that Boston grandmother who stepped into Richard Spencer’s cab may consider herself lucky. Although she lost a significant sum of money, you see, Spencer saved her from losing an additional $4,000. And hopefully the knowledge she gained in identifying scammers’ tricks will ultimately prove priceless.