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Consumer Alert

Think before sending money to ‘relative’ in trouble

At a vulnerable moment, when they just wanted to help a grandson they believed to be in trouble in Mexico, a Barnstable couple sent $5,600. They thought they were wiring cash to him, according to news reports, but instead they became victims of the grandparent scam.

The scam has been around for a long time, but has evolved and expanded with the growth of social media. Con artists can now collect more information — including when a family member is away — to make their pitch to potential victims more believable.

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I recently had a conversation with someone targeted by one of these con artists, and it demonstrated just how easy it is to get caught up in the scam. A call comes either very early in the morning or late at night, usually from someone posing as a grandchild or claiming to be trying to help the grandchild. The situation is dire, anything from being jailed in a foreign country to needing medical treatment. You’re a bit groggy and the call is upsetting.

These con artists listen closely to what the target says, picking up names of people and other personal information they can use to sound more believable. Sometimes calls are made with a lot of background noise so the target is less likely to notice the caller’s voice doesn’t sound right.

The caller needs the victim to make an impulse decision and send the money right away. A dose of skepticism and taking time to think are often what stands between falling victim and just having a story to tell about how someone tried to pull a con job.

For those who do wire the money — usually by services such as MoneyGram and Western Union — it is nearly impossible to recover what is essentially a cash transaction. It is important to take a step back and check out the caller’s story, even if you believe it could be true. Call the supposed victim at a number already known to you, or reach out to others in the family who would know the person’s whereabouts.

Warn elderly family members that this scam is alive and well. They should be leery of any call asking for money — even if it supposedly is from their grandchild.

Mitch Lipka has been helping consumers out of jams for the past two decades. He lives in Worcester and also writes the Consumer Alert blog on Mitch can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mitchlipka.
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