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THE FINE PRINT

A 93-year-old Pembroke grandmother was scammed out of $9,500. Here’s how Bank of America and Lyft were involved.

Duped into believing that a granddaughter was in jail, she withdrew thousands in cash to secure her ‘release’

How to prevent elder scams
Boston Globe reporter Sean P. Murphy tells the story of a 93-year-old grandmother who fell victim to a scam and how it could have been avoided.

Last month, a 93-year-old grandmother from Pembroke took a call from someone she thought was her granddaughter Abby. Through sobs, Abby begged for money to get out of jail.

Yes, it was a scam, and the grandmother ― who asked that her name not be used for fear of being targeted by other scammers ― fell for it.

The scammers used a somewhat elaborate ruse that included having “Abby’s lawyer” come on the phone to matter-of-factly explain the necessary steps to secure her release.

It was a cruel and wicked exploitation of a grandmother’s love and concern, perpetrated by slick con artists who have no decency.

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But the grandmother and her family said they were also upset that Bank of America, from which she hurriedly withdrew $9,500 in cash, did nothing to stop her from throwing away thousands of dollars.

The family also wondered about Lyft, the ridesharing giant, which picked up the cash and delivered it to the scammers, apparently unwittingly.

Family members contacted me to call attention to the roles played by two of the country’s biggest corporations and to warn other elders and their families to be on guard, they said.

Here’s what happened:

When the grandmother answered the phone in her home in the morning of Feb. 25 she was stunned to hear a hysterical “Abby” pleading for help.

“Grandma, you got to help,” the voice said. It sounded like Abby, who is in her early 20s. She grew up nearby and spent plenty of time with her grandmother.

She told “Grandma” she was accused of texting while driving and causing an accident in which the pregnant driver of the other car was hurt and taken to the hospital. “Abby” insisted it wasn’t her fault and told “Grandma” she broke her nose in the accident.

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Signage displayed outside of a Bank of America branch. A Pembroke grandmother and her family say they are upset that Bank of America, from which she hurriedly withdrew $9,500 in cash, did nothing to stop her from throwing away thousands of dollars after she fell victim to a scam.PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

“Abby” swore her grandmother and grandfather (he’s 96) to secrecy before putting someone purporting to be her lawyer on the phone. He told her, among other things, that the money was “fully refundable.”

The grandmother hurried off alone to a Bank of America branch office in nearby Marshfield, where she regularly does her banking, feeling anxious and afraid.

At the teller’s window, she showed her driver’s license and presented a check made out to cash. Very few words were exchanged before the teller put a small stack of bills into a white envelope and slid it to the grandmother.

The grandmother was so preoccupied with her mission that she left the bank without counting the money or even looking in the envelope, she said.

Back home, she called the telephone number the phony lawyer had given her. He instructed her to find a small box into which to put the envelope.

The “lawyer” told the grandmother someone would come to her house to pick up the box and gave her the license plate number, make, and model of the car.

A few minutes later, the “lawyer,” still speaking in a reassuring voice on the phone, told her to bring the package to the driver. The driver said little before driving away with it.

About 30 minutes later, the “lawyer” called again and told the grandmother he had bad news: The pregnant woman’s baby had died and Abby was now charged with manslaughter. He needed $9,000 more to get her released.

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That’s when she told her son, who happened to be visiting, what was happening. He spoke with the “lawyer,” whom he described as sounding “unbelievably calm and professional.” The “lawyer” told the son the name of the jail where Abby was supposedly being held.

The son hung up and called his niece. She answered. The jig was up.

The son called back the “lawyer.” The call went dead. (I called the same number several times but kept getting a fast busy signal.) The son gave the police the license plate number given to the grandmother. Police said the pickup was made by a Lyft driver.

A Lyft logo on a Lyft driver's car in Pittsburgh. After a Pembroke grandmother fell victim to a phone scam, a driver for the ridesharing giant Lyft picked up the cash and delivered it to the scammers, apparently unwittingly.Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

In a detailed e-mail to Bank of America, I shared the grandmother’s name and home address and wrote: “She is a longtime customer, obviously elderly, who walked in asking for $9,500 cash. I would think this would send up all kinds of red flags, and prompt questions, possibly averting a deep financial loss. Why didn’t that happen in this case?”

I pointed out that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, in a 62-page report on protecting elders, urged banks to train employees to be alert to the red flags of elder exploitation, including “abrupt increases in withdrawals.”

Tellers confronted by older people making large withdrawals should ask something like, “This is an unusually large withdrawal, are you sure you want cash?” the CFPB said.

A day after my inquiry, a Bank of America representative called the grandmother, apologized, and refunded the $9,500. The bank told the family it has “procedures in place” to safeguard elders and that the bank staff “could have done more” to protect the grandmother.

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In a statement to me, Bank of America said, “We provide regular training to our employees so they can educate our clients about scams and how to avoid falling for them.”

That sounded a little self-serving, even condescending, to me. Yeah, banks should help “educate” elders on how to recognize scams. But Bank of America should concentrate on teaching tellers to call a timeout when an elder comes in alone to inexplicably withdraw almost $10,000 in cash.

It’s possible the grandmother would have evaded a teller’s questions, but it’s also possible a gentle inquiry would have been enough to break the evil spell cast upon her by the scammers.

I asked Lyft where the box was dropped off and whether it is investigating the driver and the person who called for the ride.

In a statement, Lyft said: “This behavior is unacceptable and not tolerated on the Lyft platform. We’re actively assisting law enforcement with their investigation and have removed the individual who requested the ride from the Lyft community.”

Pembroke Police Lieutenant Paul Joudrey told me detectives are making progress in their investigation. But based on past investigations, he added, “the likelihood of a positive result is not good.”

Do police know where the package was dropped off? Yes, it went to a location in a nearby state, he said, declining to say more.

An online search shows this kind of scenario has played out in numerous places across the country and has caught the eye of federal law enforcement. I’m sure banks and ridesharing companies don’t want to be the unwitting instruments of scammers. But to avoid it they need to tighten their protocols.

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Two Pembroke grandparents fell victim to a scam when they got a call supposedly from their granddaughter saying she was in jail. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Got a problem? Send your consumer issue to sean.murphy@globe.com. Follow him @spmurphyboston.