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Phone scam targeting local residents

February 27, 2012

A widespread, evolving phone scam is making the rounds through the Bishop area, having already targeted a number of residents and successfully conning one woman out of an undisclosed but substantial amount of money. The basic premise of the scam involves a stranger posing a relative in distress and needing cash (for bail or auto repairs or even a plane ticket) wired to another country immediately. Photo courtesy MetroCreativeConnection

A telephone scam preying on residents’ fears, sympathies and familial instincts has reared its head once again in the Owens Valley.
Commonly known as the “Grandparents Scam,” the scheme appears to be recirculating through the Bishop area, where at least one resident was cheated out of an undisclosed, but substantial amount of money.
According to the Bishop Police Department, the victim had wired the money to an address in Mexico City, where she thought the funds would be used to bail her family member out of jail.
In reality, Public Information Officer Katie Coffman said, the resident was sending her cash to a con artist – impersonating her relative – without any way of ever getting it back.
“Anytime you wire cash like that, it’s gone,” Coffman said.
This most recent fraud case coincides with numerous reports the PD has received about residents receiving suspicious calls that sound like “Grandparents Scam” attempts. Essentially, residents are receiving phone calls from individuals claiming to be relatives who are in jail and need money for bail.
The calls are part of an old, evolving con that local law enforcement has been warning residents about as far back as January 2009, when a Big Pine man was defrauded out of about $2,200 by a man impersonating his grandson.
In that case, the caller’s sob story involved being stranded in Canada – with the government holding his passport, car and cell phone – until the “grandson” could pay for damages made to a rental vehicle.
The resident told The Inyo Register that both he and his wife were convinced the man on the other end of line was indeed their grandson, based on several personal details he was able to provide during the conversation.
But according to Coffman, con artists specializing in this type of scam are experts at drawing those personal details out of their victims – essentially letting their quarries fill in the blanks without them realizing it.
“Someone will call your house phone number and pretend to be someone in your family and that he or she is in jail,” Coffman explained. “Because of your concern, you may inadvertently provide a family member’s name. They now have some information to keep you believing your grandson or other family member is in jail.”
For example, the scammer may start off the conversation like this: “Hi, Grandma, it’s me and I’m in deep trouble.”
The grandparent, immediately alerted that a loved one is in peril, may not take the time or have the inclination to question the caller’s true identity, instead identifying the voice on the other end of the line with whichever grandchild it could possibly be.
From there, the concerned or maybe even panicked grandparent could arm the con artist with all sorts of information with which to confirm their bogus story: “Michael! Where are you? Why aren’t you at college? Are your sisters OK?”
Sometimes, though, the callers will seem to already have plenty of personal details to start – details, according to advocacy groups like the Better Business Bureau, that are readily available on the Internet’s numerous social networking and people-finder websites.
The resident in Big Pine taken for $2,200 said he is convinced the man who conned him used sites such as peoplefinder.com and pipl.com to gather data on he and his grandson.
The Better Business Bureau encourages Internet-users to limit the amount of personal information they share on social media sites such as Facebook.com, LinkedIn.com and Twitter, and to only “friend” people they know personally.
Having an unlisted phone number doesn’t seem to make a difference in this latest round of calls to Bishop residents.
The residents who have received suspected scam calls appear to have been chosen at random, Coffman said.
Regardless of how the perpetrators of these crimes get victims’ personal information or telephone numbers, it’s vital residents don’t let their emotions dictate their actions once they’ve been contacted.
In the most recent version of the scam circulating through Bishop (it’s also appeared in July 2010, February 2011 and August 2011), after the victim appears to have bought the initial con, someone else will get on the line pretending to be a law enforcement officer.
“The subjects on the phone will proceed to tell you the only way to get (your relative) out of jail is to send bail money – cash only – to an actual address in Mexico,” Coffman said. “They will ask you to send this money by Western Union in large amounts such as $2,400 or more.”
And, they will almost always push for the money to be sent immediately, according to BBB, before victims have a chance to realize they’re being conned.
That’s one reason why Coffman stresses the importance of not rushing into any action.
“Sending large amounts of cash out is very risky and the chances of getting all of your money back are not likely,” she said. “If you can, please stop and think about what the caller is asking of you and check the validity of the circumstances.”
Coffman recommends calling other family members to verify the circumstances (even if the caller says “Mom and Dad can’t find out”) or requesting help from the police department.
“Slow down, do some research and realize what you’re about to do,” she said, noting, “Anytime you’re asked for cash over the phone, that’s definitely a red flag.”
The Better Business Bureau recommends families develop “a secret code” that can be used to easily identify scammers.
Coffman added that solicitations for money received through mail should also be treated with caution, and residents are welcome to bring suspicious mail to the PD where officers are willing and able to help them sort the legitimate from the criminal.
Anyone with questions or concerns about these types of calls or scams is asked to call Detective Brian Rossy at the Bishop Police Department at (760) 873-5866.

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