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March 6, 2013

Police warn residents of recent phone scam

By Mary Beth Almond
C & G Staff Writer

ROCHESTER — Over the last couple of weeks, criminals have been using the telephone to try to con Rochester residents out of their savings.

Luckily — for the most part — scammers have been unsuccessful, according to Police Chief Steve Schettenhelm.

“We’ve probably had in the area of a half a dozen calls … (but we only know of) one case, in particular, where the person did send money, and found out afterward that it was obviously a scam,” he said.

The most commonly reported scam right now is what police refer to as “The Grandma Scam,” or the “Family Impersonator Scam.” The scam works when someone calls claiming they are either a family member in distress, or someone who is helping a family member out due to a problem that requires money to be wired out immediately.

“The scammers tug on your heartstrings, so the victims feel they are doing something to help one of their family members, and actually they are just being ripped off, which is pretty said,” Schettenhelm explained.

The claim, according to police, can be that the loved one is in jail and needs bond money or money to hire an attorney, that they are in the hospital while traveling and need money to pay for medical bills, or they are out of town and need to make a major mechanical repair to a car or something to get home.

“Sometimes the person poses as the actual family member — grandson, son, uncle, nephew or niece — but more often than not, its someone who says, ‘Joe reached out to me. Can you help me help Joe, because Joe is in the hospital,’ and that sort of thing,” Schettenhelm said. “We hear from a lot of people that they are using grandchildren as the person that they are trying to get them to help.”

Police say the scammers will have just enough information — including everything from a family member’s name and age, to an address or phone number — to lure the victim into sending the money out through Western Union.

“The scammers, through probably the Internet, have enough information that makes the person comfortable enough that its real, and human nature is to help people, so the victim wants to be helpful and they send the money out,” Schettenhelm added.

With a few basic tips in mind, Schettenhelm said, residents can easily avoid being victimized.

If a resident receives this type of call, police say it’s best to get as much information from the caller as possible, then contact a direct relative of the person the caller says is in distress and try to verify the information, before taking any action. Often, the family member will immediately know where the person is, and how to determine if they are actually in need of help.

“The best thing is to be sure. Take the person’s information and then call another family member, or the person that they believe is in trouble, and verify that, in fact, there is a problem. Most of these cases can be stopped right at that level,” Schettenhelm said. 

If you can’t reach a direct relative immediately, police suggest asking the caller a question that an impersonator would be unable to answer.

“They can ask a question about something in the family that only that person would know — a gift that was given on a holiday or a particular event that the family had — something that would give some credibility to the story,” Schettenhelm added. “The biggest thing we want people to do is not to send money unless they are sure they know who it’s going to, and that the person is really going to be helped by sending the money.”

Unfortunately, Schettenhelm said police have a hard time catching and prosecuting such scammers.

“In most cases, there is not a lot to work with because the phones they use are not very traceable, the money is being wired and can be picked up electronically, so they’re just very hard cases to prosecute in any meaningful way,” he said.

To report a telephone scam, call the Rochester Police Department at (248) 651-9621. The Internet website www.snopes.com and www.urbanlegends.about.com can also give details about scams, according to police.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Mary Beth Almond at malmond@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1060.