Wayzata residents warn of phone scam targeting grandparents

Police say education is the best line of defense against the con

Jeanne Osterby was sitting in her Wayzata home when the phone rang. It was her oldest grandson, according to the person on the other end of the call.

This raised a red flag, Osterby said, because she doesn’t have a grandson. The conversation with the stranger quickly came to an end.

“I had heard about this scam before,” Osterby said.

According to the Office of Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, grandparents around the state are reporting these kinds of calls. In the scam attempts, the con artist pretends to be a grandchild in trouble and in need of emergency funds before trying to convince the grandparent to pay for transportation home from a foreign country, for medical treatment or for bail money.

One week later, Osterby heard a similar story from a friend living in a Wayzata senior living community. The friend, who asked that her name not be published, said her caller claimed to be a grandson who was in trouble. In Spain for a friend’s wedding, the caller said, he needed $800 via Western Union to get out of the country. His wallet had been stolen, the caller said, and he had gotten into trouble with the police after drinking too much at the wedding. Out of embarrassment, the caller told her to not contact his parents.

Osterby’s friend went to her bank to transfer the money, but was stopped by a bank teller who insisted she call the grandson’s parents to corroborate the phone call. She did, and quickly learned that the grandson was safe at home with his parents.

According to local law enforcement officials, education remains the first line of defense for preventing phone scams.

Tammy Ward, public information officer with the Plymouth Police Department, said the city annually receives around a dozen reports of these types of phone scams aimed at grandparents.

“A lot of times, unfortunately, there’s not a lot we can do.” Ward said. “There has been cases where we’ve been able to stop the transfer of money, but it’s pretty rare.”

According to Officer Rose Lee of the Wayzata Police Department, this type of scam has been around for years. She said typical key phrases used in the calls include, “Don’t tell anyone,” or “It’s a secret” and “I am under arrest and they will not release me without money.”

“Unfortunately, many of these scams make the rounds one right after another. If it’s not the grandparents scam, it’s the IRS scam or the free vacation scam,” Lee said.

The Wayzata police officer said calls involving con artists claiming to be an agent from the Internal Revenue Service continue to make up the bulk of phone scam incidents reported in the city. In these calls, which increase during tax season, scammers threaten police arrest, deportation, license revocation and other actions if the person on the receiving end of the call doesn’t make a payment.

“Actual loss from these scams are few and far between, but when they do happen, it’s very unfortunate because there is little chance of getting the money back,” Lee said, adding that ongoing education of these types of phone scams helps in reducing the number of victims.

The department, in coordination with the Wayzata Crime Prevention Collation, seeks to make educational presentations in some of the city’s senior living communities to help educate seniors about phone scams and other financial crimes that target seniors.

“We do have one planned for Folkestone and we are hoping to get other places interested in having us come out, or give them some educational material to hand out to their residents,” Lee said.

The attorney general’s office suggests several tips to avoid this type of scam:

• Verify that the person calling is your grandchild by contacting their parents or asking a question only your real grandchildren would know the answer to.

• Resist pressure to send money quickly and secretly.

• Refuse to send money through wire transfer or overnight delivery.

Anyone who believes they have been the victim of a scam should report it to their local police department or the following agencies:

• Federal Trade Commission – Toll-free helpline: 877-382-4357, of ftc.org

• Federal Bureau of Investigation, Minneapolis Office – 763-569-8000, or fbi.gov

• Office of Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson – 651-296-3353 or 800-657-3787, or ag.state.mn.us

Contact Jason Jenkins at [email protected]