Beware of 'fake' grandkids calling for cash

To Her Credit columnist Sally Herigstad
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for, and also wrote for MSN Money, and, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

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Question for the expert

Dear To Her Credit,
I just got a call from my granddaughter. She says she's in Montreal and she's been in a car accident. Her credit card doesn't work in Canada. She asked me if I could send her $4,000 by Western Union so she can get her car fixed and get home. She promised to pay it back as soon as she can.

I asked her where her husband is, and she said he didn't come with her. She doesn't want to tell him she's been in an accident. When I asked if her parents knew about this, she said she doesn't want to tell them yet, either.

I said I don't have $4,000, but I would send her $1,000. She said that would be OK.

When I went to Wal-Mart to send the money, the clerk there got suspicious when she found out I was wiring money to Montreal. She says Montreal has a reputation for fraud, and she asked if I was absolutely sure it was my granddaughter who called. Come to think of it, I wasn't sure at first which granddaughter it was and she didn't volunteer her name. But I was embarrassed to ask my own granddaughter who she was.

So I came home without sending the money, and now I don't know what to do. If it's my granddaughter, I can't leave her stranded in Montreal. After all, I promised the money! If it's not her, I sure don't have that kind of money to send to crooks. What should I do? I have the phone number where she is waiting for the money. -- Marthaf

Answer for the expert

Dear Martha,
Here's your first clue: The person who called you says her credit card doesn't work in Canada. I've traveled to Canada and several other countries recently, and I have yet to find a country that isn't more than willing to take my credit card! This caller is really hoping you are naïve to think she can get away with that story.

Your next clue might be the character of your real granddaughters. Is it like them to travel in another country without telling their immediate families? Do they have a habit of calling you and asking for large chunks of money? (Let's hope not!)

Most young people now have cell phones. Have you tried calling and e-mailing your granddaughter? I'll bet you'll find her at home or at work, far from Montreal and unaware that you are worried about her. Here's why I'm so sure.

The clerk at Wal-Mart was right. Montreal has been the center of several money scams lately, including one called the Grandson Scam. It sounds exactly like the scenario you described. Hundreds of seniors have fallen for this scam that operated out of money transfer stores, and between them they lost over $3.5 million!

The authorities shut down one scam, but you can be sure another one is coming. The next fraudsters may try the same tack, or they'll think of something new. Here's how you can keep from getting scammed by phone:

  • Don't give personal information to anyone who calls you on the phone. I had someone purportedly from my bank call the other day. After we chatted about lowering my interest rate (that got my attention!), he asked for my account number. I thought since he called me, he should already have it. I asked if I could finish this business at a branch. "Oh, this is a telephone-only opportunity," he told me. I said, "No thanks, then."
  • If someone claims to be a friend or relative, be very sure it is them. Many voices sound similar on the phone. They may even use the right name and know a few other details -- it's amazing what you can find on the Internet! Ask a few questions only your friend or relative would know, such as the name of a pet or what kind of car you drive.
  • Beware of calls that play off people's sympathy or greed. According to the e-mails I receive, I win a lottery in the United Kingdom several times a week. I just have to send money for processing fees and I'll be rich! Sure...especially since I've never entered a lottery here or anywhere across the Atlantic. Many scams play off sympathy and greed at the same time, begging you to help a rich widow move her money into the country or telling some other sad story. Forget it. Nobody legitimate pays strangers to move money around.

I don't see any good reason to call the number in Montreal back, unless you want to give them a piece of your mind. They've probably called a hundred other numbers by now, hoping for an easier score.

If your real grandchildren do call you sometime with a genuine emergency, they won't feel bad if you ask a few identifying questions or request time to think about it before you send money. It's too bad we have to be suspicious nowadays. But by protecting yourselves from fraud, we'll have our money around when we do need it for ourselves and our families.

See related: Consumers cash in on credit card scam, New phone phishing scam on the rise, Credit card shaving: Scammers go low-tech with trick

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Updated: 01-23-2019