Family Emergency Scams Target the Elderly

By Gilda Morales

About one week ago, I was working in ER at the hospital, and was halfway listening as an elderly, Hispanic couple asked one of the nurses about a little girl who was supposed to be in the hospital.  The couple was unable to provide the name or description of the little girl, but they were frantically asking about her well-being.

Since I was busy with patients, I didn’t think much of the conversation beyond my belief that the couple was mistaken and had the wrong hospital.  When I got back to the clinic, the staff asked me if I had a little girl in the ER, since the same couple had gone by the clinic first, asking about the mysterious, nameless, little girl.

The staff said that the couple was still in the parking lot in their pickup, still awaiting word on the little girl. Then it dawned on me that they were possibly the victims of a scam.  The familiar situation brought back the memory of being at one of my elderly aunt’s house when she received a call from someone who supposedly was a friend of her grandson.  The caller was very convincing as he wove a story that the grandson had been involved in an accident and was hospitalized.

Of course, the caller ended his story with a desperate plea for money so that the grandson could leave the hospital.  Luckily, we were skeptical enough to call the grandson in question, who was safely at home and not at the hospital, so no money was wired to the “friend.”

I walked to the pickup and began gently questioning the elderly couple who looked worried and were prepared to wait indefinitely for the next call about the little girl in distress.  They told a story that defied logic, about getting a call from a friendly voice who called the elderly gentleman, “Tio.”  The caller convinced the gentleman and his wife, that there was a nameless little girl, in unknown distress, in an unknown hospital, in an unknown town, and that the little girl was depending on them to come rescue her.

Of course, in order for the unknown hospital to be able to discharge the little girl, the elderly couple was convinced to wire $900 to an unknown person in Mexico.  They were further convinced not to mention the name of the caller, or the details of the transaction, because the caller was trying to get his residency documents in order, and did not want any problems.  To make matters worse, there was a second call, in which the caller told the couple that another $900 was necessary to help the little girl.

We all have heard of different scams, and have even laughed when we get an e-mail from someone in Nigeria promising to wire us $2 million if we will only provide our bank account number.  We wonder how anyone could be so gullible as to believe such an obvious scam.

I convinced the couple, who volunteered that they worked at a motel in Pecos, to not answer any more calls from that caller and to definitely not send any more money, since they were obviously victims of a cruel scam.  I urged them to head back to Pecos since the weather looked ominous to the east.  They both looked sheepish about being so gullible, and promised to be more cynical if they ever received another scam call, before driving off in their beat-up pickup with a lawnmower in the back.

A quick search online resulted in valuable information on the Federal Trade Commission website, which outlined the exact same scam and provided tips on how to report suspicious calls..  This information is included below in an effort to prevent the victimization of our elderly and most vulnerable of our population.

1.Verify an Emergency

If someone calls or sends a message claiming to be a family member or a friend desperate for money:

• Resist the urge to act immediately, no matter how dramatic the story is.

• Verify the person’s identity by asking questions that a stranger couldn’t possibly answer.

• Call a phone number for your family member or friend that you know to be genuine.

• Check the story out with someone else in your family or circle of friends, even if you’ve been told to keep it a secret.

• Don’t wire money — or send a check or money order by overnight delivery or courier.

• Report possible fraud at or by calling 1-877-FTC-HELP.

2.Scammers Use Tricks

They impersonate your loved one convincingly.

It’s surprisingly easy for a scam artist to impersonate someone. Social networking sites make it easier than ever to sleuth out personal and family information. Scammers also could hack into the e-mail account of someone you know. To make their story seem legitimate, they may involve another crook who claims to be an authority figure, like a lawyer or police officer.

3.They play on your emotions.

Scammers are banking on your love and concern to outweigh your skepticism. In one version of this scam, con artists impersonate grandchildren in distress to trick concerned grandparents into sending money. Sometimes, this is called a “Grandparent Scam.”

4. They swear you to secrecy.

Con artists may insist that you keep their request for money confidential – to keep you from checking out their story and identifying them as imposters. Victims of this scam often don’t realize they’ve been tricked until days later, when they speak to their actual family member or friend who knows nothing about the “emergency.” By then, the money they sent can’t be recovered.

5. They insist that you wire money right away.

Scammers pressure people into wiring money because it’s like sending cash – once it’s gone, you can’t trace it or get it back. Imposters encourage using money transfer services so they can get your money before you realize you’ve been scammed.

6. Report Scams

If you believe you’ve responded to a scam, file a complaint with:

• the FTC

• your state Attorney General


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