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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Scam capitalizes on family bonds

Thousands of dollars gone before grandmother catches on

Rose Alexander, 82, of Spokane was bilked out of $17,000 by someone claiming to be her grandson in a Canadian jail.   (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

As far as crime goes, there is low, there’s downright dirty and then there’s the grandparents scam.

An 82-year-old Spokane woman was bilked out of more than $17,000 of her savings last month by swindlers who persuaded her to wire the money to bail her grandson out of trouble with the law in Canada.

“I felt so stupid,” said Rose Alexander, who was conned by a man pretending to be her adult grandson, Spencer. “But I wanted to help.”

Alexander agreed to speak to the media about her ordeal in hopes that it will help prevent others from becoming victims. Many of those who’ve been scammed don’t even tell police.

Since spring, about five such cases were reported to the Spokane Police Department, according to fraud Detective Stacey Carr, who estimates the actual number of cases is much higher.

“Every time, the money has gone overseas, usually to the United Kingdom,” Carr said, adding that it’s unlikely the perpetrators will be caught. “It’s such a vicious little scam.”

Alexander described how she was taken.

One evening she got a phone call from someone who sounded like her grandson, who lives in Montana.

“Grandma, this is Spencer,” the man said. “I’m in jail.”

The caller said he was on a fishing trip in Canada and had picked up two hitchhikers. Police pulled them over. The hitchhikers were transporting cocaine. He was in jail and needed bail.

Then a bogus police officer came on the line and told Alexander how much money to wire.

The next day, Alexander wired nearly $3,000 to Manchester, England, because after all, Canada is part of the British Commonwealth.

Then the fake grandson needed money to get his car out of impoundment. Then there was another call for money to pay a lawyer, and on and on. From Oct. 13 through Oct. 15, Alexander wired several checks totaling $17,807. She borrowed from friends because her beloved grandson needed it.

“It left me with not enough money to put gas in my car,” Alexander said. “They played on my emotions. I think they should go to jail.”

This type of scam surfaced about three years ago, said Zan Deery, of the Better Business Bureau in Spokane. Perpetrators sometimes access social networking Web sites to gain information about families. They use cell phones that are discarded before they can be traced.

States’ attorneys general have issued alerts nationwide about the grandparents scam. Law enforcement officials aren’t sure how perpetrators are obtaining phone numbers. Perhaps they are calling random phone numbers and waiting for the victim to reveal the name of a loved one.

The BBB advises people receiving such calls to confirm the status of loved ones by calling them directly or verifying the story with other relatives. Requests to wire money should be seen as a red flag, because such transfers are hard to track.

Alexander said she didn’t smell a fish until the bogus grandson told her he had caught a 35-pound trout on his Canadian fishing trip, but by then it was too late.