Summer is scam season

The grandparent scam, which targets seniors with phony news that a loved one is in trouble, is especially prevalent, authorities say.

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Summer is here, people are traveling and scammers are turning up the heat.

I'm talking about what the Federal Trade Commission calls family emergency scams, often known as the grandparent scam because it frequently targets well-meaning seniors.

Since 2010, the FTC has received more than 40,000 complaints about grandparent scams. Agency officials figure many more instances go unreported. Losses are estimated to run in the tens of millions of dollars.

Joe Shumovich, 83, doesn't consider himself an easy mark. The Northridge resident says he reads the newspaper every day and stays up to date on current events.

"I never thought I'd be the sort of person something like this could happen to," Shumovich told me.

But he recently came this close to getting fleeced.

The phone rang and the man on the other end of the line identified himself at Steven Williams, an employee at the U.S. Embassy in Athens. He said Shumovich's grandson had been arrested on drug charges and was in serious trouble.

Shumovich replied that he didn't have a grandson, although he did have a nephew.

"The caller picked up on this right away," Shumovich said. "He said he'd made a mistake and that it was my nephew who was in trouble."

Here, the caller said, talk to him yourself. A new voice came on the line.

"It didn't sound exactly like my nephew," Shumovich said. "But it was hard to tell. He was moaning and incoherent. He was obviously in distress."

The first caller got back on and said the Greek courts required a payment to allow Shumovich's nephew to leave the country. Shumovich was instructed to immediately wire $1,200 to an Athens address via Western Union.

Helpfully, the caller was able to provide the location of Western Union offices near Shumovich's home.

"I was all set to head out and wire the money," Shumovich said. "Then I told my wife and daughter what was happening. They said I should first call my nephew's number."

What do you know? Shumovich's nephew was at his Pittsburgh home, safe and sound.

Needless to say, Shumovich promptly scotched his plans to wire money abroad. But that didn't stop the scammers.

"They called at least five times that day asking where the money was," Shumovich said. "They became increasingly angry. When my daughter got on the line and told them to stop, they cussed at her."

Shumovich has no idea how the scammers got his name and phone number — probably from some database or mailing list. But his experience offers all the lessons required to avoid being a victim of this racket.

First, be wary of any call purporting to be about a friend or relative in trouble overseas. And don't help the scammers by offering personal information, as Shumovich did when he disclosed that he didn't have a grandson but did have a nephew.

If you want to test the veracity of the call, offer some misinformation and see what happens. Also, request information about the distressed family member that a stranger likely wouldn't know — but even then, be careful.

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