Fraud Watch: “Grandparent scam” a growing problem in Montana

Posted at 9:30 AM, Dec 27, 2018
and last updated 2018-12-27 11:30:32-05

HELENA – Employees at the Bank of the Rockies Shields Valley Office in Clyde Park took notice recently when two of their regular customers came in to withdraw a large amount of money.

Jennell Huff, a customer service representative and maintenance specialist, said the office manager raised the first questions.

“She was able to pick up on red-flag warning signs and just noticed that they were not acting normal for them, and intervened at that point,” Huff said.

The customers were reluctant to explain, but they finally admitted they had received a call from someone claiming to be their grandson, saying he was in jail and needed money immediately. He asked them to place cash in an envelope and send it in by FedEx.

The bank employees immediately realized the call had been a scam, and they were able to talk the customers into not sending any money.

“It took some convincing,” said Huff. “My office manager went as far as tracking down their grandson at work and got him on the phone with them to ensure that he was, in fact, not in jail.”

While these victims were protected from losing their money, state officials say they are far from the only ones being targeted.

The “grandparent scam” is widely reported and while callers usually pretend to be a grandchild, they can also claim to be a niece or nephew.

In any case, they will say they are in desperate trouble, and ask for you to send money immediately – and without informing anyone else.

The Montana Office of Consumer Protection is seeing a growing number of cases in the state. In November, OCP received 15 complaints about the grandparent scam. In the first three weeks of December, they got 25.

“We’re really seeing an uptick in the number of these scams across our state, and we just want to make sure that Montanans are aware and that they don’t get scammed,” said Attorney General Tim Fox.

Fox said these scammers are often sophisticated. They will sometimes bring a second person onto the call, who will pretend to be a lawyer or the police. In some cases, they will have done research on the people they call — possibly using social media to learn the names of their grandkids or other relatives.

Sometimes, the scammers will try to trick the people they’re talking to. They might start by simply addressing them as “Grandma” or “Grandpa.”

“That in and of itself kind of builds a little trust, because everybody wants to hear from their grandkids,” said Fox. “Then they’ll wait to hear Grandma or Grandpa say, ‘Oh, Joey, I’m so glad you called,’ or what have you.”

He said you shouldn’t volunteer information like names – and you should always get a second opinion before you send any money.

“Pressure is a scammer’s best tool,” Fox said. “If it truly is an emergency, there will be others who know about it, like the parents of the grandkids or maybe their siblings.”

If there’s no one else in your family you can immediately call, Fox suggests talking to your banker.

“The bankers have seen these things happen time and time again,” he said.

Huff said she’s proud her bank was able to stop at least one person from being scammed.

“It’s a sad state of affairs that human beings will do this to each other, especially our elderly population,” she said. “But I think the more that we educate ourselves and we educate our elderly population and the caregivers, that we can possibly see this problem being mitigated in the future.”

If you believe you’ve received a scam phone call, Fox asks that you contact OCP.

“I want to make sure that if there’s a way to get restitution, that I try that – but maybe even more importantly, I want the people who monitor these things and get the word out, like our Office of Consumer Protection, to help others from getting scammed,” he said.

You can reach OCP at (406) 444-4500. Information is also available on the agency’s website.

-Jonathon Ambarian reporting for MTN News