WEST ALLIS -- Officials with the West Allis Police Department indicated in a news release on Thursday, February 23rd that they've noticed an increase in telephone scams targeting older people during the past year.
Scammers will call a targeted victim, pretending to be the victim’s grandson/daughter stating they are in jail. Often the story is that the grandson/daughter was in an accident and has been arrested. The caller pretending to the grandson/daughter is often crying and hysterical, making it difficult for the victim to recognize the caller. The “grandson/daughter” will tell the victim that their attorney will contact them to arrange bail for them to get out of jail.
Another caller pretending to be the attorney will then contact the victim with instructions to purchase gift cards in order to get their grandson/daughter out of jail.
If victim says they don’t have the amount the “attorney” says is needed, the “attorney” will then call back stating that they made arrangements for a lower amount. It is not unusual for the “attorney” to call back, if successful, saying there are now additional fees.
The victim will be told to purchase multiple gift cards ranging from $50 to $2,000 per card; sometimes the victim is on the phone with the scammer while they are purchasing the cards. If the scammer does not remain on the phone with the victim during the purchase of the cards, the scammer often repeatedly calls the victim every 3-4 minutes.
Immediately after purchasing the cards, activating the cards, the victim will then be instructed to scratch off the code and provide it along with the card number to the scammer on the phone.
The cards purchased are mainly iTunes and Target prepaid gift cards. With iTunes cards the scammer has told victims the name of the store and the address to go to for purchasing the iTunes cards.
$4,000 is the average amount of the scam per victim, but can range as high as $15,000.
After a successful scam, the scammer will continue to attempt to scam the victim.
Sometimes the victim gets a cash advance on their credit card to purchase the gift cards, or goes to bank to withdraw money from their account for the purchase. Because the victim believes their grandson/daughter is in trouble, they are often embarrassed to tell the store clerk why they are buying so many gift cards, even when asked.
FOX6 News spoke with a victim, who, like a lot of senior citizens, has a lot on her mind. She has a relative who is very sick and a husband living in an Alzheimer's facility, and she loves her grandchildren a lot.
"I'm still in shock. I haven't reached anger yet," the victim named Judy said. "I just... If I could just stop crying, you know what I mean?"
Judy, who lives in Oak Creek, is by no means gullible or unintelligent. Quite the opposite, really. She lost $12,000 in this phone scam.
"You make one mistake in your life. Do you have to make such a big one?" Judy said.
On Monday morning, February 20th, Judy got a call from someone claiming to be her grandson Michael. He even sounded like him. He told Judy he had been in a car accident and was sitting in jail.
"When you get a call early in the morning and it's a family member hurt or something -- you respond to that," Judy said.
Judy's real grandson lives in New Hampshire and is expecting his first baby with his wife. Judy was convinced by a man claiming to be Michael's lawyer to go to Target and buy gift cards. She was told the cards would immediately be used for various legal fees and insurance payments.
"They had a reasonable explanation for everything they requested. Very polite, very nice, very concerned," Judy said.
On Wednesday, February 22nd, Judy spoke with Michael's dad, who told her this was a scam. He asked whey she didn't tell them what was going on.
"I said 'Michael asked me not to call family. He was going to settle all this and I thought I was respecting what he wanted,'" Judy said.
Below are warning signs for retailers as it relates to this scam:
- Multiple gift card purchases
- High dollar amounts
- Repeated purchases
- Older victim
- Victim may be nervous
- Victim is on cell phone receiving instructions
- Paying for gift cards with a combination of credit cards and cash
When retailers encounter a customer purchasing gift cards where some of the warning signs are present, they are encouraged to ask the customer why they are purchasing the cards and did someone say they were an attorney. Retail clerks or their managers are then urged to contact law enforcement.