Bank saves Mill Creek couple from ‘grandparent scam’

MILL CREEK — The con man was smooth.

In a single phone call, he convinced a Mill Creek couple, ages 77 and 89, that he was family and stuck in a Peruvian hospital. He claimed to be the 89-year-old man’s grandson. He said he’d been injured in a hiking accident at the historic Inca site of Machu Picchu.

He told them he needed $2,000 wired to him immediately.

When they asked him why he didn’t call his dad for the money, the caller said his father didn’t want him to go on the trip. He pleaded with them for secrecy.

He seemed to have a logical answer for everything, said Kathy Carroll, who went to the bank to withdraw the money last Tuesday.

Alert employees at Peoples Bank in Mill Creek sniffed out the scam, which could have added Carroll and Chick Brown to the legions of seniors swindled by con artists each year.

Seniors are among the main targets of scam artists because they tend to be have more money and are more vulnerable than the average person, according to the state Attorney General’s office.

“The grandparents scam has been in the news a couple of years now,” Attorney General’s office spokesman Dan Sytman said. “It’s a huge problem and it’s not going away.”

So far in 2012, the state attorney general’s office has received 34 written complaints about suspected scammers looking for people to send them money. Of those, a dozen were aimed at seniors. The state agency also has received 30 phone calls about what are officially called “advance fee fraud” scams, including five considered grandparent scams.

Sytman hadn’t heard the stuck-in-a-Peru-hospital line before, but he’s familiar with similar tales. A common ruse these days is for a caller claiming to be relative asking for bail money. To add credibility, the caller hands the phone over to another person who claims to be a police officer.

Carroll sees how close she came to getting hoodwinked.

She was home last week tending to Brown as he recovered from cataract surgery.

The phone rang and Brown answered it. The caller said he was Brown’s grandson. The caller didn’t provide a name, but Chick Brown eventually asked if it was Justin Brown, his grandson who lives in Virginia.

The caller said that he was Justin and started to tell his story about getting hurt in South America. His contact information was blocked on the couple’s caller ID.

Carroll took over the phone conversation, questioning the caller on why he would phone a grandfather he seldom contacts.

The man purporting to be Justin Brown was extremely convincing. He explained that his voice might sound different because his nose had been broken in his hiking mishap.

The couple decided they needed to help and agreed to wire him money later that day. He asked that it be sent by Western Union and he would check in with them after she had a chance to get to the bank.

A teller at the bank knew Carroll and her habits well enough to question the withdrawal. Carroll planned to take out $2,000 for Justin and another $200 to cover any expenses with the wire transfer.

“She kind of squints and says, ‘This sounds like a scam’,” Carroll recalled. “And I’m almost angry at her.”

That’s actually a fairly common first reaction, said Tony Repanich, an executive vice president with Peoples Bank.

“We almost have to get in a dispute with our own customers,” Repanich said.

Ultimately, it is the customers’ money to use as they wish, but the employees are trained on how to detect potential fraud, Repanich said.

Bridget Barrington, manager of the Mill Creek Peoples branch, said it was the third time her bank has rescued a customer on the verge of falling for a scam.

It seems to happen everywhere, Repanich said.

“We are consistently seeing them prey on peoples’ good nature and their willingness to help out and not question people when they ask for assistance,” he said “It is a real shame.”

In this instance, the teller asked Barrington, the bank manager, for help when she became concerned about the withdrawal.

Barrington explained to Carroll her suspicions about the caller. She also told her that there was no reason for him to insist the money be wired through Western Union. She said that it might make more sense to wire the money directly from her bank account to the hospital in Peru.

While they waited for the “grandson” to call, Barrington did an online search for Justin Brown in Virginia. There were more than a dozen. Barrington was able to quickly narrow the list. They tried to call Justin, his mom and his dad, but couldn’t reach them to see if it was a legitimate story.

The man purporting to be Justin called Carroll’s cell phone while she was at the bank. Barrington handled the call.

When the bank manager said she had some questions to make sure he was the real Justin Brown, the man abruptly hung up.

Eventually, the real Justin Brown called back. He had been in Maryland on a job-related assignment.

Sytman from the attorney general’s office said the bank should be commended for protecting its customers.

He also said people should be leery of desperate callers asking them to send money by Western Union. In 2005, Washington state was part of an $8.2 million national settlement with the company.

The agreement was in response to concerns about the use of the company’s wire transfer services by fraudulent telemarketers. Under the agreement, Western Union agreed to warn consumers about telemarketing fraud when they use the company’s services.

Carroll appreciates the skeptical teller and bank manager who raised a red flag.

“You have no idea how relieved I am that she had the nerve to ask that,” she said. “I’m ever so grateful to them.”

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com

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