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The so-called “grandmother scam” has snared so many victims that the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging held a brief hearingon yesterday (July 16) in an attempt to find some solution to the problem – including, perhaps, increased cooperation and awareness from phone companies and various retailers.

The Grandma scam is actually a type of “imposter scam” -- the thief contacts the victim pretending to be a friend or relative in distress which can only be alleviated if the victim sends or wires money, usually in some untraceable form. Many of the victims or would-be victims are elderly people fooled into thinking the scammer is actually a beloved grandchild.

An 81-year-old Cincinnati resident named Roger W. (his full name is being withheld for fear additional con artists will seek him out) told the Senate committee his story, which is sadly typical: last December, Roger got a call from a scammer claiming to be his grandson.

Supposedly, the grandson had been arrested for speeding and drug possession, and needed bail money. Roger and his wife eventually bought and sent $7,000 worth of prepaid (and untraceable) money cards before finally speaking to their actual grandson on the phone and learning he was fine – no speeding tickets, no police encounters at all and certainly no calling his grandparents to request thousands of dollars for bail.

What to do

Realistically speaking, what can anybody do to prevent such crimes? Of course, would-be scam victims (read: pretty much everybody, these days) need to be on guard, protect themselves, know the signs of a scam – but the sad truth is: there will always be people who fall for such cons no matter how many warnings they hear.

What's worse is that, while grandmother scams are distressingly common, catching and prosecuting the scammers remains distressingly rare. The FBI's Criminal Investigative Division assistant director, Joseph Campbell, told the Senate subcommittee that in the past three years, he could only think of one federal prosecution of a grandmother scammer.

Could retailers who sell prepaid money cards help keep scams in check? It already happens, sometimes. Take this incident from last week, for example (which was not mentioned before the Senate committee):

On July 10, a CVS clerk in South Windsor, Connecticut, saved an elderly couple from falling victim to the grandmother scam. They had received a call from someone claiming to be a police officer in nearby Springfield, Massachusetts, requesting prepaid money cards to bail out their just-arrested grandson. So they went to CVS intending to buy the cards, where the clerk warned them about grandmother scams.

Only then did they call Springfield police, who confirmed that no, they did not have the grandson in custody. So the couple then informed police in South Windsor, who issued the same public warning every police department does in such situations: if you ever get a call like this, call the actual police department to verify the information before handing over any money.

No money orders

Also important -- never use prepaid money orders, wire transfers or other untraceable transactions to pay for any supposed legal bill or fine; when real cops, tax collectors or any other authorities collect money as part of some actual government action, they don't mind leaving a traceable paper trail.

The Senate committee did raise the issue of wire transfers and their popularity among scammers. Committee Chairman Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida threatened to subpoena Money Gram and Western Union, to force the companies to testify about whatever they are doing (or not doing) to stop the problem.

The July 16 hearing was short, lasting less than an hour before the senators involved had to leave for a vote. Presumably the committee will hold future hearings on the issue, and might even subpoena some wire-transfer companies to demand testimony about it. For now, though, it's up to consumers to protect themselves.

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