According to Detective Lieutenant Robert Bracken of the Clifton Police Department, two of the most commonly seen scams nationwide target the elderly and sometimes, turn deadly.
“The Grandparent Scam,” as it’s colloquially known and referenced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), preys on the human instinct to offer help to a loved one who is in trouble. These scammers use information they can mine from social media and other internet sites to find the names of grandchildren and other details like where they live or go to school. These details lend credence to their claims when they place their phone call to the victim, claiming some sort of emergency.
One of these calls might go something like, “Ms. Randolph…your grandson Tyler was arrested on his Texas University campus last night. He needs your help to post bail. We can send a courier to your home to collect it.” The victim hears just enough factual information to convince them that this is a real call and, coupled with their panic response to an emergency, they believe the lie. Some scammers are even using AI to mimic the sound of the grandchild’s voice, making the call extremely convincing. “Grandma, this is Tyler. I got in a bad car accident and was arrested for something I didn’t even do. Please don’t tell Mom and Dad! Please, please help me.” The scammer may then have another person get on the call, pretending to be a police officer involved in the arrest or an attorney assigned to “Tyler.” These calls, sometimes sent as texts instead, can be very successful because they sound so real.
These aren’t small transactions, either. Bracken said that the smallest amount he’s seen paid out in one of these scams was $8,000. Typically these elderly victims are scammed out of $10,000-$20,000, sometimes wiping out their savings in their belief that a grandchild needs their help. Sometimes there’s a claim of kidnapping. This, Bracken warned, should be considered a huge red flag. These scammers are very well-organized, often operating call centers where workers send out these calls, looking for someone they can fleece.
Bracken said that he has seen “dozens and dozens and dozens” of this type of scam in Clifton over the last five years and that only a tiny percentage of the thieves are ever caught. He urged everyone to please “stop for a second” if you receive such a call or other communication. “No one with a legitimate purpose would ever call you and ask you for money if they’re a stranger.” These ploys only work because their victims, who are responding to a presumed emergency, are reacting quickly and often are not thinking clearly. The best thing people can do, he said, is to reach out to other family members before doing anything else. Call the grandchild in question, their parents, or other close and trusted people who can help you determine if the call is legitimate. You can also call the CPD so that they can look into it. In almost every case, it is not. It is almost always going to be a scam.
The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) has further recommendations for protecting yourself from such theft-by-trickery, including using privacy settings on all social media to restrict the audience to friends only. Like Bracken, they recommend calling your family members immediately if you receive a call where someone claims to be in trouble and needing money. If the caller claims to be a police officer, ask for their name and department, then call that department directly and ask if that person is there and if they just called you. Finally, always trust your instincts. If something feels wrong, it probably is.
Another common scam is Burglary Diversion and according to Bracken, this is the time of year when the police see an uptick in this type of crime in the home. Like the Grandparent Scam, the bad actors involved in burglary diversion tend to favor the elderly, preying on their physical vulnerability and possible confusion.
These scammers, who are often part of large family groups who move from place to place, will look for some sort of nearby work being done, such as hydrant flushing or PSE&G repairs. They will then don some generic hard hats and sometimes official-looking lanyards and knock on the doors of homes where they suspect older people are living. Once someone answers the door, they will identify themselves as workers for whichever utility company is working nearby and ask to see the home’s meter or pipes…something that will gain them entry to the house and preferably, the basement. While the homeowner brings one of them to the basement, the others will quickly search the home for valuables. They work cleanly and target things that won’t be immediately noticed, like jewelry or hidden cash, so they can get away before the homeowner realizes they’ve been robbed and calls the police. By the time they do notice, the thieves are long gone. One such burglary occurred in Wallington just yesterday.
With both of these types of scams, the victims often do not report the crimes because they’re embarrassed or they’re worried that their families will be angry with them or will decide that they aren’t safe to live alone and place them in a facility. The emotional toll these crimes take on their elderly victims can sometimes be fatal. Bracken noted that a number of victims pass away a short time after being burglarized and attributes these sudden deaths to the associated stress of being victimized.
You can help your family members and elderly neighbors avoid being victimized by:
- Talking to them about these common scams, and repeat the warnings frequently.
- Helping to ensure that their social media has appropriate privacy settings.
- Making sure that they have your phone number and know that they can call on you if they get a suspicious phone call or an unexpected visitor.
- Telling them to NEVER open their door for a stranger - even if they look legitimate. If someone claiming to be from PVWC or PSE&G shows up at the door, ask them to wait while you call those companies directly to verify that they sent someone out to the address in question.
If you need to call the CPD to ask for their help in determining that something is legitimate, the non-emergency number is 973-470-5900 and Lt. Bracken’s number is 973-470-5930.