HILO — Big Island police advise residents to stay alert after an Ocean View woman reported a fraudulent phone call claiming to be from a relative.
Eleanor Shannon, a 91-year-old Ocean View resident, said she narrowly avoided paying nearly $10,000 to a scammer claiming to represent her grandson.
Shannon said she received a phone call from a man calling himself James Lee, claiming to be a public defender. The man then claimed that her grandson had been in a car crash and needed $9,500 for bail.
The man also allowed Shannon to speak with her “grandson.”
“He said that he was in a crash so he broke his nose and so he might sound different,” Shannon said. “I didn’t think to call him back because I had just talked to him.”
The “grandson” explained that the payment would have to be made in cash and delivered by FedEx to a mailbox located in the Bronx in New York City. The delivery had to be sent in a padded envelope with a label indicating that it was transporting a picture frame.
Such bizarre details are what saved Shannon from the scam, she said. When she met with a loan officer to secure the $9,500, the officer realized the nature of the situation and declined the loan.
“I’m not easily scammed,” Shannon said. “But how did they know about (my grandson)?”
Shannon said the scammer had not only correctly named personal details about her grandson, but had chosen her only grandchild who stays in regular communication with her.
“If it had been any other of my grandchildren, I would have thought it strange,” Shannon said.
Police Capt. Greg Esteban of the Hilo Criminal Investigation Division said similar scams targeting elderly people have become more prevalent in recent years, using social media to determine interpersonal connections and find personal details to corroborate a false claim.
A Honokaa woman was successfully scammed in April after a caller claiming to be an attorney correctly named her grandson as the supposed perpetrator of a drunken driving crash in New Jersey. Only after sending $7,500 to the “attorney” — via FedEx, cash-only — did she call her grandson to find he was never arrested.
While Shannon said she has minimal online presence, her grandson might have had a social media profile that could be mined for details.
Esteban said the “grandchild bail” scam is a particularly devious one, as it preys on elderly people’s emotions with a complex and often credible story. Victims of scams have reported multiple phone numbers being used to corroborate and follow up on the scammers’ story as the scheme progresses, he said.
However, Esteban said attempting to return scammers’ calls will often find a disconnected number, while other details in their stories give them away.
“Just last week, I got a call from someone saying he was from the Social Security office, and he asked for all this personal info,” Esteban said. “Most real places aren’t going to ask you for that sort of thing over the phone.”
Similarly, public defenders will not ask to send cash-only bail payments to an anonymous P.O. Box.
Although Big Island police can do nothing about such scams unless they originate within the county, Esteban said reporting such cases is still important so the police can determine that the victims have not exposed themselves.
“The first thing we’ll ask is, ‘Did you tell them anything?’” Esteban said. “And if the answer’s ‘no,’ we’ll say ‘good job’ and move on.”
Email Michael Brestovansky at firstname.lastname@example.org.