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ConsumerWatch: 'Grandma Scam' On The Rise In California

SAN JOSE (CBS 5) - A common scam that targets the elderly is back on the rise in California, according to the FBI. It's called the "Grandma Scam," or the "Relative in Distress Scam."

Back in October, South Bay grandmother Laura May fell for it.

May said she got a call from someone who identified himself as her "favorite grandchild." The scammer, acting as May's grandson, told her that he was in dire need of some money.

"He called and said he was in trouble in Mexico, that they had him in a holding cell and that he needed $2,700 to pay his fine," she claimed

Her "grandson" asked her to send a money-transfer for him. As instructed, May sent a Western Union money transfer.

As May would eventually find out, the caller was not her so-called "favorite grandson" and the money she sent ended up in the hands of the scam artist, a person she never even heard of.

Although cons like these have been around for quite some while, Esther Newlin of the San Francisco District Attorney's Office said they're seeing a upswing, thanks in part to social media websites that reveal family connections.

"They're playing on that gut reaction you have when you hear your grandchild is in trouble," she explained.

What May didn't understand is how someone besides her grandson picked up her payment.

"One of the questions I asked when I sent the money was 'how positive are you that this money can only be picked up by my grandson?' And she (the clerk) said 100%," May told CBS 5 ConsumerWatch.

"Once a (Western Union) payment has gone through, it's gone," said Nikki Junker of the ID Theft Resource Center. Junker says although Western Union does have protections like requiring a photo ID and a confirmation number for a money-transfer pickup, savvy criminals can get bypass those securities.

"They're cunning, and they're smart. They have a way with words," Junker said.

ConsumerWatch has asked Western Union to investigate May's case and she is hoping that what happened to her will serve as a lesson to others.

"When you get frightened, you don't think," said May.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)


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