Help Me! My Escalade Payment is Overdue

Stop me if you’ve heard this. It’s 0200 and the phone rings. Good news seldom arrives at that hour, so you’re already on edge. “Grandpa?” says the female voice on the other side? Hearing isn’t what it used to be, so you reply, “Jessica, is that you?” “Oh yes! Thank God you answered Grandpa, cuz’ I’m in a real jam. We took a church youth group trip to Haiti to help in reconstruction there. I was driving our rental pick-up, and got into an accident. They say I was drinking. Now they have me in jail and won’t let me out unless I post $6,000 bail right away. I’m so ashamed, I don’t want mom and dad to know. The police tell me that they’ll accept a money order from Western Union. Can you help?”

You get an e-mail from a friend or family member. “I’m in Milano, Italy. A thief’s stolen my wallet and passports. I need some help to get home and get everything straightened out. I’m terribly embarrassed to have to ask for help, but thought you might be able to get me enough money so I can get home. Of course, I’ll pay you back when I get home.”

Another e-mail comes to you from the IRS. Very official looking, it advises you that you might be eligible for the American Opportunity Tax Credit. This is a real tax credit available for those paying college tuition. The helpful e-mail (the IRS is always looking out for us) provides the necessary forms and only requires that you pay some additional filing fees.

Of course, you know given the context that all of three are scams. There are a number of variations on the first one, and there can be a varying amount of specificity in the information the caller provides. In the above example, you’ve provided a key piece of information yourself–your grandchild’s name. But more sophisticated scammers can learn a great deal about you and your family through social network postings. Even if you’re not active on Facebook, your family and friends might be, and much can be learned about you indirectly. Obituaries are also a fecund plot of fraudulent soil, where entire family trees can be disclosed. How much more credible is the grandparent scam when the caller already knows your name, your grandchild’s name, and possibly ages and locations?

I’ve gotten a number of e-mails from “stranded” friends. What has happened is that a worm has gotten into the friend’s e-mail account and sends the message out to everybody on the address book. The return e-mail is subtly altered, possibly by only one character, so that when you reply you’re not really getting your friend, but the scammer.

And it being tax season, who wouldn’t leap on the ever-helpful IRS’s invitation to save on your taxes by exploiting a loophole you didn’t think you qualified for?

It’s easy to spot the confidence games here, but at 0200 when you’re a little groggy and you hear the panicky voice on the other end, maybe not so much. Remember that the common denominator in all of these scams is the requirement for either money, personal information, or both, and that the asker contacts you, not the other way around.

So tell “Jessica” that $6,000 is a lot of money, even for Grandpa, and that you’re going to need to call her parents and let them know the situation. And call, don’t e-mail, the stranded friends to let them know their e-mail account has been hacked. Last, tell the “IRS” what you think of them. That might make you feel better no matter what.