RBC won't forgive elderly scam victim's debt

An 86-year-old Vancouver fraud victim has taken a stand against Canada's biggest bank, because she said her Royal Bank branch allowed her to withdraw $10,000 on her Visa card, to give to a scam artist, with no questions asked.

Grandmother took out $10,000 Visa advance to pay scammer; bank wants money

Marjorie Buchanan, 86, wants RBC to forgive the Visa debt she incurred when she got taken in by a phone scam. ((CBC))

An 86-year-old Vancouver fraud victim has taken a stand against Canada's biggest bank, saying her Royal Bank branch shouldn't have allowed her to withdraw $10,000 on her Visa card to give to a scam artist with no questions asked.

"I'm horrified — because I don't know how I can handle this financially," said Marjorie Buchanan. "I don't have a car. I don't own a home. I have no money.

I don't think they are very smart as bankers — if they give me thousands of dollars in credit."

One of Canada's top scams

Buchanan was a victim of what RCMP say is one of the top three hoaxes in Canada, known as the "grandparent scam." Con artists — posing as grandchildren  — call seniors, asking them to send money for an emergency. Hundreds of seniors have been victimized across North America.

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Buchanan wired a young man $10,000 — borrowed against her RBC Visa — before she figured out she'd been had.

"He told me how I could do it," said Buchanan. "They're very good at what they do. At scamming you — stealing from you, really."

"This was clearly a Visa scam. The script he used targeted my Visa right away."


Internet scams: Who is responsible?

Buchanan has since asked RBC to forgive the credit card debt. Police also contacted the bank on her behalf. Buchanan said she was told by RBC she would still have to pay in full.

As a result of CBC News inquiries, however, spokesman Geoff Owen said the bank will now be "reaching out" to her to try to resolve the situation.

This surveillance photograph from Montreal shows a man suspected of cashing in a money order sent by Buchanan. ((CBC))

"This is a horrible situation, this so-called 'grandparents scheme' that has affected so many seniors in Canada and even in the U.S," Owen said.

Buchanan's troubles began in November, when a young man called and said, 'Hi Grandma — it's your favourite grandson.'' Buchanan has five grandsons, so she said she was flustered at first, trying to figure out which one it was.

"They don't call very often," Buchanan said. "This young man had a soft voice, like my youngest grandson."

'Grandson' said he was in trouble

Buchanan guessed who she thought it was by name, she said, and this gave the scam artist his opening. He told her he was in Toronto — in jail on a motor vehicle charge — and he needed money to pay a fine. He also pleaded with her not to tell his "parents."

"I'm thinking my beloved grandson is in trouble, he really is," Buchanan said. "He wouldn't have called otherwise."

When she told him she didn't have any money, he asked her to call her bank to find out what her credit limit was on her Visa card, so she could get a cash advance. She said she didn't even know she could get cash from a credit card but she did what he suggested.

"He called back in an hour, and I said, 'Guess what — the limit is $22,000!'"

Buchanan said she was shocked by how much credit she had available, because she had never asked for it. RBC would not explain to CBC News why that was the case.

"I’m concerned for other seniors with Visa cards," Buchanan said. "They are just being set up as bait for these crooks."

Buchanan said the young caller asked her go to the bank, take a $5,000 cash advance and send it from the post office, via MoneyGram, to his "lawyer," who had what later turned out to be a fake name.

Her so-called "grandson" promised to pay her back, with student loan money, as soon as he got home to B.C. So Buchanan did as he asked. She said the same person called again the next day, asking her to send another $5,000, for his legal fees, which she also did.

Vancouver police spokesman Const. Lindsey Houghton said everyone should be more vigilant about protecting the elderly from being scammed. ((CBC))

"I went to the bank and got the money in $100 bills," she said. "It felt like it was burning a hole in my purse as I walked to the post office."

Buchanan insisted no one at her bank asked why she was withdrawing large amounts of cash — $10,000 in total — two days in a row.

"No questions asked," Buchanan said. "And you don't need collateral. That's what really amazed me. All that credit and nothing to back it up. Easy, easy access. No wonder we had a financial crisis."

RBC indicated its tellers are trained to ask questions in such cases, but Owen didn't say exactly what transpired in Buchanan's case.

"Our people in our branch realized that it was an unusual transaction for Mrs. Buchanan and raised it," Owen said. "But ultimately, the decision to remove funds from your bank account, or your cash advance on your Visa, is the responsibility of the client."

When Buchanan later got a call from a woman posing as the "lawyer's secretary," asking for more money, she suddenly realized she'd been duped.

"I felt very stupid, very embarrassed," Buchanan said. "And I had no idea where I would stand in the fallout."

Her son got involved, and Vancouver police were called. Police obtained a surveillance camera picture of a man in Montreal who apparently picked up the second money order.

Police detective called bank

Buchanan said she went into her bank to ask for help with the Visa debt but was told she would still have to pay in full, plus any interest. The Vancouver police detective in charge of the case then called RBC.

"He called Visa security," Buchanan said. "He said we have this case, it is a bona fide case. There's a case number, we have a suspect, and we thought you might want to forgive this."

Buchanan's local RBC branch was contacted by Vancouver police, who vouched for the elderly woman as a bona fide crime victim. ((CBC))

She said she heard nothing back from RBC after that, despite sending two registered letters, stating her position.

"I am not going to pay it back," she said. "I can't pay it back."

Vancouver police spokesperson Const. Lindsey Houghton confirmed the detective did contact the bank on Buchanan's behalf. He also indicated little progress has been made on the case.

"It's very difficult for us to investigate these incidents," Houghton said. "Especially when they cross many jurisdictions of, you know, our vast country."

He urged anyone who deals with seniors to help them protect their finances.

"Elderly people don't have a lot of money most of the time to pay that off at the end of the month — $5,000 on one day and $5,000 the next day. That's a lot of money. We all need to do a little better in taking care of our grandmothers and grandfathers."

As a result of CBC News inquiries, RBC said it has now sent a notice out to all staff about the so-called "grandparents scam." It has also decided to give Buchanan a break.

"That there are people out there who prey upon the likes of Mrs. Buchanan is horrible," Owen said.

RBC now waiving interest

"What we've done is we've reached out to Mrs. Buchanan to waive the interest on the outstanding balance, and we are hoping to touch base with her to find a way to resolve the outstanding balance."

Owen refused to say specifically what RBC might do about the $10,000 cash advance balance, indicating the bank would like to work that out privately.

Bruce Cran, president of the Consumers' Association of Canada, said the case also raises questions about the security of RBC's client information.

"Is it possible that someone with access to her information also has a connection to this scam?" Cran asked. "Perhaps these people knew she had a credit card with a limit."

RBC spokesman Geoff Owen said the bank is considering what it can do to help Buchanan, following inquiries from CBC News. ((CBC))

Owen indicated that is not even a possibility.

"I can assure you that our security procedures are first rate and nobody in RBC had anything to do with Mrs. Buchanan's mishap," Owen said.

Meantime, Buchanan said, she has closed all her RBC accounts and will not be getting another Visa card.

"I have no money but I had this hugely inflated credit limit that I didn't ask for. What was I ever going to do with that?"