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Fraudster stole $21K from 80-year-old Ontario woman over 4 days, part of uptick in 'grandparent scams'

A woman in Ontario's Niagara region says she lost over $21,000 to scammers in a complex scheme that lasted four days and included an imposter posing to be her grandson. Police and advocates say "grandparent scams" are on the rise and seniors need more protection.

After spike in scams against seniors, Niagara police call on Canadian banks to do more to protect consumers

An elderly Ontario woman lost more than $21,000 in a scam in February and is trying to help others avoid her mistake. (graphbottles/Shutterstock)

A woman in Ontario's Niagara region says she lost over $21,000 to scammers in a complex scheme that lasted four days and included an imposter posing as her grandson.

The 80-year-old is sharing her story to help others avoid getting duped.

"It was horrendous, really, what they did to me," she said.

CBC News isn't identifying the woman to protect her identity and safety as Niagara police search for those responsible for the scam.

Police also say scams targeting seniors are on the rise in the region, and are warning residents and banks to be vigilant.

In the past two weeks, Niagara police say there have been 44 reported "grandparent scams." A total of $120,000 was stolen from a combined 10 of those cases. There were also 34 failed attempts — and Const. Phil Gavin said these are just the incidents they know about.

Gavin said the 80-year-woman's case was "very brazen." 

A fake crash and an American diplomat

The woman says that on Feb. 7, she received a phone call from a person claiming to be a lawyer. The person said her grandson was using his phone while driving when he rear-ended an American diplomat.

The caller said her grandson knew his son. The caller added that her grandson's cellphone was broken and couldn't be used. The woman said she was eager to hear if her grandson was OK.

"I just wanted to help him," she said.

Niagara Regional Police say there's been an uptick in scams against seniors. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Then, she heard someone who sounded like her grandchild on the phone — though she would later find out it was an imposter.

"His voice was just like my grandson's, so that upset me," the 80-year-old said.

The imposter said the grandson and the diplomat he hit were on the way to hospital. They needed $8,000, they claimed, to fix the diplomat's vehicle, and because the person was a diplomat, the 80-year-old could not tell anyone about the situation.

The Niagara woman says she told them her grandchild's insurance should cover that, but the caller said they needed the money urgently.

"I don't have that kind of money," she reportedly told the con artist, who told her they'd be able to work it out with her grandson's insurance company if she paid roughly $5,300.

The 80-year-old went to the bank and took out the amount. She said her bank didn't question her because the tellers have known her for decades.

"I wish someone said something," she said.

The scammer reportedly asked her to put the cash in an envelope with a case number on it and wait for someone to arrive at her residence to pick it up. They reportedly asked about the area and how many vehicles were around — a tactic Gavin from Niagara police says fraudsters use to determine if police may be nearby.

Family learns of scam after nearly 1 week

The 80-year-old said a man wearing a medical mask came to collect the money and left. The scammers called her the next day, she said, asking for the same amount of money to pay court fees. 

She obliged. Before giving them the cash, she said, she offered to pay with a cheque, but the fraudsters told her courts don't take cheques. The next day, the fraudsters managed to get roughly $5,500, citing more court fees, according to the woman. This time, her husband used his account to withdraw the money, before the same man came to collect the cash.

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On the fourth day, the 80-year-old said, the scammers told her the American diplomat died in the hospital and her grandson was being charged with manslaughter. They would need money for more court fees. The family coughed up another roughly $5,000.

The scammers said her grandson would call her the following day.

But two days passed and no one phoned.

That's when she said she called her grandson's cellphone thinking it was fixed by now.

Her real grandson answered.

Not long after, she learned the past four days of hearing her "grandson" crying over the phone and facing manslaughter charges because of a fatal car crash had been a farce.

"I was relieved," the 80-year-old woman said.

"I couldn't sleep at night, I just wanted to help him. You help your grandchildren. When he was half crying on the phone — this guy was good, whoever the hell it was," she said of the person's acting.

Justice against scammers isn't easy to get: police

Police in other parts of Canada have issued warnings about similar scams this year.

In January, Vancouver police released surveillance video of someone arriving to pick up money from a couple who believed their nephew had been arrested after a car accident and needed to be bailed out. 

Gavin said that in scams like this, it can be hard to get justice.

In the best-case scenario, which could take a couple years, the con artist is caught, goes through trial and pays back some of the money.

"After that, there's not a lot of recourse for these victims to recover that substantial amount of money," Gavin said.

He added that fraudsters usually change their tactics and try other schemes, like trying e-transfers or gift-certificate codes, which makes it more challenging to catch them.

"They're making a job out of this, and they're learning what works and what doesn't work," Gavin said.

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In a statement about the recent uptick in scams against older people, Niagara police called on Canadian banks to do more to protect consumers.

"When seeing a vulnerable person purchasing thousands of dollars in gift cards or making large banking withdrawals, intervene," read the statement.

Seniors need more protection: advocates

The Canadian Bankers Association said in an email that the bank sector trains staff to be aware of various scams and ask "probing questions if a customer makes an unusual transaction."

The association added it dedicates financial literacy programs to scams and raises awareness about them throughout the year. They encourage scam victims to contact police, their bank and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre immediately.

Bill VanGorder, chief operating officer of C.A.R.P., an advocacy association for older Canadians, said he's heard anecdotally that grandparent scams are on the rise.

"We think both the provincial and federal governments should put more money into advertising and promoting information on these scams ... we need to regularly keep reminding people of how important it is to identify scams and then report them," he said.

VanGorder said people shouldn't blame seniors for becoming victims because it adds to a pre-existing stigma and prevents people from reporting the crime.

Bill VanGorder, chair of the advocacy group C.A.R.P., said more needs to be done to protect seniors from scams. (CBC)

He also has another view on why there's a lack of motivation in stopping frauds against seniors.

"I think there is ageism involved. There is an attitude, 'It's older people, they shouldn't have said yes in the first place, it's kind of their fault, so it's not as important as that $5,000 bank robbery even though the money taken could be 20 times that or more,'" VanGorder said.

"The 80-year-old who spoke up is a brave, wonderful person. I would give them all kinds of credit because normally people who are defrauded in this way are too embarrassed."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.

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