You may have heard of the ‘grandparents scam,' where seniors are tricked into sending money to help a grandchild they believe is in trouble. But as a Massachusetts woman recently found out, scammers aren't just targeting the elderly with their "person-in-need" scams.
Eileen Vallatini, of Holliston, learned the hard way that parents of college kids are at risk, as well, after she was targeted in a $9,000 scam involving her daughter -- a college student in Vermont.
It all started last month, Vallatini says, when an early morning cellphone call sent her into a panic.
“When I picked up the phone the first thing I heard was this wailing,” Vallatini said, “and this voice was like, 'mom, I’m in jail!'”
Vallatini says it was a bunch of hysterical information, but she thought the call came from her daughter, who is away at school in Vermont.
“It was just all this hysterical information, 'I was in an accident, I’m in jail, I don’t have my phone, you need to call this lawyer, you have got to get me out of jail, they say I was drinking, I promise I wasn’t drinking,'" Vallatini said of what she heard on the call.
Vallatini says she was given numbers for the lawyer and courthouse, a docket number, and details of a reckless endangerment charge. Since the courthouse was temporarily closed due to COVID-19, Vallatini was told a hearing would be delayed, but she could post $9,000 to get her daughter out of jail.
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When Vallatini finally reached one of her daughter’s roommates by phone, and learned she was safe at home, Vallatini says she realized she was scammed.
FBI Special Agent Michael Livingood says millions of dollars are lost yearly in these “person-in-need” scams.
“They target everyone. Doesn’t matter your age, it doesn’t matter your relationship with somebody, they are looking for an opportunity to trick you into sending money,” Livingood said. “There is always a sense of urgency attached to these scams and frauds. The idea is to get you to act quickly before you’re able to think through the situation and the scenario.”
Livingood says these scammers are very persuasive.
“These are groups of criminal actors doing this, these aren’t isolated one off individuals. They employ a number of techniques and one of the most convincing techniques is to bring others into the scam,” he said. “So they bring in actors who are portraying a child or grandchild. It’s a common tactic that we see it makes the scam more believable and more successful.”
The criminals even take the time to dig up your personal information.
“Social networking sites, linked-in profiles, even information that’s posted on a business website or your company’s website, so if you have personal information about your family or friends on any social environment, they will use that information against you,” Livingood said.
The people who targeted Vallatini knew she had a daughter, with a car, at college in Vermont -- all of that information was available on her Facebook page.
“It’s disturbing on so many levels that your privacy is hacked that way and then to just manipulate you,” Vallatini said. “It was scary.”
Luckily, Vallatini didn’t lose any money because she thought it was a teachable moment for her daughter.
“Mother of the year, I was not rushing,” she said. “I was like alright, spend some time in the clinker, see what it feels like.”
The FBI strongly recommends that you set your social media privacy settings high. You should review your settings every three to six months because when the sites change their terms of service, it can revert your security settings back to default. Also, always be wary of any unsolicited communication with someone especially when it involves money.
If you’ve been the victim of a scam and sent money to someone, contact your bank immediately and report it to the FBI online here.