As people head off on summer vacations, they should be aware that con artists have come up with a new twist on an old financial fraud -- the "grandparent scam" -- that exploits the information tourists post on the Internet during their travel adventures.
Using data from social networking sites, such as vacation photos posted on Facebook, criminals are targeting the vacationers' family members -- particularly the elderly ones -- with bogus calls about loved ones injured, jailed or otherwise caught in a jam during their trips.
Hundreds of Floridians were persuaded last year alone to wire huge sums of money to "rescue" their relatives from nonexistent predicaments, according to one money transfer company. The scam, which targets travelers and relatives of all ages, amounts to millions of dollars a year nationwide.
"When families go on vacation, they don't do their relatives any favors when they post Facebook pictures and tell everyone how long they'll be gone," said Barbara Fore, an elder-related-crimes investigator for the Seminole County Sheriff's Office. "Criminals are monitoring things like Facebook all the time, and they can often find out just about everything they need to know to run their cons."
The grandparent scam is not new, but the social media connection is an emerging trend, according to MoneyGram International Inc., a Dallas-based money wire services company. Nearly one-third of consumers ages 18 to 49 reveal details of their vacations online, which criminals can exploit, according to a recent survey sponsored by the company.
Floridians lost $444,000 last year using MoneyGram wire transfers as a result of 293 scams that targeted vacationers' relatives, the company said. And more than 40 percent of those Florida scams occurred during the summer months, MoneyGram said. The company added that it prevented some of those transactions from going through, though specific figures were not available.
Nationwide, unknowing victims of the grandparent scam used MoneyGram to wire $20.5 million to con artists in 2012, the company said. MoneyGram said it prevented $14 million worth of those transfers and returned that money to the victims.
MoneyGram's research does not include scams or losses involving Western Union or other money transfer companies. And although it is not clear how many of the criminals working the grandparent scam use information from Facebook or other websites, investigators say they have noticed a dramatic increase in social media involvement in the past year, said Kim Garner, MoneyGram's top global security executive.
"Unfortunately, these are very organized fraud rings, and they have all the time in the world to go through social networking data and use it against people," she said. "We know that if scammers are successful even once, that victim is primed to be victimized again. The criminals will call them again and again, trying to get multiple transactions from someone."
Consider a massive grandparent scam last year in Central Florida that bilked an elderly man out of $816,000, according to a Seminole County Sheriff's Office report.
A caller posing as lawyer told the local man his grandson had been seriously injured in a car wreck and was facing criminal charges in Houston. In a series of calls during several months, they persuaded him to wire money to pay hospital bills, legal fees and settlement claims filed by others involved in the supposed wreck.
By the time authorities found out about the situation, the local man had wired money around the world. Using specific personal details about the grandson _ information they may have obtained from his social networking sites _ the con artists convinced the victim that the situation was real, said Fore, the elder-crimes investigator.
"While our investigator was at his home interviewing the victim, the bad guys actually called him again, asking for still more money," she said.
Although it may seem incredible that anyone could fall for such scams, investigators say the con artists are very skilled and know what works on vulnerable people, starting with an alarming -- and sometimes intimidating -- tale that generates panic in the victim and fear for their supposedly endangered loved one.
"For a long time, these scam artists would find people just by making calls from a big list of random phone numbers," said Sgt. Parks Duncan, head of the robbery investigations unit of the Orange County Sheriff's Office. "But they have evolved their scam now by getting names and other intel from places like Facebook. For investigators, it is a very difficult situation -- difficult to prove and almost unprosecutable."
Law enforcement officials warn older people in particular to beware of callers making wild claims about vacationing relatives. Don't engage them, they say; hang up and report the call to authorities. They also suggest that vacationers stay off social networking sites while traveling -- or at least refrain from sharing travel-related photos and information until they return home from their trip.
"Obviously, some of this advice -- such as staying off Facebook -- is so contrary to the typical behavior these days," said Avivah Litan, a consumer finance analyst for the information technology research firm Gartner Inc.
"I mean, isn't that why some people in their 20s and 30s go on exotic vacations? So they can post cool pictures online?" Litan said. "But they should realize by now they have to be careful. I'm glad these scam numbers are coming out now, to raise awareness of the risk."
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