Granny scams target local seniors

By Rachel Hicks

A Facebook message from an overseas soldier’s profile popped up on the computer screen of Lyzabeth Howe, a member of Buena Vista’s Maury River Senior Center. She typed a response, and the two began a conversation.

“There are people that are defending our great country that need help,” Howe said. “These are soldiers that are stationed overseas. He wasn’t, I don’t believe.”

After two weeks of online messaging, Howe said, the soldier sent her a message asking for $300. That’s when she realized she was the target of a “granny scam.”

“[I] can’t even put gas in my vehicle, let alone loan you [money],” she said she told the alleged soldier. “That was the end of it. I never heard from him again.”

Howe is not the only local senior citizen who has been targeted by scammers. An elderly woman in Rockbridge County fell victim to a scam when she received a call last week, according to police.

“A county citizen was contacted by a scammer who was pretending to be her grandson and said he was in trouble and needed her to send money,” said Capt. Tony McFaddin of the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office.

McFaddin said he gets about two reports of scams daily and sees the grandchild-grandparent scam regularly. He said scammers typically ask for money in gift cards, such as Green Dot Visa cards, because they’re harder to track.

Lexington police Detective Nathan Kesterson said few elderly people report scams because they feel embarrassed.

Elderly citizens are less likely to call the police because they’re concerned their relatives will decide they are no longer capable of handling their own finances, the FBI says on its website.

The FBI says con artists often target senior citizens because they are most likely to be trusting. Many seniors are financially stable, too, with property and good credit.

The FBI issued a list of tips for avoiding scammers. Source: FBI’s website

Debbie Branham, director of Buena Vista’s Maury River Senior Center, said there seems to be waves of new scams about every four to six months.

“I think that it comes in spells in our area,” she said. “We get a lot that call to lower your interest rate on your credit card.”

Branham said the center hosts regular group discussions where seniors can talk about scammers’ tactics and how to avoid being victimized.

Dolly Payne, who participated in last week’s discussion, said she gets calls every day and is told that she’s won prizes, especially cruises.

“I haven’t even entered anything,” she said.

Kesterson said the police department puts out public service announcements on the radio to warn seniors of scams.

“I don’t think the scam works on a majority of the elderly,” he said. “There’s a small minority who actually fall victim to this.”

McFaddin said scammers reach people of all ages, but they target elderly people more frequently.

Shirley Flint talks about her personal phone scam experiences. (Photo by Rachel Hicks)

“They’re home a lot more often during the day and get these calls,” McFaddin said. “The trickery [the scammers] use is to separate these people from the rest of their family. The crooks try to keep them engaged and on the phone before they can have time to ask another family member.”

Rockbridge County resident Shirley Flint said she always answers her phone politely in case it’s a family member calling. But she is wary of con artists, like the one who called her two weeks ago.

“I got my glasses on … I can tell who’s calling,” she said, explaining that she checked her caller ID. “[I] just hung up.”