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Attorney general office warns residents to be wary of scams

BISMARCK -- If a family member called and said he or she was in trouble, would you help?

For some the answer is likely yes, which is why one scam is costing grandparents in North Dakota thousands of dollars each year.

"We regularly have victims of the grandparent scam that lose thousands of dollars," said Parrell Grossman, director of Consumer Protection Division at the North Dakota Attorney General's Office. "Although this particular grandparent scams seems so highly publicized, ... it continues to find victims."

Scams are becoming more elaborate, some including backstories of dire situations that are convincing enough to trick victims into wiring funds.

This includes the grandparent scam, which involves an imposter calling older residents. The caller says he or she is a grandson or granddaughter who is in a foreign country and has been involved in an emergency situation. The caller explains he needs money to pay authorities before he can leave the country.

One Grand Forks woman recently called to warn residents that the grandparent scam is back, saying she got a call from someone claiming to be her grandson and that he need $1,479 to pay for court fees after he hit a car with his vehicle. Another man claiming to be a court officer also spoke to the woman, asking her to send the money. The "grandson" even went into details about the restaurant and hotel he visited.

The woman said she previously had received a similar call and recognized it was a scam. She said she did not send any money and hung up on the callers.

But not everyone is quick to realize the callers may not be who they say they are. Grossman said his division receives reports of the scam victimizing North Dakota residents at least once a month, despite the fact that the issue has been widely publicized.

He added the actually number of victims is substantially higher because the money is gone and victims may be embarrassed they were scammed.

"Across the board, it is very typical for a grandparent scam victim to lose $4,000 to $8,000," he said.

A recent victim in Bismarck reported he lost $36,000 through two transactions, Grossman said. The caller said he was a grandson who had been in a car accident and need $18,000, followed by a second call from "a lawyer" asking for $18,000 in court and attorney fees.

In January, a Williston grandparent lost $40,000--possibly the most lost by a North Dakota resident in such a scam.

"This scam is alive and well," Grossman said. "There are a lot of different variations."

When scammers call using the grandparent scam, they often have a sophisticated and detailed story, sound distressed and emotional, and often beg grandparents not to tell anyone about the incident, especially their parents, because they don't want to get in trouble. Stories can range from being arrested or involved in an injury accident in a foreign country to claiming they owe money to credit card companies.

Hearing a family member is possibly in trouble may cloud a person's judgement, which is why some are tricked by the scam easily.

"The person pretending to be the grandson is pretending to be in a high emotional state," Grossman said. "For instance, the grandmother might say, 'Is that you, Ashley?' (The caller then says,) 'Yes, Grandma, it's Ashley.' Well, boom, the grandmother thinks she is talking to her granddaughter, Ashley."

If a grandparent does not immediately recognize the caller the "grandchild" may claim to have a cold, sore throat or start crying. Once the caller gains the grandparent's trust, they ask for money to be wired to "authorities" in foreign countries to pay for legal fees, vehicle repairs and even medical bills.

The Consumer Protection Division of the North Dakota Attorney General's Office has instructed residents to not "fill in the blanks" for the caller, including giving credit card or checking information. Individuals have also avoided losing money by asking clever or even basic questions that only their real grandchildren would know, effectively tripping up the scammer, Grossman said.

"They might ask, 'How is your brother Jordan doing?'" and the caller may say the brother is doing fine, Grossman said. "Well, guess what. There is no brother Jordan."

The best recommendation for possible victims is to be on guard and not let urgency cloud your judgement, Grossman said. Another tip is to check with family members before agreeing to help the caller.

"When they do that, their children will say, 'Oh, Mom, Ashley is in class at NDSU right now,'" he said, adding most children will be upfront and call their parents instead of grandparents.

Residents asked to wire money or purchase a prepaid card should hang up, as this is a sure sign of a scam. Unfortunately, it is hard for authorities to track the scammers since they use blocked numbers and impossible to get the money back once it is gone.

The best way avoid being scammed is to be educated about the ploys going around the state. The Attorney General's Office has a list of scams that have been reported, with tips to identify the schemes, at ag.nd.gov/CPAT/CommonScams.htm.

April Baumgarten
April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, as the news editor. She works with a team of talented journalists and editors, who strive to give the Grand Forks area the quality news readers deserve to know. Baumgarten grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family continues to raise registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college,  she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as the Dickinson city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.   
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