The phone call an 83-year-old Palo Alto resident received on Monday morning, Sept. 23, was enough to send any grandparent into rescue mode. The caller, one Sgt. Anthony Bates, said he was at the U.S. Embassy in the Dominican Republic. The Palo Alto man's grandson was languishing in a Santiago jail. Release was possible, but the grandson needed $450. The money had to be wired as soon as possible through Western Union.
The background noise at the caller's end made it difficult for the 83-year-old to hear, which added to his confusion about the matter, he told the Weekly on Tuesday.
But he wasn't so confused that he fell for the so-called "favorite grandson" scam. Not this time.
Two years ago, the same Palo Alto resident, who asked for anonymity, nearly paid out $3,000 after receiving a similar call. That time the fake grandson said he was in Greece for a friend's wedding and had been in a car accident.
Palo Alto police said the grandparent scam is one of many tactics crooks use to separate seniors from their life savings. And crimes against dependent adults or elders in Palo Alto are on the rise, increasing 70 percent from last year for the period from Jan. 1 to Sept. 10, Sgt. Kara Apple said.
"It can be devastating," she said. In addition, Palo Alto is well-targeted.
"Palo Alto has an aging population. The combination of high home values and an aging population lead to an assumption that there is a lot of wealth here. That's sometimes true, and sometimes not true," she said.
Scams against seniors are so prevalent that State Senator Jerry Hill and Assemblyman Rich Gordon are hosting a free Senior Scam Stopper Seminar on Friday, Sept. 27. The event will place from 1 to 3 p.m. at Veterans Memorial Senior Center, 1455 Madison Ave., Redwood City.
In the case of the 83-year-old man, he was saved from being swindled two years ago by an alert store clerk.
"My poor dad," the man's daughter said. "They told him to go to Walmart to wire the money. Thankfully, Walmart told him to go back and call me. My father was all ready to wire the money over there, but thankfully he did call me to verify. He was very upset about the whole situation.
"It's scary. My dad lives by himself. ... They knew his name. If they had that and his grandson's name, what else do they have access to?" she said.
The man did not want his or his daughter's real names published because the caller knows his name and address, and he was concerned about possible retaliation.
"I said I would not tell anyone," he said.
Apple said that is the most alarming part.
"Think about how many of these crimes are unreported," she said.
But the man's daughter, who lives out of the area, did take action.
"I looked up this particular scam online after the first incident and was surprised to see that it has been occurring all over the country. So this is not anything new, but evidently it's something the thieves are still trying on elderly Palo Altans," she said.
She also called her father's phone carrier to report the incident. The company's fraud department sends the information to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which keeps databases on such scams and seeks to find the perpetrators, she said.
But prosecuting scammers can prove difficult. In one of the calls to her father, the phone number had a Manhattan area code. Scammers have ways to create fake phone numbers that come up on a caller ID, law-enforcement officials said.
Residents should always notify the police when approached by a scammer, Apple said. And seniors should verify with family members if their grandchild is truly in trouble, she added.
At Friday's Senior Scam Stopper Seminar, seniors, their families and caregivers will learn how to protect themselves from fraud such as identity theft, telephone scams, and financial, insurance and mail fraud. The public is asked to RSVP by calling Hill's office at 650-212-3313 or by going to senate.ca.gov/2958/seniorscamstopper.
See also: Common scams in Palo Alto
The Palo Alto Police Department also offers the tips below to avoid becoming a fraud victim. Additional tips on specific types of financial crimes and how to avoid them are available on the FBI website at www.fbi.gov/scams-safety/fraud.
* Be wary of anyone requesting payment by wire transfer. Regardless of the name or shipping address provided, such transfers can be claimed from anywhere in the world.
* Do not rely on the telephone's caller-ID. "Spoofing" applications allow a criminal to obscure his or her true telephone number or assume the phone number of another person.
* Do not provide any personal information in response to unsolicited telephone calls or email messages. If you need to provide or verify your personal information with your bank or credit-card issuer, call them at the number listed on your card or statement.
* Remember that you will not win any contests you did not enter.
* Do business with reputable companies that are known to you.
* Do your homework: Consult the Better Business Bureau and do an Internet search on any businesses or individuals with whom you plan to do business.
* Be wary of cashing checks from people you do not know. Ask your bank to authenticate the check prior to deposit.
* Above all else: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.