The Gram Scam has hit grandparents again, but criminals now use computer software to trick victims. As they did in 2008 and 2010, criminals are again preying on the soft hearts of grandparents, who get a phone call from someone they think is a grandson in trouble and are tricked into shelling out a great deal of money.
And as 84-year-old Holmen resident Thomas "Dean" Baldwin found out the hard way, the scammers are getting more sophisticated. He and his wife, Alice, lost $6,250 to "spoofers" using a new high-tech twist.
"They dubbed his voice," Baldwin said. "It was his voice. He said ‘Hi Grandpa, how are you.' That's the way he opens a conversation. We would have never fallen for it if they hadn't used his voice."
Holmen Police Chief Mike McHugh said dubbing a voice is a different twist. "That would really take a lot of preplanning by the person, but it's possible," he said. "They already know a lot about the person they are faking."
Brock Bergey, spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, said he had heard about software that allows people to manipulate voices, but he had not heard of it being used in the Gram Scam before.
Bergey said there was a new twist with another recent victim. A woman in Greenfield, Wis., fell victim to the scam and sent $3,000 to Mexico City. After wiring the requested money, she got a call from someone posing as a detective telling her for $3,000 he could keep the incident from appearing on the grandson's record.
Despite feeling somewhat foolish, Baldwin said he wanted to tell the story so others wouldn't get tricked like he did. "I think it's something that ought to be out there," Baldwin said. "I learned in my ordeal that there have been a number of scams and a lot of people taken."
According to the police report, a man claiming to be Baldwin's 24-year-old grandson Isaac called Baldwin and said he had been traveling to a funeral in Canada with some friends, and they were pulled over speeding and the police had found cocaine in the car. He needed $5,950 to pay the bond to get out of jail.
Baldwin said the caller said he needed to pay the bond within two hours. "They want you to act fast before you can think it out," Baldwin said. "If you would have sat back and done some investigating, you'd have figured it out."
Baldwin was directed to wire the money using Western Union and was even told they could use a store on State Road in La Crosse even though they live in Holmen. And he begged Baldwin not to tell anyone because he didn't want it to get out what happened.
"I wired the money as requested," Baldwin said. He actually had to fork over another $315 for Western Union's transfer fee.
"Then they came back for a second round," Baldwin said.
After confirmation of the money, Isaac then called and told Baldwin he needed another $5,000 for a lawyer.
"We were still so shook up that it was him we were willing to send more," Baldwin said.
He said he actually went back to the bank, where he learned the manager had wanted to stop him from withdrawing the funds the first time, but because she was in intense discussions with another customer, she couldn't break away. But the second time he came in to cash in bonds to pay for the lawyer, the bank manager stopped him from withdrawing the funds and told him he was being scammed.
In hindsight, Baldwin said he sees a number of warning flags he should have paid attention to. When "Isaac" gave them a number, address and name of a bail bondsman in Norfolk Va., Baldwin said he fleetingly thought to himself that there really wasn't anybody in Canada.
The police report indicates the phone number was traced to Montreal, Canada; the name and address in Virginia do not exist.
Bergey said today's generation moves around more and family members don't keep in touch as much as they did in previous generations. So when grandparents do get a call from someone they haven't heard from in a while, and the grandchild is in trouble, they are immediately emotionally drawn in.
"There's a feeling of I want to help," Bergey said. "That's what people get caught up with."
But Baldwin said he normally hears from Isaac, who lives in Mount Horeb, Wis., every month or so. They haven't heard from Isaac lately, though, because he was finishing up school.
"I thought at the time it was funny he was in Canada after he had just started a new job last week," Baldwin said.
He called Isaac's mother in Middleton and asked her if she knew where Isaac was and she told him Isaac was at work at his new job. She then called to check and called Baldwin back, confirming he was at work.
While many who are victimized by scammers are too embarrassed to tell anyone, they should immediately contact the police. A call to the Consumer Protection Hotline at 1-800-422-422-7128 can prevent it from happening to many others.
"Our eyes and ears are the consumers," Bergey said. "We do encourage people to contact local law enforcement."
Verification is one message Baldwin wants to share with the public. "Think it over, think twice," he said. "Don't rush out into it, and do some verification before sending the money."
Bergey agreed. "Say, ‘I'd be happy to help you out, I just want to verify with your parents, can you give me a phone number so I can call you back?' Try to contact your grandson or granddaughter on a number you know they use."
Bergey said there are some red flags to keep in mind. He said most phone calls come in and the caller just says, ‘Hi, Grandpa. How are you?' and fail to identify themselves.
"When you ask ‘which grandchild are you?' they generally hang up," Bergey said.
Anyone asking you to wire money, at any time, is a red flag, according to Bergey. "You should really be cautious who you are wiring money to," he said. "You should only wire money when you know it's legitimate."
Another red flag is a request to wire money out of the country. Bergey said popular places for scammers include Canada, Mexico and England.
Bergey also said Baldwin was lucky the bank stopped him. "The financial institutions have become great resources to prevent this."