Seniors in Winnipeg and Brandon are being warned to beware, as police say they’ve seen an recent increase in what are commonly called “grandparent scams.”

That includes more than a dozen reports in less than a week in the provincial capital, with roughly $100,000 in losses.

In grandparent scams, a person calls an older person, claiming to be a grandchild or other relative who is in serious legal trouble and needs money immediately, Winnipeg Police Service Const. Jay Murray said at a news conference on Thursday.

“We believe that these frauds are being committed by organized groups. They aren’t fly-by-night operations. There’s been an increase in calls here in Winnipeg,” he said.

Scams are growing and other parts of the province and Canada are also affected, he said.

Over the last six days, there have been 15 reports of grandparent or emergency scams in Winnipeg, Murray said.

The caller sounds desperate and even cries, he said. The person will sometimes use a first name and say the request is urgent.

They sometimes say a gag order has been put in place by a judge, so they can’t discuss the matter with anyone, including other family members or their bank.

Winnipeg police Const. Jay Murray urges anyone impacted by grandparent scams to report it. (CBC)

Sometimes the phone is passed to another actor, who claims to be a lawyer and can come across as very professional.

Instructions are given to the victim to inform the bank that the money will be used for home repairs or something similar.

Victims who respond by obtaining money are told a bondsperson will visit their home to pick up the cash.

The amount of money the scammers ask for varies from person to person — it can be hundreds or thousands of dollars.

“The scammer will likely just feel out how the conversation is going. If they feel they’ll be successful, they may tend to ask for more,” Murray said.

If the scam is successful, the person might try to get more money from the victim over the following days.

Outsmarting the scammers

Brandon police also issued a warning Wednesday on Twitter about grandparent scams.

Kelly Anderson, who lives in Souris, just southwest of Brandon, said her husband, Gerald, was nearly a victim of a grandparent scam on Wednesday morning.

A young man called them and said “Hi grandpa,” but didn’t give his name, and eventually tricked Gerald into saying his grandson’s name, Anderson said.

“He went on to tell my husband that he’d been in an accident in Brandon, the airbags had deployed, and he had struck a pregnant woman and he was facing two charges and needed $9,000 to get him out,” she told CBC News on Thursday.

When Anderson’s husband asked the person he believed to be his 14-year-old grandson why he hadn’t contacted his mother or father, the caller didn’t have an answer.

Eventually the scammer called back and asked if the couple could come up with less. At that point, Anderson’s husband said he was going to call his grandson’s father, and the person hung up.

Anderson posted a message on Facebook to warn people in her friend group about the scam.

“There are so many elderly people in this community that would believe in a call like that,” she said.

But Winnipegger Leonard Bakalinsky, 89, outsmarted one of the scammers a few months ago.

He got a call around 7:30 one morning from a person who was sobbing and said, “grandpa!”

This set off alarm bells for Bakalinsky — his grandkids call him zayde, a Yiddish word that means “grandpa.”

An elderly man wearing a ball cap and a jacket sits outsides on a chair.
Leonard Bakalinsky, 89, was targeted by a scammer. He says he knew something wasn’t right when the caller called him ‘grandpa,’ while his real grandkids refer to him by the Yiddish term ‘zayde.’ (Trevor Brine/CBC)

The scammer coaxed him into saying one of his grandson’s names — Daniel — and then assumed that identity. 

Like the call Anderson received, the scammer said he had been in a car accident and needed money to get out of trouble. The real Daniel typically drives to work around that time of day, so Bakalinsky was concerned.

But things took a turn when he told the caller he was going to call Daniel’s mom before sending any money.

“That’s when things cooled off,” Bakalinsky said. The caller objected and eventually hung up.

Bakalinsky advises any other grandparents who think they’re being scammed to do what both he and Anderson did — tell the caller they’ll contact the child’s parents first.

Warning signs

Murray said it’s important to know several things to prevent these frauds from happening.

First of all, police and the courts never send someone to a person’s house to collect money. They will also never tell you to lie to the bank about why you’re withdrawing money.

The scammers will pressure people to act quickly before they have time to consider what they are doing or agreeing to. It’s important to talk to a trusted person before providing any personal information or money, especially if it is an unsolicited call.

Police urge people to speak with their older relatives about the scam to protect them.

Murray asks anyone who is a victim of a suspected grandparent fraud to report it to police.

“It can be very embarrassing when someone realizes they’ve fallen for a scam,” he said. “The reality is many people fall for scams every day, unfortunately. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”

Reporting the scam can possibly help recover any lost money, and it can help prevent others from falling victim, he said.

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