As college students enter spring break season and travel far and wide in search of a warm afternoon and a frozen drink, one Towson family is urging neighbors to be vigilant against "grandma" phone scams that prey on elderly residents' concern for their grandchildren.
Rose Irvin said that late last month, her parents — who live in Ruxton — received a call from a young man claiming to be their grandson, who said he was in the Dominican Republic for a high-school classmate's funeral.
The caller, who called in the late morning from a disposable cell phone in Canada, spoke mostly in generalities, always referring to himself as "your grandson," not the grandson's name. Eventually, the caller indicated he was in trouble. A man claiming to be a sergeant said the young man was pulled over in a car on the way home from the funeral and was caught with marijuana.
The sergeant said the grandson, whose name they never used, was being held at the American Embassy. He could be released if they sent a $2,000 money order down to the Dominican Republic.
"My father was panicking," Irvin said. "You just don't know what these kids are doing."
Irvin said that when the caller hung up, her parents tried to get in touch with the grandson, a Harford County resident, but he did not answer. Irvin's father went to Walmart to use the Moneygram money order service.
"People who engage in these types of scams rely heavily on the emotions of the victims," Baltimore County Police spokeswoman Cpl. Cathy Batton said. "They hope that their victims will be so concerned that they will react before they have a chance to truly think through the situation."
Ultimately, the scammers cost themselves the money by providing a name that was too long for the money order slips at Moneygram. After several unsuccessful attempts at sending the money, Irvin's father returned home, where they received another call from the scammers.
The second call exposed them as a scam, Irvin said. The alleged sergeant told the grandparents that the grandson was now in a holding cell — which, as an American in an American Embassy, seemed unreasonable.
Irvin's father went to Walmart and was able to stop the money order, which had been held up because the name didn't match the receiving order's information.
Irvin said the detective her family dealt with told them it was "miraculous" that they got the money back, and there's really no way to catch these guys.
Batton urged residents who find themselves in this situation to be cautious.
"You should not send money or provide your personal information to anyone that you do not know, whether it is through the Internet, a wire transfer service, or over the phone," Batton said.