The Grandparent Scam: One Victim's Story

Jul 28, 2016

Nevada authorities say they’re seeing an increase in complaints from elderly residents who've been conned out of thousands of dollars.  As Reno Public Radio’s Steve Shadley reports, they’re victims of what's called the "Grandparent Scam."

Credit Andrew Malone / CC BY-SA 2.0

Here’s how it works: an elderly person gets a phone call from a scam artist pretending to be a relative who needs money to get out of jail. It happened a few weeks ago to 77-year-old Helmut Banse of Fallon, an immigrant from Germany who retired from the U-S Air Force. He got a call from an imposter claiming to be his teenage grandson who desperately needed help…

“Somebody called me crying and having the worst day of his life and he had a cold and been arrested,” Banse remembers.

He says the man posing on the phone pleaded with him for $4,000 to get out of jail. And then another man posing as a police officer got on the phone and said the money had to be paid with I-Tunes gift cards. Banse didn’t think anything was fishy about the call.

“My brain was not in gear; just emotions took over and I did what I was told to do. I was just stupid!”

Banse went to a local pharmacy and spent $2,000 on gift cards. He turned over the card codes to the scammer so they could be redeemed for cash. Then he went to another store but an alert clerk told him he'd been duped. That's when Banse called the Churchill County Sheriff’s office to report the incident, but he was already out two grand. 

“This unfortunate scam is something we see quite often at the attorney general’s office,” says Wesley Duncan, First Assistant Nevada Attorney General, “and we actually see an uptick in these types of schemes in the summer.”

Duncan says the scam artists can get more action when elderly people stay indoors to beat the heat.  He offers this advice to everyone:

“Anytime anyone is asking for a gift card in terms of bail or to get out of jail, that should really be a red flag because no law enforcement entity is going to ask to bail somebody out using gift cards.”

These scam artists are hard to find because they use blocked phone numbers and it's challenging to prove they were the person who actually made the calls. Ultimately, they could be charged with impersonating a law enforcement officer, and if the amount stolen is more than $600 then felony charges may be filed.