Peg Murphy, 85, was in her Toronto home last July when the call came in, purportedly from her grandson Thomas. He was phoning from a Montreal jail cell, he said, and was in a jam: He’d crashed a rental car and had been drinking.
Then a second, authoritative voice came on the line, identifying himself as a policeman, providing both name and badge number. If Ms. Murphy took care of the $4,800 in damage to the car, the voice said, her grandson’s other troubles would be taken care of and he’d be released.
All she had to do was go a nearby Western Union office – she was provided with the address – and wire the cash immediately. This she did, at full speed.
“I was very shaken,” Ms. Murphy recalled.
Then she called the real Thomas on his cellphone.
He told his grandmother he was at home and had no idea what she was talking about.
Her daughter-in-law swiftly realized what was happening, phoned Western Union and the transaction was aborted just in time.
“I was very lucky, but I think a lot of grandparents have not been as lucky,” Ms. Murphy told a Toronto Police Service presentation launching National Fraud Prevention Month.
“You feel very stupid when you get caught by something like this.”
Ms. Murphy’s cautionary tale, delivered to an attentive audience Thursday at the Bernard Betel Centre for Creative Living, a non-profit seniors' centre in North York, offers a glimpse of a phenomenon that by every estimate is on the upswing: Financial scams that target the elderly.
“Is it on the rise? I would have to say yes,” said Detective Al Spratt of the TPS’s financial crimes unit, formerly the fraud squad. His assessment was echoed by Constable Pat Fleischman, elder-abuse co-ordinator for the TPS, and Constable Wayne Pierce, crime-prevention officer for North York’s 32 Division.
These days, Const. Pierce said, “It’s relatively easy to direct scams over large geographical areas. You go after the biggest pool and the most vulnerable.”
As to why, two factors appear to have meshed: Sixty years after the Baby Boom was in full swing, a demographic bulge has occurred, yielding an aging middle class that is larger and more prosperous than ever before.
Add to that the information revolution, which has not merely accelerated communications but also expedited data-gathering about potential victims.
Somehow, for example, the conman who phoned Ms. Murphy knew to mention the name “Jason.” He was in Montreal for “Jason’s wedding,” he said, which sounded plausible, because her grandson did indeed have a friend named Jason.
New data from the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, a federal coalition that works closely with police, concludes that people aged 60 to 69 are the group most often targeted by rip-off artists, and that an estimated 51 per cent of scams take place online.
Staff Inspector Bryce Evans, who heads the financial crimes unit, thinks that figure is an underestimate because it only reflects what gets reported.
“About 80 per cent of the mass-market (scams) are committed on the Internet,” he said, with the volume increasing steadily.
“We speak with our counterparts and all frauds, right across the world, have increased significantly. That’s why we’re doing more partnerships and more team investigations. We’re seeing more organized-crime groups (involved).”
The ruses take myriad forms: The grandmother scam; non-existent lottery prizes that can be claimed for a fee; probing, information-seeking calls from fake police or “Microsoft” employees – a current favourite – and many others.
Nor is it always anonymous strangers who steal from the elderly, Constable Fleischman said.
Sometimes people entrusted with caring for the elderly do so, too.
Thursday’s meeting heard from a wide range of players drawn from different police and government agencies, and their collective advice, boiled down, came to this:
Don’t provide any personal information to anyone you don’t know, or whose identity you haven’t verified.
And if something sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is.