TAMPA, Fla. — On a Saturday night, as a family in Puerto Rico was still recovering from Hurricane Maria, they were enjoying the fact that their power was back on and they had a way to communicate with loved ones in the states when a phone call flipped their world upside down, again.
“It almost put my grandmother in the hospital,” Manuel said. Manuel asked us not to use his last name because of fear that he might be targeted again.
Manuel said his grandparents on the hurricane ravaged island received a phone call on Nov. 18 that he was being held hostage in Mexico. The callers demanded the family pay $5,000 for his safe return.
“They said they would slit my throat,” Manuel said.
Scams targeting the elderly are very common. But, Manuel said the sophisticated scam targeting his elderly grandparents went to another level.
“They gave my full name, my brothers and sisters, they knew my address, my phone number, everything,” Manuel said. “They would call back every thirty minutes and then in the background it would sound like my voice saying ‘help me, help me grandma give them the money or they are going to kill me.’ It sounded like me. My cousin and grandma and everyone said it sounded just like me.”
The caller told Manuel’s grandma not to tell anyone about the ransom or Manuel would be killed. Manuel said his cousin didn’t believe this was really happening.
“My cousin said she felt deep down inside it wasn’t true,” Manuel said. So she called Manuel and learned that the family was duped. Manuel’s grandma had already withdrawn the money and was about to send it via Western Union.
Manuel thinks people living on the island are easy targets for scammers because their world is in disarray.
“Just when you think the storm is over you get something like this,” Manuel said.
Law enforcement urge people to never wire money to anyone when it is solicited by an anonymous e-mail or phone call. Police say whoever is receiving the call should challenge the caller to ask the person being held hostage a question only they can answer. And, always hang up and call the person who is supposedly held hostage to verify they are OK.
This scam sounds simple and avoidable but this is a billion dollar a year industry for criminals. According to research from The True Link Report on Elder Financial Abuse 2015, seniors lose $36.48 billion each year to elder financial abuse.