By Sue Tiffin
When the phone rang at Eleanor Cooper’s house on the morning of Oct. 5, shortly after 8 a.m., she was not expecting what was to come – a series of events that resulted in the West Guilford resident feeling anxious, in distress, and scammed out of thousands of dollars.
Cooper was the target of a so-called “emergency scam,” or “grandparent scam,” a phone scam that preys on a potential victim’s willingness to help their family members. Fraudsters impersonate a family member or close friend, calling for help in an urgent situation such as an accident while travelling abroad.
She answered the call that early morning, “before I had my thinking cap on, obviously,” and heard what sounded like her grandson, in need of help.
“It was a little nerve-wracking, because I thought it was my grandson,” said Cooper. “He’d wound up in court and he needed money right away, he needed cash. And don’t tell anybody, or it would go worse, or I’d have to pay more than I said I could come up with, or whatever.”
Cooper said the first thing she should have done was to phone her son, but because of the threat to keep the situation to herself, tried to handle it on her own, instead.
“I didn’t phone anybody, I was in distress,” she said.
The call made Cooper feel emotional.
“He wasn’t crying, but he did let me know that if he didn’t get a lot of money right away, he’d be in jail that night, and that was the last thing I wanted to happen to [him],” she said.
Cooper went to the bank and took out money from two accounts, in the amount of $6,000.
“They just said what to do with the money – now that I look back on it, it’s just too suspicious for anything, but I was to put money in a magazine, and send it by Purolator [to a Quebec address],” said Cooper. “Anyway, I did it.”
That was not the end, however, of her alleged grandson’s legal and financial needs, and the next day her phone rang again.
“The next day, they said they needed the same kind of amount, and I didn’t know how I was going to do that,” she said.
Cooper appealed to a family member, without sharing details of the situation, who told her to get a lawyer. She phoned her lawyer, but still felt bound by the gag order to not disclose information about the urgent matter. Continuing to want to help, she contacted another family member.
“I told her I couldn’t tell her what it was all about until it was all over, and she wrote me out a cheque for $6,000, just like that,” said Cooper. “And it was such a relief because I thought, well, that’s the end of it. If I can get this sent off, I don’t know what I’ll do, how I’ll ever repay her. But one of the things they told me in the first place, and what I was thinking, was that [my grandson] told me, don’t worry, you’ll get your money back. Of course I’ll never see it again.”
However, because Cooper didn’t have the right label on the second Purolator package, it couldn’t be sent. Instead, she looked for help with a local solicitor.
“That’s when things started to help me, because I got talking to [an employee] who works there, and by the time she got finished asking me questions, she said, that’s a red flag, that doesn’t sound right,” said Cooper.
The employee arranged for her to speak with the local solicitor, who called the Haliburton Highlands OPP, help for which Cooper was extremely grateful.
“Both the constable and [the lawyer] were really, really upset about it,” said Cooper. “They kept saying, don’t be embarrassed, don’t beat yourself over the head over this, they’re professionals, they know how to do this. But they sure fooled me.”
Despite her distress, Cooper is speaking out about the experience to help others know that scams can catch potential victims off guard, and to know the signs.
“I think they should know that scams are out there, that a call that is unexpected and affects your family deeply is going to be false,” she said.
According to the South Simcoe Police, since 2009, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre has received more than 17,000 emergency scam complaints, with almost 12,000 emergency scam occurrences, accounting for more than $24
million in reported losses.
When Cheryl Cohoon, a friend of Cooper’s, heard of her experience, she was upset, even more so when her mom Anne received a likely scam call last week.
“Mom got a phone call, that there was a problem with her VISA, there had been some money withdrawn and they wanted Mom to give them money so they could put it back on her VISA, that kind of thing,” said Cheryl. “She was savvy enough to not fall for it but she was obviously totally distraught by the end of the phone call.”
Anne said she had similar phone calls when she lived in the Toronto area, and had experienced a call telling her the RCMP would be coming to her home in Wilberforce due to being remiss with Canada Revenue Agency at one point.
“I don’t go for the fake calls,” she said. “Regarding money, I know what I’ve done with my life … some stranger calling me to tell me about my bank, I know it’s not true.”
Cheryl said she experienced a scam call herself in recent years with a phone call she answered at 7 a.m.
“You’re not totally awake and they assault you with all of this stuff, and it all feels and seems to be very, very real,” said Cheryl.
Cheryl wrote to the Echo about the scam she experienced in a letter to the editor. She received many phone calls in support, including from those who had avoided a similar scam because of her letter, and said that’s why it’s essential for people to speak out about and share their experiences.
As of Sept. 30 this year, there have been 39,696 reports of fraud, and 18,533 victims of fraud, with $67.2 million lost to fraud, according to the anti-fraud centre. The centre’s website notes “it is estimated that less than five per cent of fraud victims report their occurrences to the CAFC.”
“It’s just so traumatizing, and particularly for elderly people, to get these kind of phone calls,” said Cheryl. “When you’re feeling vulnerable and threatened, you’re just so susceptible to being prey and being a victim, and it’s not something you get over quickly.”
The OPP encourages anyone who thinks they have been a victim of the emergency scam or any other fraud to call their local police service or the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre online at antifraudcentre.ca. People can also call CrimeStoppers at 1-800-222-8477.
Tips on avoiding scams can be found here.