Erie County Sheriff, Comptroller warn of "grandchild in need" scam

Jan 31, 2018

It's a scam attempt that has been around for years: a caller attempts to convince an individual that a relative is in trouble and money is needed to help that loved one. The Erie County Sheriff and Comptroller say scam artists are attempting to victimize seniors in Erie County with that so-called "Grandchild In Need" scheme and they are doing more homework to become more convincing.

County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw hosted the news conference in his office, explaining that one of his own staff was recently touched by such a scam attempt. That employee's grandparent had received a phone call at home by a stranger attempting to convince the individual that the grandchild was facing arrest and only an immediate payment would spare the loved one from jail.

Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw and Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard speak Tuesday of a scam targeting senior citizens, who are pressured by the caller to produce an immediate payment to prevent a loved one from being arrested.
Credit Michael Mroziak, WBFO

That elderly relative thought to call the office, he added, and the would-be victim was assured the grandchild was at work and in no legal trouble whatsoever. 

He and Sheriff Timothy Howard then pointed out that a senior citizen in the City of Tonawanda was not so lucky, having recently been scammed out of $4,000 in gift card credits. That individual, they explained, was told to purchase the gift cards and provide the card numbers and PINs in order to save a loved one from being arrested.

"No one in law enforcement would ever call someone at home and say 'you need to hand over money, you need to hand over a gift card or your loved one will go to jail,'" Mychajliw said. "An educated community is really the best defense against all of these scams."

Sheriff Howard said this is a good opportunity for families to talk, especially with senior and younger members, about how to respond should they receive a questionable phone call. Howard suggested the introduction of a code word that family members could ask for and use during the conversation, to verify that the person in need and the situation is legitimate. 

He also reminded the public that scam artists are doing more homework before they target their prey. 

"We've warned people for years be careful of the information you're putting out on social media, including the fact that you're away on vacation," Howard said. "The people that would make these phone calls, knowing that you're in some other state or some other place, even out of country, if you post that on social media they would use that to help convince the other person that this is true."

Both leaders recognized it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to catch and prosecute those who conduct the scams. Howard explained that technology allows the callers to change an out-of-town number to make it look like a local call on the victim's telephone caller ID display. 

Mychajliw stated that as the county's fiscal watchdog, it's his responsibility to safeguard taxpayers "both inside and outside the walls of government." 

"Let me be clear. There is a hot and horrible place reserved in Hell for the scum that preys on the elderly," he said.