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Fraudsters harvest data from social media to target grandparentsPersonal Finance


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The harvesting of personal details blithely posted on social media sites continues.

Some of the parties doing this harvesting have criminal intent. One manifested outcome is a rash of scams targeting grandparents.

This is yet another example of how the obliteration of privacy—which underpins the business models of Google, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat— has proven to be a boon for scammers.

Fraud investigators at IDT911, which sponsors ThirdCertainty, are helping victims recover from a rash of grandparent scams. This is a variant of the “I-lost-my-wallet-in-a-foreign-land” email scam that has been circulating for several years.

This type of con begins with criminals gathering intelligence, which is easier than ever to do, thanks to the rise of social media. Young people, in particular, freely post details of their personal ties, interests and daily activities on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and other popular sites.

SSNs easy for hackers to obtain

A Social Security number for a particular young person is another key component. SSNs are easier than ever to obtain by those with criminal intent.

Stolen SSNs have been pouring into the cyber underground for the past decade. And that influx of stolen SSNs has been spiking over the past year with the major data breaches of patient records from Community Health Systems, Anthem and Premera Blue Cross.

Stolen SSNs are useful for giving the fraudster access to existing online bank accounts, as well as for creating shell accounts needed during the funds transfer phase of the crime.

Social media postings and stolen SSNs are fostering scams limited only by the inventiveness of the criminal.

In this particular scam, the aim is to target a gullible grandparent and learn as much about the family’s extended relationships as possible from social media postings. From this research comes a script that preys on a grandparent’s sympathy and willingness to secretly help a grandchild in distress.

Maria Valenzuela, senior fraud investigator at IDT911, which sponsors ThirdCertainy, has helped numerous grandparents snared by this con. It typically begins with the scammer impersonating the grandchild in a phone call to the grandparent. If the grandparent is hearing-impaired, all the better for the con artist.

If the grandparent has sharp hearing and begins to question the sound of the scammer’s voice, the scammer is prepared. “Sometimes they’ll say, ‘Well I broke my nose in this car accident, so my voice is muffled.’ ”

Scammers cast line; grandparents are sunk

The hook: “They’ll say that they’re in Mexico on spring break, and they have gotten arrested or they’ve been in an accident, and they need them to wire-transfer money,” Valenzuela says.

A request for secrecy usually comes into play. “They tell them not to tell the parents, because they’re not supposed to be in Mexico. … If the grandparent is skeptical, they will drop in clues, like ‘Don’t tell Chelsea,’ which will be the sister’s name, ‘because she’s studying for an exam.’ ”

The scammer is fully prepared to improvise. “They’ll have so much personal information about the family that the grandparents believe that it is them,” Valenzuela says.

If the grandparent bites, he or she is reeled in. The grandparent is asked to wire-transfer anywhere from $2,000 to $6,000. And it doesn’t end there.

“They call back and they say, ‘Well, now I need to get through the airports, and I have to pay these fines before they’ll let me leave the country.’ So then they have them go back and wire-transfer more money, $4,000 or $6,000,” Valenzuela says.

If the grandparent falls for the ruse twice, a third attempt follows for “anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000.”

The caper falls apart at the point where the grandparent places a call to the parent or to the grandchild and finds them sitting at home.

This article originally appeared on ThirdCertainty.com and was written by Byron Acohido.