A phone call to her home in Ingersoll, Ont. two weeks ago sent Diane Lindsay into a panic.
One the other end was a man claiming to be police officer from Woodstock RCMP, who said her grandson was in an accident. When police went to investigate, they found drugs in his car, the man said.
Her grandson was in jail and she’d have to post a $9,000 bond to get him out, he told her.
Lindsay contacted her husband, Ron, to arrange for the money. But when Ron heard the story, he had his suspicions.
“They want money. And supposedly there was a gag order by the court, so she wasn’t to tell anybody,” he said. “I said to her, ‘This sounds like a scam.'”
The story was elaborate. Lindsay was told her grandson was sick and that a friend drove him to the drugstore and got into an accident on the way. The man knew the couple’s names, knew they had a grandson, and when Diane let her grandson’s name slip, knew who to ask about.
At one point, the voice on the other end even purported to let Lindsay speak to her grandson.
“It didn’t sound just like him, but he said, ‘Grandma, I’m awfully sick and that’s why I got a ride to go and get something,” she said. “I’m very trusting.”
While Ron had his suspicions, he was still doubtful because this phone call seemed different than the rest.
“It’s not the traditional grandparents scheme that I’ve heard so much about,” he said. “He’s well spoken… [had] good terminology, all the right vocabulary, and he wants cash, not bitcoins or credit cards.”
Ron wasn’t planning on getting the money but did drive to his daughter’s house, where he found his grandson — healthy and not in jail.
“They must have a little background information before they do this,” he said.
Seniors most likely to lose money in scams, OPP says
While the Lindsays were lucky not to fall for the scam, many elderly people in Ontario aren’t so fortunate.
The number of seniors falling victim to fraud scams has continued to increase over the last three years and so have the dollar losses, data from the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC) shows.
According to CAFC’s 2022 data, 1,177 emergency scams were reported across Ontario and accounted for $5.4 million dollars lost. The vast majority of those reported emergency scams, which include what are known as grandparent scams, came from seniors over the age of 60, with 917 reported resulting in a total loss of almost $4.6 million.
Across Canada, 2,488 emergency scams have been reported, with losses of over $9.4 million dollars, data from the CAFC shows.
In 2021, there were 257 emergency scams reported across Ontario, accounting for over $660,000 dollars lost. Most of those reports were also from seniors.
Scammers often target people with a landline, said Det.-Const. John Armit with the Ontario Provincial Police.
“When you go to websites like Canada 411, you can get someone’s phone number, address and name. Fraudsters can easily pivot and go to a search engine and see maybe there is an obituary and maybe there’s information on their grandchildren or relatives that they use to manipulate the seniors,” Armit said.
Armit says only five to 10 per cent of victims report their fraud to law enforcement or the CAFC. Due to the multiple individuals involved in grandparent scams — including the caller, dispatcher, courier and money launderer — he says OPP believe they be the result of organized crime.
He says seniors are 33 per cent more likely to lose money in a scam, compared with any other age group. And once they’ve been defrauded, they often get victimized again.
“The fraudsters keep a list of who has provided money and so they’ll come at the victims with a different fraud pitch and there’s always a sense of urgency with these frauds,” he said. “They’ve advanced their pitch to use psychological techniques that cause people to fear and want to react really quickly.”
Those “pitches” can include identity fraud, extortion, crypto, and romance scams. Armit says those aged 70 and up happen to be more susceptible to the grandparent scams in particular.
But there are programs aiming to help seniors get ahead of these scams.
The CAFC’s Senior Support Unit allows senior volunteers to outreach to other seniors, providing literature and guiding them through fraud loss training sessions as a proactive measure. They also offer support for seniors who’ve fallen victim.
Mathieu Labrèche, the director of media strategy and communications at the Canadian Bankers Association says the organization also offers a program for seniors to spot the signs of fraud and protect against it. The Your Money Seniors program features a fraud-prevention module conducted by volunteer bankers across the country.
“I hope the impact would be that they stop and think twice if they’re in a situation where they’re either under duress or being forced to do something that they feel is not right,” he said.
Organizations like churches, condo associations, library programs and others with 10 or more people can request the CBA to host a seminar in their community, through the organization’s website, he added.
Seniors often fear reporting due to shame
Organizations in Ontario like Elder Abuse Prevention Ontario also work to educate seniors on scams.
Laura Proctor, an elder abuse prevention consultant there, sees firsthand how grandparent scams affect the elderly. She says 20 percent of the calls her organization receives are directly related to fraud and scams.
“The most prevalent feeling that I hear from seniors calling our line is shame,” she said.
She says there’s also a reason why reporting numbers are often very low.
“They’re afraid of reporting to authorities because they’re worried about losing their independence, that individuals might think that their competency is in question.”
The group is mandated through the provincial government to offer webinars, fact sheets, and info sessions at recreation centres. Proctor says education is key, but so is understanding when fraudsters pounce.
“The threat of social isolation really increases the risk factor [and] the likelihood of somebody being victimized. So fraudsters, any perpetrator or offender, always preys on that isolation.”
“Many times fraudsters hide behind the guise of being a person of authority. And we as polite Canadians want to follow that authoritarian voice,” she says. “That’s also what I hear is ‘Why didn’t I question? It sounded way too good to be true. I should have asked more questions.'”
Armit says seniors need to know that police will never ask residents to pick up cash to save a loved one or present gag orders. He encourages seniors to call local police to verify information and reach out to loved ones who fraudsters claim to be victims.
“The most important tool is to pause, think about this, make those phone calls, and then make your decision.”