National Consumer Protection Week: Local Scam Victims Share Their Story

by Sheryl Harris , Director, Department of Consumer Affairs

flyer with a list of reasons to hang up the phoneRecently, an older Cuyahoga County couple got a “grandparent scam” call. On any other day, they probably would have hung up. But when this particular call came in, they were still grieving the son they’d buried the day before.

They were emotionally raw. So when someone called claiming to be a public defender, they believed her. When she told them their grandson had been texting and ran through a red light and hit a police car, they believed that, too. And they believed that the sobbing young man who got on the phone next was their grandson.

The public defender told the couple she could get their grandson out of jail quickly as long as they could pay the $4,000 fine. And she said that a big box store had struck a new agreement with the local court to transfer funds from gift cards to pay court fees, which would speed things up.

When the couple went to their local big box store to buy gift cards, the clerk flat-out told them it was a scam. She pointed to the stack of Scam Squad alert cards next to the register and told them to go home and call police.

But scams have a way of getting people so emotionally wrapped up in a problem, it’s hard for them to extract themselves.

The couple argued with the clerk.

The man, a retired doctor, pointed out that the caller knew the grandson’s name, knew the out-of-state town his uncle lived in.  “It was so perfect. We bought it 100 percent … I said, ‘This is not one of those calls where a crying person calls and says this is your grandson. This is legitimate.”

The doctor was adamant. The clerk relented. She handed them four gift cards. “I’m warning you,” she told them, “this is a scam.”

When they got home, the public defender called again, and they dutifully read off the gift card numbers.  An hour later, the scammer called back and said the card numbers were no good. They read the numbers off again. And again, the scammer called to say the cards weren’t working.

The doctor headed back to the big box store. Meanwhile, his wife, who had grown suspicious, made a phone call and discovered her grandson was safe at home.

The doctor, now at the store, found the same clerk and told her she was right. He was mortified they’d been scammed and worried that thieves had just gotten away with $4,000.

That’s when clerk confided, “We didn’t activate these cards.”

“I hugged her,” he said.

National Consumer Protection Week runs from March 4 through 10. The Cuyahoga County Department of Consumer Affairs posts information about scams on its website and will share info from its Scam Squad partners all week on its Facebook and Twitter accounts. It’s a chance to learn how to spot a scam.

Because people who have been targeted by scammers sometimes need a little help recognizing it. And sometimes that help comes from a complete stranger.