Your phone rings. “Help, Grandma! But please don’t tell my parents. I’m in trouble in South America and need to borrow some money to get out.” Then another voice comes on telling you where to send the money within two hours or more harm will come to your loved one. What should you do?
Beware. It’s probably a scam. And if you’re a kind-hearted person, you could lose thousands of dollars to crooks.
The Department of State’s Office of Overseas Citizens Services receives regular calls and inquiries from victims of international financial scams. Most tend to be “romance scams” or “grandparent scams,” but there are many other creative scams out there such as the “lottery scam.” They all share one common element: innocent victims lose considerable sums of money, sometimes up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In almost all financial scams, the targeted person is led to believe that there is a chance to attain something of very great personal value in return for a small up-front monetary outlay. In romance scams, after an online courtship, the love interest claims to be a U.S. citizen who won’t be able to return to the United States to marry the victim because of trouble overseas. In grandparent scams, the perpetrator calls a grandparent or other relative pretending to be a grandchild/niece/nephew, etc. The caller claims to be in a foreign country, caught in an embarrassing or urgent bind – something their “parents” can’t know about – and that money must be sent quickly. In lottery scams, scammers generally send an e-mail, fax, or letter to potential victims announcing that they have won a foreign lottery or sweepstakes. The "winner" need only provide personal bank account information and pay a few fees up-front to collect his or her substantial winnings. Sadly, the “winner” never actually collects the winnings and instead loses all of the fees paid.
Scammers usually target people with kind hearts, regardless of gender, age, or race. They especially take advantage of individuals they think are vulnerable, such as widows and people with disabilities. It is essential to be aware of the key warning signs of financial scams:
· The scammer and the victim meet online, often through internet dating or employment sites.
· The scammer uses two first names as a full name (i.e., Frank James, or John Daniel).
· Photographs of the alleged individual show a very attractive person.
· The scammer has incredibly bad luck, often having been in car crashes, arrested, mugged, beaten, or hospitalized – usually all within the course of a couple of months. (S)he sometimes claims to have an accompanying child overseas who is very sick or has been in an accident.
· The scammer asks for money to get out of a bad situation, or to provide a service.
· The scammer may claim to be the grandchild or to be calling on behalf of the grandchild of the victim.
· Email may arrive from a known e-mail account. Scammers sometimes hack accounts and send pleas for help to everyone in the address book.
· The scammer claims the U.S. Embassy would not help. In reality, (s)he is not really a U.S. citizen and/or has not actually contacted the embassy.
· Some scammers will even claim that they are calling from the U.S. Embassy. Victims should contact the State Department’s Office of Overseas Citizens Services at 1-888-407-4747 to verify if the U.S. Embassy has any open cases involving the alleged U.S. citizen.
Here are some tips to help avoid becoming a victim of scams:
· Remember – if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
· Never send money to someone you have not met in person without verifying his/her identity.
· Don't disclose personal details online or over the phone.
· If you receive a call or email about a family member in distress, call other family members at known numbers and locations to make sure the information is true.
· Refer all individuals who claim to be in distress overseas to the local U.S. embassy or consulate.
· Contact the Department of State's Office of Overseas Citizens Services (OCS) at 1-888-407-4747 for suggestions on how to verify whether the situation is legitimate or a scam.
For additional tips on avoiding and recognizing scams, as well as for further information and resources, please visit the State Department’s website on International Financial Scams (http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/financial_scams/financial_scams_3155.html).
About the author
Brendan O’Brien is the Director of the Office of American Citizens Services and Crisis Management, a position he assumed in June 2012 after serving as Special Assistant to the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Overseas Citizens Services.
Mr. O’Brien is a Foreign Service Officer, whose career includes a mix of assignments in Washington DC, Latin America and South Asia. He served two tours at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan – as Consular Chief and Press Attaché, from 2008-2010. From 2005-2007, Mr. O’Brien was the Deputy American Citizens Service Chief at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia, which followed an assignment as Consular Chief for the U.S. Embassy in Canberra Australia from 2003-2005.