WASHINGTON -- When Linda and Ron Spence got a desperate phone call from someone who identified himself as their grandson, Michael, they didn’t think twice. He was in trouble. Of course they would help him.
Michael told the Spences he’d been gambling online. He owed money, his bank account had been frozen and he’d be thrown in jail if he couldn’t come up with cash to pay an attorney.
“Don’t tell mom and dad,” he begged the couple from Fort Myers, Fla. He said an attorney would call them to arrange payment, and hung up.
“I was worried about him. I couldn’t get hold of him,” said Linda, who’s 67. “I tried to get him on his cellphone, and no answer.”
The Spences ended up wiring $1,800 to the Dominican Republic, following instructions from another caller who said he was Michael’s lawyer.
Both callers were imposters. The real Michael hadn’t been gambling, and he didn’t need a lawyer. He was at home in Phoenix, not in jail.
The Spences had been victims of a so-called “grandparent scam,” in which a con artist pretending to be a victim’s grandchild claims to be hospitalized or imprisoned and in need of emergency cash. The anxious grandparent rushes to wire money to the imposter or loads it onto a prepaid card and then hands over the PIN.
It’s an old con that’s seeing a resurgence nationwide. Instances of such imposter scams doubled from 2009 to 2013, costing Americans more than $73 million annually, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
The trend has drawn the attention of Congress, where lawmakers held a hearing about the problem Wednesday.
“It’s incredibly despicable,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who led the hearing before the Senate Special Committee on Aging. “It preys on seniors’ willingness to do anything to help a family member in trouble.”
At the hearing, an 81-year-old man testified about how he’d lost $7,000 to an imposter pretending to be his grandson.
Speaking from a wheelchair, the white-haired man from Cincinnati was allowed to testify without revealing his name because he feared the publicity might make him a target for other con artists.
The deception “sent my life into a tailspin,” he said.
He said he’d reported the incident to the Cincinnati police, “who didn’t seem interested.”
As in most such scams, there’s little hope of catching the perpetrators, much less getting the victim’s money back.
Scammers target seniors because they’re most likely to have “nest eggs,” own their homes and have excellent credit, said Joseph Campbell, deputy assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the FBI and other law enforcement agencies needed to prosecute such scams more aggressively.
“Until we put in jail a lot of people who are committing these scams we are not going to see real progress,” Collins said.
“What I’m hearing from law enforcement is they’re too small individually for us to bother with them,” she said. “Well, you can be sure that the person who ripped off (one person) went on to rip off other people.”
Wednesday’s hearing produced no legislative solutions, but it was part of a push by Collins, Nelson and other members of Congress to bring attention to the problem and to pressure retailers and card makers to take proactive steps to protect customers.
“Private companies that sell prepaid debit products or offer wire services are the last line of defense for consumers before their money is sent, and then it’s lost forever,” Nelson said.
Some companies are starting to make changes to reduce the fraud. In a statement submitted for the record at Wednesday’s hearing, prepaid card maker Green Dot announced that it would discontinue the MoneyPak PIN method of reloading a card, a popular way for scammers to steal victims’ money remotely.
The company will move instead to a “card swipe” process that requires the cardholder to be in the store and to swipe the debit card in order to reload funds. Without the MoneyPak PIN, Green Dot said in the statement, imposters will have no way of redeeming money from a Green Dot card.
Retail giant Wal-Mart also said in a statement Wednesday that it would stop selling MoneyPak and Vanilla Reload cards, in part because of “increasing instances where customers said they were steered toward these products by fraudsters.”
The grandparent scam is a familiar one in Nelson’s home state of Florida, where deputies in the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office refer to it as a “granny scam.”
Victims are vulnerable because someone is playing on their emotions and doing it with a sense of urgency, sheriff’s spokesman Randy Warren said.
“Elderly family members can be an easy target if they’re being misled to believe that someone they care about is in trouble,” Warren said. “The last thing they're thinking about is the money aspect of it.”
Looking back, Florida grandma Linda Spence can’t believe she fell for it. She retired as a civilian clerk from a sheriff’s office, and her husband, Ron, 73, used to work as a sheriff’s deputy in Denver. They’re far from naive about such scams, and had even heard them described on a television show. They never thought it could happen to them.
But when the couple thought Michael was in trouble, their grandparent instincts kicked in, overriding their better judgment.
“You go into protective mode, like mother bear mode,” Linda said. “It’s ridiculous. I’m smarter than that, and I felt like a total fool.”
She said she wanted to share her experience so others wouldn’t be as easily duped.
“Nobody else needs to be taken like this,” she said.
Amaris Castillo of The Bradenton Herald contributed to this article from Bradenton, Fla.