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'Grandparent scam' still active in South Florida

PLANTATION — Esther Duke was shaking after she hung up the phone.

A man called to say 'Hello grandma!' and share a scary tale: he was jailed after a traffic stop in Canada and, wouldn't you know, there were illegal drugs in the car. He needed $2,814 to get sprung.

Duke was in the midst of the "grandparent scam."

Consumer watchdogs from Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum to the Better Business Bureau warn that the scheme has accumulated victims in 14 states and two Canadian provinces since 2008. Authorities believe complaints are not always filed.

"People are embarrassed to report it to law enforcement or their families, especially if they are alone or are fighting for their independence," said FBI special agent and spokesman Richard Kolko. "And if you don't report them, we've got no chance of catching them."

The scammers are gathering information on people from social media and other Internet sites.

"It's a different world," said Mike Galvin of the West Palm Beach Better Business Bureau. "Information is very valuable, and [criminals] have access to it."

Boynton Beach Police spokeswoman Stephanie Slater said several recent cases there have prompted plans for a public service announcement about the grandparent scam for the city's TV station and Internet sites.

In Plantation, the 77-year-old Duke, a retired social worker, cannot remember if she responded 'Hello Matthew' to the stranger who called Monday, naming her only grandson, a college student.

But she figures she must have shared that personal detail and the emotional connection to her grandson was made — and the caller had her on his hook.

"It's cunning," Duke says.

The pitch was similar to one heard by Isidore and Birtha Magin, of Tamarac, about their granddaughter.

In both cases, a second person pretending to be an official got on the phone.

"Officer Cohen" then directed Duke to a Walmart store near her home and instructed her to use MoneyGram to pay the "bail" to a bondsman in Barcelona, Spain. And please, he said, keep it confidential.

Despite Duke's jangled nerves, she ignored the caller's instructions. She called Matthew's father.

"We have three sons and we're all open and aboveboard with everything, no secrets," said Duke, who learned Matthew, 20, was not in Canada but at his summer job teaching golf, and that it was all a scam.

Duke's relief was doubled, as she would have had to borrow the money from her girlfriend Barbara to pay the callers.

"Your guts have to tell you what to do," Duke says. "Bottom line is I told Barbara to keep her money."

But "Officer Cohen" called again.

"He wanted to know if I went to the store," Duke said. "I said I was very busy and hung up on them. I got a few more hang-ups that day that I didn't pick up."

The Magins of Tamarac weren't so lucky: they wired $1,659 that they'll likely never see again. But their granddaughter is fine. Trouble didn't find her in Canada, either.

Staff Researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this story. Linda Trischitta can be reached at ltrischitta@sunsentinel.com or 954-356-4233.

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