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FBI warns of ‘relative in distress’ scam

December 15, 2011 |  3:18 pm

FBI warns of 'relative in distress' scam

For three Los Angeles-area grandparents who received calls about their loved ones, the voice on the other end of the phone was adamant and fear-inducing.

One was told their grandchild was in jail or in a terrible car accident. Callers said they needed money to pay for legal bills or operations.

Collectively, the grandparents wired $30,000 to overseas accounts in countries that included Lebanon, Spain, Canada, the Dominican Republic and Peru.

But federal officials said Thursday that the calls were part of a computer-related crime known as the "relative in distress" or "grandparents" scam. Such incidents have surged over the last year with calls from victims coming in daily.

Steven Martinez, the FBI's assistant director in charge of the Los Angeles field office, said Southern California provides a "target-rich environment" for overseas scam artists who see the area as a mecca of wealth that is ripe for the taking.

Sources for the scam are mined from a multitude of sources from social media to public records and the phone book. A little personal information can go a long way without communication among family members, officials said.

"They prey on raw emotion," Martinez said.

Mary Orcutt was contacted out of the blue by a young man who insisted he was her grandson and had been in an accident in Barcelona and needed money for repairs. The voice sounded much like her grandson, Joshua, who was serving in Afghanistan in the U.S. military

She initially wired $2,000. But the caller insisted he needed more. The money for car repairs was not enough. Then, he called again and said he need funds to pay the hospital bill. He called a fourth time and said he needed money wired for an operation.

The final payment of $4,300 was a partial payment. Before sending the difference, Orcutt received a call from another person who claimed to be with the American Consulate in Barcelona. After checking with the U.S. State Department, she found out no such person worked there.

When she asked the caller who claimed to be her grandson what his brother's name was, he became indignant and hung up. In all Orcutt, sent about $10,000, including wire transfer fees.

U.S. Atty. Andre Birotte Jr. in Los Angeles said avoiding becoming a victim requires asking a lot of questions, fully checking out claims and communicating with your family, as well as knowing that publically available personal information can be manipulated for criminal purposes.

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--Andrew Blankstein (Twitter.com/anblanx)

Photo: Press conference at federal building in Westwood. Mary Orcutt is second from left. Credit: Andrew Blankstein / Los Angeles Times

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