We’re investigating two recent scams that both revolve around the paying of bills using department store gift cards or pre-paid money cards. The latest fraud started with a phone call around 12:35 p.m., Oct. 16, and cost a 74 year-old West Side couple around $6000 after they paid a man who identified himself as a court appointed attorney for their grandson who was away at college; and had supposedly just been arrested after riding in a car that was pulled over and marijuana was found.The man told the couple that since their grandson passed a drug test, he would most likely be released at a hearing that afternoon but they had to send the “attorney” $2000 in gift cards from a department store in order for him to handle the case. It was then that the couple were allowed to “talk” to their “grandson”, who, according to the couple, was crying and his voice sounded muffled. The “grandson” told the couple he was scared and requested they not tell anyone what happened. They did as directed and called the man back to give him the card numbers which allowed him to cash the gift cards.

They received two other calls that day from the same man, one at 1:20 p.m. and the other around 1:45 p.m., where they were thanked for their payment and advised their “grandson” would be put up in a hotel overnight and had to go to another hearing the next day. They again talked with someone purporting to be their grandson but never tried to make contact by calling either their real grandson or his parents to check his welfare.

Around 9:30 a.m. Oct. 17, they received another call from the same man saying their “grandson” had been found guilty of a misdemeanor and they needed to send another $4000 in gift cards from the same department store to pay the fine. They did as they were told and surrendered the card numbers again allowing them to be cashed. About three hours later they received yet another call saying they needed another $2275 in gift cards to pay the court costs. They again did as they were told including furnishing the gift card numbers.

For the final transaction, the couple went to the department store chain’s Oswego location. An alert clerk at the store knew that when a senior citizen buys a large amount of money in gift cards, they may be being scammed so the clerk alerted the Oswego Police who then informed us. Upon our arrival to the couple’s home at 2:05 p.m., Oct. 17, we were able to calm them, put them in touch with their grandson who said he was fine, and contact the department store’s corporate headquarters and successfully deactivate the final set of gift cards so they could not be cashed.

This type of scam is not all that rare and usually targets grandparents of college students. The scammers are skilled enough to obtain the name of the grandchild either through a different phone call or online. They can find out the same personal information about the grandparents including finance-related records. As this case shows, once the scammers have the grandparent on the hook for one payment, they will continue to “up the ante” demanding more payments. They choose gift cards (or pre-paid money cards) because they are easily, and almost instantly, cashable. Since personal information can also be stolen from computers, the use of anti-virus and anti-spyware software is a must. It is likewise important to never open email attachments from people you don’t know because they could contain programs that enable crooks to remotely access your computer.

Grandparents finding themselves in a similar situation should take a deep breath, and try and get hold of their grandchild or the child’s parents to confirm the status of the child. Grandparents can also ask a question only their grandchild would know such as the name of a pet, the grandchild’s mother’s birthday or the name of the grandchild’s elementary school.

The second scam occurred on Oct. 12 when two people lost a combined $500 after they were supposedly called by ComEd saying they had overdue bills and to avoid an immediate shutdown of services, they would have to pay with pre-paid cards. This particular scam has been around for several years and has been investigated by APD in the past.

These types of frauds are extremely difficult to investigate and are many times, being conducted from outside the U.S. Also remember that ComEd (and other utilities) do not require immediate payment of accounts in these fashions. If you receive similar calls, simply hang up and contact the utility(s) directly. ComEd’s phone number is 1-800-334-7661. Those who have been scammed can contact the Illinois Attorney General’s Office at 1-800-386-5438 or online at www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov.