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Directive has been serving the Oneonta area since 1993, providing IT Support such as technical helpdesk support, computer support, and consulting to small and medium-sized businesses.

How Scammers Almost Got $15k from My Parents

How Scammers Almost Got $15k from My Parents

This is a true story, and a perfect lesson on how cybercrime and scammers use your emotions against you to get you to fall for their tricks. I think it’s also a lesson on just how helpless a victim of a scammer can become, as well as how immune the bad guys are while performing these horrible acts on people.

I want to start this out with a disclaimer. My parents, while not especially tech-savvy, are fairly skeptical people who don’t fall for a lot of tricks or scams. My mother might still believe Publisher’s Clearing House is going to stop on by with one of those giant checks if she keeps registering for their sweepstakes, but at the same time, if someone calls their landline pretending to be Microsoft support, she scolds them as if they were little kids causing a ruckus.

The point is, my parents don’t tend to fall for scams and tricks. They can probably blame their kids for that—we’ve had decades to harden their defenses. It’s also important to the story that my younger brother, who is in his mid-thirties, calls home to mom and dad several times a week. This not only sets up his character, but also tells you that they hear his voice on the phone a lot. My brother is the unexpected main character in this plot, so let’s go through the events that happened.

“Ma’am, Your Son Was in a Car Accident”

It was a Tuesday morning in May when my parents got a call from a police officer. 

The officer told my mother that her youngest son had been in a car accident, and that he was at the Oneonta Courthouse. Then a lawyer got involved, and got on the phone with my parents. He claimed to be my brother’s lawyer, and told my parents that my brother had a broken nose and was very upset, but he was otherwise ok. 

My parents are then told that my brother hit someone else—a pregnant woman. 

The story gets deeper and more complicated. The lawyer says they are keeping him in jail for now, and that the lady decided to press charges against him when she found out he was texting while driving. The lawyer is quick to clarify that my brother had dropped the phone and was reaching for it when he struck the woman with his car.

Then, they put my brother on the phone with my parents.

He was clearly upset, crying, and basically just asking for help. At this point, my parents were fully engaged and ready to stop at nothing to solve this. As my mom put it, “I kept picturing him sitting in jail with a broken nose.”

My parents live about 45 minutes away from Oneonta, so that’s when they called me.

“Your Brother Was in a Car Accident”

I get a call from my mom, who is clearly stressed out and panicking. “Your brother was in a car accident, I need you to go to the Oneonta courthouse and tell him to only talk to his lawyer and…”

I interrupted my mom. I asked “Slow down, did you actually talk to him?” She said yes.

At this point, I had my mom slow down and explain everything carefully, and asked if my brother was okay. She went through the whole situation—the broken nose, the pregnant lady, the lawyer, she had a case number, everything. 

I asked, “Okay, I can be there in 10 minutes, which courthouse, there are two in Oneonta?”

She didn’t know, and didn’t think to ask. Obviously she was frazzled, so off I went to try to find my brother.

The Authorities Couldn’t Help

I drove to the Oneonta Town Courthouse, and then to the Oneonta City Courthouse. At each, I asked if my brother was there, if his lawyer was there, and I explained the situation—the full situation. Each officer I spoke to was told the same story; the car accident, the broken nose, the pregnant woman, etc. I don’t know much about the legal system other than what I’ve gleaned from Better Call Saul, but I was careful to not say anything that would incriminate my brother. He was in an accident, it involved a pregnant woman. I was told he is being held or detained, and that I am simply looking for him and his lawyer.

Nobody had any information or knew what I was talking about.

While leaving the city courthouse, I called the county sheriff's office and the state troopers and repeated the whole story—broken nose, pregnant lady, everything. Again, nobody knew who or where my brother was. I was told to try the hospital. My IT-brain told me that this is simply a problem with communication and documentation. Somebody was messing up, or not giving me the right information. 

Something wasn’t right. I was frustrated (and it’s pretty easy to get me to find fault in “the system” so there’s that too). My little brother, who is essentially a living version of Ernie from Sesame Street, was sitting in… some jail, somewhere, and there wasn’t anything I could do, and nobody could give me a straight answer!

I got my parents back on the phone. The lawyer they’ve been talking to advised them to take out some bail money, but told them that the bailer’s office had a meeting every second Tuesday and it would be faster if they sent a carrier to come to their house and pick it up. They were just on their way back from the bank and the carrier was expected to arrive in about 20 minutes.

I drove home and started to put the pieces together on the highway.

It’s All an Elaborate Scam!

I want to tell this story as if I were some great detective, who through the powers of deduction and extremely nuanced observation had been able to solve the perfect crime, but to be honest, I was too emotionally charged from the situation. It felt wrong, but my ire was pointed in the wrong direction, the same way that my parents were emotionally charged and not thinking clearly.

While I was sitting in the Oneonta City Courthouse, while a person behind thick glass looked up my brother's name to see if he was “in the system,” I texted the situation to a group chat for a few friends to see. Mostly one of those “wow you won’t believe the day I’m having” sort of texts.

One friend happened to recall reading about a scam with all the same keywords—broken nose, pregnant lady, et cetera. She sent me a few links while I was pulling back into my driveway.

Did I mention that my brother and I are, more or less, neighbors? His house is a quarter mile from mine. If you were looking for a funny punchline in this story, here it is.

His car, perfectly unscathed, was in his driveway. He was home, in a Zoom meeting for work. Nobody bothered to call him to check to see if he was there.

Why would we? 

The Clock Is Ticking!

Meanwhile, my parents had taken out $15 thousand dollars to pay their son’s bail. I called and got their cell phone—their landline was tied up because they were back on the phone with the so-called lawyer. I told my dad it was a scam, and that my brother is at home and fine. 

My mom barely needed a second to process the information before she was scolding the scammers.

“You should be ashamed of yourselves! If I was your mother…” I could practically imagine her waving a shoe in the air at them.

The so-called carrier was expected to arrive within minutes to collect the money and drive off never to be seen again. Fortunately, once the scammers were outed, they turned their tails and ran, and nobody made an appearance at my parents’ house. 

They reported it to the police, the FTC, and probably anybody else they could think of, but the answer was the same each time; sorry, there’s nothing we can do, but good thing you didn’t give them the money!

Everyone was okay. I encouraged my parents to go out and order a nice dinner, after all, you have $15k burning a hole in your pocket.

Crazy Story, But What Does This Have to Do with IT?

There is a whole lot to unpack from this. This is a very elaborate scam, with multiple people playing the role of lawyers, police officers, and even the victim. 

We’re not even sure how they managed to convince my mom that it was my brother on the line—my guess is that they used the broken nose as an excuse, but it’s possible the scammers have called my brother as telemarketers or the like, and maybe gathered a couple of voice samples. It’s really hard to tell these days. It’s also very possible that my mom was so emotionally raw to the point where Morgan Freeman could have been put on the line and said “It is me, your son, I seek your help” and she would have gone right with it.

The point is, there are a lot of ways to trick people today. With AI and modern technology, someone with a strong will to come up with something diabolical can, and they can try it over and over again, perfecting it until it gets a decent return rate.

I mentioned that my friend sent me some articles about this particular scam. Each one is a little different. Each time the scam is reported, the details change. The scammers are evolving it and fine-tuning it to work better and better each time. It’s typically known as the “grandparent scam” or the “broken nose scam.” 

The other big part of this was the fact that every single person I spoke to that day didn’t recognize the scam. I don’t expect every officer or desk worker to know every type of way a civilian can get grifted, but I spoke with at least six different people who weren’t aware of the “broken nose scam.” I made sure to call back the courthouses/police stations/sheriff's office to run through the whole scenario. 

Maybe it’s not a super popular scam, but it was effective. It almost lost my parents $15k. It’s very likely it has hurt other people in the area.

One thing rings very true though—there isn’t much you can do when you fall for a scam like this. Once you give your money to a stranger, whether it be handing it to a carrier or wiring it digitally, you might be out of luck when you realize it was all a fraud.

Cybersecurity and General IT-Related Scams Work Just Like This

While I encourage you to share this around, I do want to connect this with general business cybersecurity. More and more businesses are doing the right thing and investing in their cybersecurity. They are paying for centralized antivirus, using firewalls, and hiring companies like Directive to help them stay safe in a world where online threats are rampant. 

This means the bad guys have had to react. Cyberattacks are craftier and more aggressive than ever before. There are people who make a living off of the pain of others, and they aren’t going to sit by while businesses raise the defenses. Cybercriminals are optimizing their scams and adding emotionally-charged drama to what they do.

From phishing attacks that claim you have committed copyright infringement, to emails that look like they are from a co-worker trying to share access to a document, cybercriminals are trying to nuance their way through your defenses. 

While every business needs to meet a bare minimum as far as how much effort they put into security from a hardware and software standpoint, it also comes down to training and knowledge on your employees behalf. 

We can help with both. If you want to learn more, give us a call at 607.433.2200.

But the moral of this story isn’t some call to action. It isn’t to sell something. It’s about spreading awareness. If my skeptical parents can be tricked into taking $15 grand out of the bank and waiting for a guy to show up at their house, anyone can be tricked into making a much smaller mistake that causes a lot of havoc on their lives, either personally or professionally.

Share this around, and while it’s hard to be skeptical when something triggers an emotional response, be sure to always give yourself time to think a situation through and attempt to confirm information before committing to giving something away, whether that’s your money, access to something, or information.

Stay safe out there, and if you’ve experienced scams like this, let us know and we will continue to report on them.