Common Financial Scams - And How to Avoid Them

Gary Alt |

Rhonda*, a friend of mine in Pleasanton, called me to her home last month to discuss a troubling family matter.  Rhonda’s grandson called her, frantic, just as he was being arrested after being involved in a serious car accident.  Crying hysterically, he asked her to bail him out of jail.  He only had a few seconds to speak to her before the police officer got on the phone, explaining to her that he couldn’t disclose any details on her grandson’s arrest because he had a “gag order.”  Her grandson wasn’t drinking, he said, but one of the passengers in the other car was seriously injured.  He was kind enough to provide a telephone number to call so she could post bail to free her loving grandson from his terrible predicament.  After we discussed the matter, we concluded that it was a financial scam and she ignored it.  

This is the second time I’ve seen the “grandson in jail” scam targeting someone I know.  Another time I saw this happen, the story was that their grandson was in jail in Mexico.  Now there’s a thought that'll strike fear in any grandparent.   

In another common financial scam, the caller pretends to be an agent with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and even has the intended victim’s last 4 digits of their Social Security Number.  The caller then threatens arrest, deportation or revocation of a driver license unless the victim immediately pays their overdue tax bill.  In some cases they use technology so the official IRS phone number shows up on your caller ID.

According to Detective Jonathan Chin of the Pleasanton Police Department, “scammers target the elderly because they know that seniors have a soft heart.”  He said in some cases people called the police department after they’ve lost tens of thousands of dollars.

If you get a phone call demanding money, pay attention to a few clues that are common patterns in financial fraud.  Whether you’re contacted by phone or email, here’s what to watch for:

  • The story involves a serious issue, such as legal trouble, a medical emergency of a family member, or overdue taxes.

  • The scammer identifies himself or herself as a government official representing a police department, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), or the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

  • They create a sense of urgency based on fear or panic.

  • They demand that you wire funds immediately. They don’t want to give you a lot of time to think through the situation clearly.  Oftentimes they’ll ask that money be wired to an individual, rather than the government agency they claim to represent.

If you receive a phone call that fits this pattern, here’s what you should do:

  1. Take time to think through the situation so you don’t panic.
  2. If the story involves a family member, try contacting them to verify the emergency.
  3. According to Detective Chin, “The best thing to do is to call the government agency they claim to represent, whether it’s the IRS, the INS or a police department, to verify their story.”

By taking a few hours or days to follow these three steps you’ll save yourself from crooks that continue to find success with these scams.

*To protect my friend’s identity I’ve changed her name for this story.

Gary Alt is an Accredited Investment Fiduciary and CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER practitioner in Pleasanton, CA.  As fee-only investment advisors, Monterey Private Wealth serves the communities of Pleasanton, Dublin, Blackhawk, Danville, San Ramon, Livermore and the greater San Francisco Bay Area.