Palo Alto Realtor target of 'grandparents' scam

Ann Griffiths hopes to raise awareness about manipulative con

Ann Griffiths a well-known real estate agent, wants everyone to know about a scam to which she fell prey on Jan. 25 -- one that can devastate the life savings of seniors.

Griffiths was scammed out of nearly $11,000 after con artists impersonating her grandson led her to believe he had been arrested in Barcelona, Spain.

"I'm lucky. It could've been worse," she said today (Feb. 3).

"I had saved some money for a trip to Paris this summer with my granddaughters. It's gone now."

Griffiths said she was in a board meeting at Coldwell Banker, where she is a broker, when her phone rang. The voice on the other end sounded like her grandson, Ryan.

"Hey, Grandma," the voice said.

But Griffiths said her supposed grandson's voice didn't sound quite right.

"Ryan, you don't sound OK," she said.

"Well, I'm in Barcelona, Spain," the voice said.

The real Ryan is a student at U.C. Santa Barbara, but the Ryan on the phone explained that he'd won a radio contest for a trip to Barcelona and he had taken a friend along. Griffiths pointed out that he didn't have a passport. "Ryan" said the radio station had taken care of the problem and he had checked into a five-star hotel.

But he said he and his friend were in a Spanish jail after having met two young people from Canada on the beach. The young men went backpacking and got into the Canadian youths' car to do some sightseeing, the impersonator said. Police pulled them over and found drugs in the car, he claimed.

Griffiths said "Ryan" made her promise not to tell anyone in the family. But he handed the phone to a policeman named Ted Peterson who said he handled law-enforcement issues for the U.S. embassy in Spain. He assured Griffiths that "Ryan" and his friends had not been in possession of drugs but he needed her to wire $2,500 bail to get her grandson out of jail.

Peterson told Griffiths to wire the money through Western Union rather than a bank, because bankers might want to investigate and it could end up on her grandson's permanent record.

Griffiths said she wanted to protect Ryan at all costs, and the idea that he was being held in a foreign country played deeply to her emotions. Griffiths said she wasn't suspicious because $2,500 wasn't much money for bail, since her late husband had been an attorney.

She spoke to Peterson again on Jan. 26 and he said he needed more money to help Ryan, since "the judge was making an example out of him." Griffiths had her banker wire more money, swearing the bank to secrecy.

As "Ryan" was to be released, Griffiths received a call from a man who claimed that Ryan owed $5,600 in legal fees and he would not be allowed to leave Spain until the sum was paid. Griffiths wired that money too.

She decided to call Ted Peterson again and asked him the name of the American ambassador. Peterson said he didn't know.

"That's when I smelled a rat," she said, adding that she called the Palo Alto police. Griffiths tried to stop the $5,600 wire transfer but it went through five minutes before Western Union could stop the transfer, she said.

Griffiths called her real grandson's cell phone and he answered. The real Ryan said knew nothing about the scam and had been in Santa Barbara the entire time taking a physics exam, Griffiths said.

Police told her the con artists get hold of cell-phone numbers and use another number to cover their tracks.

"You feel violated. But I'm not angry, I'm thankful," she said, happy that she did not lose more.

Griffiths is a former president of Peninsula Volunteers at Little House in Menlo Park, which caters to seniors. She said she wants people to know how easy it is to be taken advantage of and to never provide important information that can lead to identity theft.

"If I can save just one grandparent...." she said of her decision to come forward.

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Like this comment
Posted by Jimmy
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 3, 2011 at 10:19 am

watch out for emails from friends and family members also pleading for assistance from theft of purse or wallet and being overseas requesting funds to be wired...

Like this comment
Posted by K-Dub
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 3, 2011 at 10:30 am

How evil is that? There is a special place in hell for people that try to swindle older people out of their money.

Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 3, 2011 at 10:32 am

I heard the same thing on the radio the other day, same scam and a 91 year old man gave a huge amount of money to get a newphew out.Total scam

Like this comment
Posted by Mom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 3, 2011 at 10:44 am

It seems like she should have called the boy and his parents first before sending any money.

Like this comment
Posted by Steve C
a resident of Menlo Park
on Feb 3, 2011 at 10:56 am

Probably Nigerians or former east block scammers. Just like the scam emails from phony websites claiming to be from your bank or credit card company, or even FaceBook, all seeking to re-set your account information and passwords. You simply have to contact the real website in question and ask if they have tried to contact you. They can straighten you out quickly, and will welcome the information about the scammer. In this case, I would have immediately tried to reach the relative in question. If he had been arrested in Spain, you flat out wouldn't have been able to contact him unless through the consulate or embassy, but would have been able to reach him on his cell phone at school. Scam over.
We all have to be vigilant at all times about any requests for money, especially through the wire services. Someone had to show some sort if ID to pick up the money though, and if it was actually picked up in Spain, you might be able to get some help from the authorities there, working with your bank. Good chance the location receiving the funds has been getting them from a lot of victims, and may even be in on the scam. Someone knows where the money was actually picked up.

Like this comment
Posted by Ann
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 3, 2011 at 11:02 am

Ann Griffiths, I am sorry to hear your story. Thanks for sharing it. I think anyone can fall for this type of scam when trying to protect a loved one. I hope someone comes along to help you raise your money back so you can travel with your other grandchildren. I also hope something can be done to protect people... I find hard to believe that there is no way to track down who made the calls or who took the money out. Thanks again for sharing your story. -Ann

Like this comment
Posted by Susan
a resident of another community
on Feb 3, 2011 at 11:05 am

I received an email last year from a friend who was supposedly stranded in Africa. I called one of her friends and was told that it was a scam.

Like this comment
Posted by madhuri
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 3, 2011 at 11:51 am

Why did not she call her grandson in the first place? That is what we need to do before doing anything else.

Like this comment
Posted by Old Palo Alto
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 3, 2011 at 1:09 pm

Another scam: When a home is listed legitimately for sale or rent, scammers will post a phony listing at a ridiculously cheap price on various other internet sites, usually out of state. They ask the prospective renters to fill out an application before they view the property, giving them their SS#, bank info, etc. Sometimes they even ask for a security deposit. The prospective renter then realizes the scammer is not the rightful owner and their identity and money has been stolen.

Like this comment
Posted by Bill
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Feb 3, 2011 at 1:21 pm

Seems to me that Western Union bears some responsibility in this scam. This is the second person I have heard about this week that has been scammed out of large amounts of money. The second case was in Menlo Park and although the pitch was quite different it never-the-less involved transferring money via Western Union. Doesn't Western Union require some identification before releasing the money? If not, why not? The confirmation number they give to you so that you can give it to your contact (phony in these cases) is simply not enough. The contact can use the confirmation number anywhere in the world (Nigeria???) to pick up the cash. This has simply happened too many times. Shame on Western Union.

Like this comment
Posted by andreas
a resident of Ventura
on Feb 3, 2011 at 1:26 pm

This happened to us last year. Using a friend's email account, they sent an urgent message from her account that she had lost all her credit cards and checks in London.

I called her and found out she was in SF. So we decided to have some fun.

I replied to the email that $2,000 seemed too little and perhaps I should send $10,000. "She" replied that would be great! Send it via Western Union ASAP!

I replied that would be a $45 fee, but we could save that by transferring it via the US Embassy. "She" replied that we shouldn't trust the embassy. "They might steal the money."

I replied that it would be safe: "Mr. Mike Williams" was the head of security at the embassy and had 12 years in Special Operations and always carried weapons. Just meet with him and he'll hand over the $10,000.

Oddly enough, we never heard from them again! :-)

Like this comment
Posted by Henry
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Feb 3, 2011 at 1:56 pm

This has been going on for years. Always, I mean ALWAYS call the person or someone who knows the person first before you ever send any money!

Like this comment
Posted by Same scam
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 3, 2011 at 2:03 pm

The exact same scam, almost word-for-word, happened to my husband in mid-December. Luckily he made a few phone calls before any money was sent. My husband called the Palo Alto police to report the incident. The officer taking the report was indifferent at best. Since my husband hadn't fallen for the scam and no money was exchanged, it was considered a non-event. It's unfortunate scams like this, that affect members of our community, aren't posted on the police blotter in the newspapers. I guess citations for marijuana and complaints of dogs barking are more news worthy.

Like this comment
Posted by nancy
a resident of another community
on Feb 3, 2011 at 2:15 pm

I heard of the same scam last week. The country was also Spain and the caller claimed to be the man's nephew. It is always a good idea
to check with relatives before sending money. This scam seems to be
in full swing right now.

Like this comment
Posted by Facebookie
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 3, 2011 at 2:22 pm

Pretty easy for scammers to get the names of your children and grandchildren, hometowns, employers, and lots of other personal information from Facebook. If they know your name and hometown, finding your address and phone number isn't too hard. They can put together a pretty good con with that.

It's not just Nigeria any more. Many of the biggest scammers are based in central Europe.

Like this comment
Posted by Gerry MacKinnon
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 3, 2011 at 2:56 pm

This happens to often to seniors, the "Canadian Scam" or many others put a bad twist on our countries and what we are trying to do to stop this. I spent 28 years with the RORAL CANADIAN MOUNTED Police and retired in 2001. Since then I have lectured through out Canada and the North USA about identity theft. First know that there are more than what Ms.Griffith inregards to financial frauds. The other types that will actually do more damage to you are Medical, Drivers, Your SSN and Character (where the victim ends up dealing with law enforcment because the theif becomes them) Now there is synthetic where they use information from several people to become a new person. The website that I have is I have strived to put as much mutual information on that site for both folks, business and association in USA and Canada. Please have a look but with the social networks that are out now remember "any one can become you" Gerry MacKinnon Nelson BC Canada.

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Feb 3, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Am I doing the math wrong? It seems to add up to $8100. Nevertheless, it's a large amount to lose in the current economy. What a bummer! Double bummer that it seems the scammers are working this area but PAPD couldn't be bothered to set up a trap.

Like this comment
Posted by Leslie
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 3, 2011 at 3:35 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 3, 2011 at 4:46 pm

I've known Ann Griffiths for years - one smart lady. This scam has been going around for years - warned via Ann Landers, Snopes, the internet, and the press. It isn't new!! Highly publicized for several years, I can't believe she fell for this!! If one of my grandkids won a foreign travel 'prize', you better believe grandpa would have known about it with excitement before the ink was dry on the envelope!! And when one of my grandkids does something and I'm not supposed to tell his/her parents, my antenna goes waaaay up.

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Feb 3, 2011 at 5:15 pm

Yeah, it's easy to blame the victim because it didn't happen to us. But we're all vulnerable some of the time and that's when scammers can get lucky. I wish there was a focus on the criminals and lack of police assistance in these cases. It'd be great if there were US-based & could be busted for RICO. I'd love to know where the cons picked up the money - here, or abroad.

I'm glad Ms. Griffiths wised up quickly & didn't get taken for more & that it doesn't sound like it was her life savings.

Like this comment
Posted by One born every minute
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Feb 3, 2011 at 5:56 pm

Her grandson "wins" a free trip and she knows nothing about it
He calls for bail money and she does not check with his parents? She gets a second call for more money and sends it without checking any of the "facts"? Sorry I do not feel sorry for her. The perps probably cannot believe their good fortune.

Like this comment
Posted by rene
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Feb 3, 2011 at 8:40 pm

Wise up people.....wise up and use your head.

Like this comment
Posted by gravitas
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 3, 2011 at 9:02 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by Floyd
a resident of Green Acres
on Feb 3, 2011 at 11:04 pm

Possibly the money could have been wired to a U.S. consol or embassy and the "grandson" would have to show vald ID to get the money.
Myself, I'd refuse based on a phone call.

Like this comment
Posted by JT
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 4, 2011 at 4:18 am

To "Humm" who thought the amount Ann lost was $8100. The Daily Post, the paper that reported Ann's predicament first, broke down numbers in its story.

The con man originally said her grandson's bail would be $2,500.

She wired that amount plus the $125 fee charged by Western Union. Total $2,650.

Then she was told that the judge in Spain was "making an example" of her son and she had to wire $2,500 more, plus the $125 fee.

That brings the total to $5,250.

Then she's told to wire $5,600 in legal fees. Presumably there's another $125 fee for that transaction.

By my math, the total is $10,975.

Ann should be praised for speaking out about this, in her attempt to warn others.

Like this comment
Posted by International Grandson
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 4, 2011 at 9:32 am

Damn these people...Now my Grandma won´t believe me when I really do need bail money in Colombia!!!

Like this comment
Posted by rodents
a resident of Menlo Park
on Feb 4, 2011 at 10:32 am

How can I have any sympathy for this person? Why didn't she simply call the grandson? And agreeing with the supposed grandson to not contact the parents? Extremely irresponsible. I am sorry, but that was really, really stupid.

Like this comment
Posted by Tim
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 4, 2011 at 11:22 am

Because of sites like FACEBOOK, this is where these scammers get most of there information. Be very wise on what you post on facebook or better yet, do not use facebook.

Like this comment
Posted by ninadora
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 4, 2011 at 4:00 pm

the same thing happened to me. they sent an email to ALL of my contacts, saying i was stranded in england and needed money to be wired to me. then, they somehow got into my email account and changed the REPLY TO address to a bogus similar made up email address, which was the same as mine with a slight misspelling, so anyone who replied to that message was not recieved by me, but forwarded to their made up address. they then deleted ALL OF MY CONTACTS which was awful also, so i had no contacts left to alert anyone what was happening. here is the email they sent out. it happened last october to me. i use yahoo.

Subject: SAD NEWS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Am so sorry that i didn't tell you about my trip,I'm writing this with
tears in my eyes,I came down here to Wales,United Kingdom for a short
vacation unfortunately i was mugged at the park of the hotel where i
stayed all cash,credit card and cell were stolen off us but luckily for
me i still have my passports with me.

I 've been to the embassy and the Police here but they're not helping
issues at all and my flight leaves in less than hours from now but
having problems settling the hotel bills and the hotel manager won't
let us leave until i settle the bills,I'm freaked out at the moment.

Like this comment
Posted by JT
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 4, 2011 at 5:36 pm

I see Palo Alto Online edited my comment above in which I praised the Daily Post for reporting this story. The Post reported it first and the Weekly appeared to do a re-write of that story, but didn't get the details right, such as how the dollars added up. If the Weekly doesn't want commenters to compliment other newspapers, then that should mentioned in your TERMS OF USE policy. In addition, you did not even put a note on my posting saying you had deleted part of it.

Like this comment
Posted by Nora Charles
a resident of Stanford
on Feb 4, 2011 at 11:23 pm

I am so sorry this happened to Ms. Griffiths. It's easy to say she should have phoned her grandson, but she truly thought she HAD spoken to him, and he needed her help, pronto. Not everyone would be cool headed in such a situation.

I agree with Bill, it seems Western Union should take some responsibility. Anyway, thanks to Ann Griffiths for telling her story.

Like this comment
Posted by Reader
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 5, 2011 at 1:22 am

I remember that I have read a warning from Palo Alto Weekly not too long ago for a similar scam targeting senior people. The warning at that time said someone pretending to be the grandson of the senior would call and ask for money because he was in a difficult situation and would need help from the grandparent. The Palo Alto Weekly told people not to become the victims for such a scam. In that warning published by Palo Alto Weekly, no such detailed information was given like this story.

One day, a senior woman asked me to go to send a letter for her. She showed me that she had received such a mail telling her that she had won a lottery. In order to process this lottery and mail the money to her, she would need to send out a check of about $12 to an oversea address. I warned this old lady that she would lose her money of $12 and would not receive anything back. Still she told me to send out that letter. I am not sure if she has received anything later because she was my mom's neighbor in Southern California. She told me she has been doing something like this before to send out some checks. Even though $12 is not a big amount of money. But if many people would choose to do the same thing, or do it often, the company can steal a great deal of money from people. I read the mail and I can tell it is a scam because the mail did not clearly said this woman has won anything. They used the kind of the words to make people believe that they have won a big lottery. If you read the fine prints, that is not the case. Therefore this company can operate legally in a foreign country with the protection of the fine prints.

Like this comment
Posted by Perspective
a resident of Meadow Park
on Feb 5, 2011 at 6:27 am

Ann, what a good and brave person you are to tell your story. Thanks for the warning.

FYI, an e-mail address can get hacked easily, and suddenly you get an e-mail from a friend traveling someplace that sounds sort of plausible, and they need help, their phone is stolen, their wallet is stolen, they need money to get back home and clean up the mess.

Don't fall for it.

Bottom line, don't believe anything.

Sad state of affairs, but this is human nature.

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 5, 2011 at 3:12 pm

Years ago, I had older relatives who excitedly said they had "won" a trip to Hawaii (unsolicited - not by entering an official contest)I think there was a RUSH aspect to it, too.
I was skeptical but as a minor at the time not in a position to do anything about it. All I know is they never took the trip - reality of the situation must have set in at some point. I hope they did not send anyone any money.
My recommendation is that for anything -- important action -- (whether investments, accounts, buying/selling a house, supposed contest winnings, relatives/friends supposedly in trouble financially etc.) to be VERY CAREFUL if there is any push to RUSH NOW and send $$$. Huge red flag in all these cases.

Like this comment
Posted by Fay
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 5, 2011 at 5:07 pm

Wow, how can someone who claims to be so smart be so gullible and stupid. Sending money without verifying with the family or the US embassy is lame.

And the fact that "Griffiths said she wanted to protect Ryan at all costs" suggests that circumventing the authority of the parents to cover up illegal and underhanded activity just seems typical on the part of a broker these days.

I hope the lesson hit her hard.

Like this comment
Posted by Lena
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 6, 2011 at 10:26 pm

It is a very common scam in Russia. Beware also of craigslist scams, especially, when you sell furniture or electronics. They work like this - the "prospective buyer" writes to the seller that he/she is ready to buy the item and is sending you a check with the cost of the item and shipping charges included. You indeed receive a check in a few days. But the buyer asks you to pay the shipping company right away, "so that the shipping company could arrange a quick pick up", but since the seller typically has not had a chance to deposit or cash the check, the he writes his own check for the shipping. Later on he finds out that the seller's check is fake and he just parted with the amount he paid to the "shipping" company.

Like this comment
Posted by FYI
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 11, 2011 at 6:37 pm

I searched up this old article because I know someone who was a very recent victim of this scam. Thankfully no money was sent but there was a lot of duress and emotional stress suffered by this older person. Anyway, I am grateful to Ms. Griffiths for coming forward and putting her name on the line to warn others about this scam. However, I think she she not have said that she was "thankful" that the loss of money was not more. $11,000 may mean a trip to France for her, but it can be a devastating amount to lose for someone on a fixed income. These scammers do not just target people who can afford to lose vacation savings.

Like this comment
Posted by Jim
a resident of another community
on Oct 25, 2011 at 11:23 am

I was victim of a similar scam. In my case, I received a call and "recognized" my son's voice. I did send about $2000 to help, convinced that I had really talked to my son, who lives in the midwest. As with Ann's grandson, when I called him back, my son was unaware of the call I received from a scammer.

I suggest contacting all family members whom you might send money to help out and having them agree that you will ask security questions. Do not discuss the questions you will ask. If you receive a call where the relative might need assistance and he or she refuses to answer the questions, do not follow up with assistance.

The questions should be something that the relative knows but not something that might be found in public records, such as names of relatives, places where the person lived, or schools attended. It is OK to ask trick questions such as "what color house did you have when you lived in Tucson?" knowing full well that the relative never lived in Tucson. If the answer were white, emphasize the Tucson again: "Are you sure that the Tucson house was white? Wasn't it brown?" An "Oh, yes, it was brown" would be a giveaway that you have a scammer.

Even if your relative gets the questions right, call him or her back immediately, on a different phone number if possible. Be aware that a scammer may steal his or her cell phone or tap into the home line, and receive the return call.

However, phone calls are inexpensive. A simple return call to my son, immediately after receiving his call, would have uncovered the scam before I sent money.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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