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Coming Soon: Inside the Mind of a Phone Scammer

Every day, phones are ringing in homes across the country.
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Every day, phones are ringing in homes across the country. On the line are organized teams of scammers, often calling from Canada (yes, Canada!), aiming to con people out of thousands of dollars by impersonating their loved ones. One particularly lucrative shakedown targets grandparents. And this isn’t just a mischievous enterprise; it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. One journalist, a grandparent herself, discovers who’s really behind these malicious calls, the real reason this hoax works so well, and how best to thwart potential deceivers.

Shirley Streshinsky's Pacific Standard feature is available to subscribers—in print or digital formats—now, and will be posted online in full on Monday, September 08. Until then, an excerpt:

Why grandparents? I wondered. I wanted to know if, as many news reports indicate, it is because scammers figure that my generation tends to be easy to dupe. Yvan shrugged off the issue of age to emphasize the practical benefits of targeting the elderly: We are often at home, and our land-line numbers are more likely to show up on lists. But the most important factors are the geographic and psychological distances that usually exist between a grandparent and a grandchild. Grandparents aren’t likely to know the day-to-day details of their grandkids’ lives, but that doesn’t mean they won’t rally at a moment’s notice to protect a cherished relative.

In fact, across Montreal, the grandparent scam is only one of many impostor frauds. Some variations on the theme: For the Polish community, there’s the distant relative who went to Germany for serious surgery and finds himself without funds to pay the doctors. For local Muslims, it’s the traveling holy man, the imam, who is on his way to a mosque in Toronto but had his luggage seized in the U.K. and needs help to complete his journey. The Croatian version has a countryman with visa problems on his way to Canada, stuck on a ship docked in the Bahamas. The current hot impostor fraud has phone scammers posing as law enforcement officers, threatening arrest for some legal infraction—such as not turning up for a phantom court appearance.

To read this story in print, with illustrations by Clare Mallison, subscribe to our bimonthly magazine, which is on newsstands now. Or you can get our September/October issue instantly on any of your digital devices.

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