Margaret Fouchie was shocked when she got the call from her choked up grandson, Alex.
He had been with friends on a ski trip to Montreal, and they downed a few pitchers of beer. On the way home, they had gotten into a crash and taken out three guardrails in their rental car. Alex, the driver, was in jail on charges of driving while intoxicated and reckless endangerment.
Her grandson begged for her help, nearly crying into the phone, and pleaded with her not to tell his parents. He said she was his only phone call and that his public defender would call her back.
Minutes later, a man calling himself Nick Foreman rang the Cheektowaga woman and said if Alex was going to get out of jail, Fouchie would need to wire $2,986 that day.
She complied, sending the money through a local Western Union office -- a total of $3,121, including a $135 service fee.
The next day she and her husband, Dave, called her grandson on his cell phone.
"He answered, and we started saying, 'Where are you? Are you OK?' and he said, 'I'm at work. Everything's fine. What's wrong?' "
Immediately, Fouchie knew it. She had been scammed in the latest in a rash of schemes involving the MoneyGram and Western Union funds transfer companies.
The so-called "grandparents scheme," reported in 11 states in addition to New York, has netted as much as $19,000 from a single victim. It heats up during this time of year, when many college students are known to be on spring break.
The Better Business Bureau suspects other victims have been too embarrassed to come forward.
"I feel stupid because I got the call, and I did think it was him. And I'm a young grandmother. What about older grandparents who are hard of hearing?" said Fouchie, an articulate 62-year-old. "I can't believe someone would do this. I worked with the public for 25 years. I thought I was a pretty good judge of character."
Western New Yorkers are especially prone to the scam, because travel to Canada is so plausible, according to the Better Business Bureau.
Though this scammer said the grandson was in Montreal, the money was wired to Spain. Still, international cases are almost impossible to prosecute.
The scammer most likely used a disposable phone he bought for $10 at a department store and gave fictitious names and information. Even to pick up the money transfer, all the scammer had to do was order a fake ID online for $20.
"The grandparent scam preys on the love of a grandparent for their grandchildren and has proven to be an extremely lucrative con for scammers," said David Polino, president of the BBB in Buffalo. "We hope every grandparent will hear about this warning because this is an easy scam to avoid as long as you don't let your emotions get the best of you."
Fouchie has come to terms with never getting her money back. But she has a fraud alert on her credit report and Social Security number (which is costing her additional money) to protect her from further theft.
She and her husband had struggled on a fixed income to save $3,000 for an anniversary trip to Hawaii. That money was lost to the scammer.
Their homeowner's insurance would cover just $200 of it, then raise her premium. A crime victim advocacy fund would provide her with $100. And Alex, feeling guilty, has offered to sell his motorcycle to refund the lost money. But Fouchie knows the criminal never will be caught.
Once the money is gone, victims cannot do anything other than report the crime. So spreading awareness to prevent it from happening is especially important.
"If I can help just one person avoid this, it will be a sign that it happened for a reason," Fouchie said. "Don't give anyone any information. But even then, your life is an open book on the Internet. I sat down all my grandkids and came up with a code word to use so I can know it's them."
How to avoid the grandparents scam:
* The AARP says to ask "which one" when a person calls saying they are your grandchild. But that is not enough. In Fouchie's case, they had plenty of information to perpetrate the scam -- including the grandson's name.
* Anyone asking for money wire transfers should raise a huge red flag. It's the easiest way to steal money and get away with it, and criminals have been exploiting it.
* If a relative calls asking for help, call them back on their cell phone to be sure it's them. But don't use a number they give you -- use the one you have or get it from a family member. If they say they are at a hospital or jail and can't receive calls, ask them for the facility's name. Then call information to get the correct telephone number and confirm the relative's whereabouts with authorities there.
* Never give checking, savings account, credit card, debit card information, passwords or Social Security numbers to anyone over the phone.
If you have been a victim, report the crime to:
* Your local police department.
* State attorney general's office: (800) 771-7755.
* If the scam involves wiring money to Canada, call the Canadian Anti-Fraud Call Centre's PhoneBusters hotline at (888) 495-8501 or visit the Web site www.PhoneBusters.com.