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'Help me!' scams

'Help me!' scam - also known as the 'friend in need' or "grandparent" scam

(via email/social media message or phone call)

Most of us would come to the aid or rescue of a close friend or family member in need of urgent assistance. However, the rush to help without question is a weakness scammers exploit on unsuspecting victims. The ‘help me!’ scam involves scammers sending messages from either a compromised account, or unknown numbers, claiming to be a friend or family member who has lost their phone, in an emergency of some sort or have been ‘locked out’ of their account.

It deceives victims into thinking the message has come from someone they know and trust. Typically, contact will be made through text message, email, social media message (such as Whatsapp or Messenger) or phone call.

Video courtesy of Channel Ten News

‘Help me’ scams have cost five people in WA $35,000 in total since January 2013. 

Two of the losses – $2,000 and $5,000 – were the result of electronic communication. The three other scams – resulting in $5,000, $7,000 and $16,000 losses – were over the phone and targeted members of the Polish community. 

So how does the scam work? Firstly let’s look at the electronic version…

Example 1:

  • An email arrives from a friend or relative who is currently overseas and has been robbed. All their money and credit cards have been stolen and they’re not getting help as quickly as they would like from the Australian Embassy, so they need a short term loan. They’ll pay you back on their return. 

The aim is for you to quickly wire transfer money e.g. $3,000 to London in the UK, which will be picked up by the scammers. The scammers have hacked the email account that you received the email message from and sent the message to everyone in the address book. Sometimes they’ve cloned the account and there’s a minute difference in the address, which you didn’t notice e.g. JoeBloggs@hotmail.com has become JoeBloqgs@hotmail.com (first g replaced with a q). They hope you respond by hitting reply so that the message goes to the bogus account.

Example 2:

  • A private message turns up in your Facebook inbox from a former colleague who is on your friends list. They’re on holiday and their purse or wallet’s been stolen. Luckily they still have their mobile so they can use Facebook. They need a loan. Can you wire transfer $1,000 to them in Malaysia, Canada or wherever they claim to be. They’ll pay you back when they get home. 

It’s likely the scammers have created a fake version of your friend’s Facebook account. They will have ‘liked’ the pages your friend likes, stolen the profile picture, cover photo etc. and will have friend requested all the friends.

Example 3:

  • A sequence of private messages are received in your WhatsApp inbox from an unknown number. ‘Hi mum!’ ‘Are you at home?’ ‘You’ll never guess what happened to me today... this is my temporary number from now on you can save it in your contacts.’

In this situation, scammers attempt to deceive the victim. The reason for contact through the unknown number is addressed, and the person receiving the message is subsequently duped into thinking they are communicating with someone they know. In other cases, a compromised account can result in messaging appearing to come directly from someone they know without any discrepancy in contact details.

Now let’s examine the phone version of the ‘help me’ scam.

It usually targets the elderly and for that reason it’s also known as the ‘grandparent scam’. In most cases the victim is from a non-English speaking country and still has family based there.

Example 1:

  • A Polish man in WA receives a call from a doctor who is treating his wife’s nephew. The nephew, despite residing in Poland, is currently in the UK and needs $16,000 for medical treatment. The nephew speaks briefly on the phone from his hospital bed. It’s a life or death situation.

The scammers have used social media to get information about members of this family. This may include researching where in Poland they are from, so that specific dialect can be used during the phone call where a scammer poses as the nephew. The fake medical emergency scenario creates a reason for the nephew to sound different and forces the receiver of the call to act quickly without stopping to think and verify whether the information is correct.

Example 2:

  • A Polish woman in her 60s, living in WA, receives a phone call from her nephew who she has not spoken to in a long time. He is working in Germany and needs $7,000 for an investment opportunity which he has committed to. He was supposed to be withdrawing the cash from his own account but a cheque hasn’t cleared. It’s just a 5 day loan until the cheque clears. The time difference means it’s the middle of the night in Poland so he can’t call anyone there. He mentions his mum’s bad heart and asks his auntie not to say anything about the loan to her sister/his mother. He asks his auntie to transfer the money to his accountant: Polat Toycu of 52 Windhuk Strasse, Berlin. She transfers the money but when she receives a follow-up phone call from a police officer requesting $12,000 bail money because her nephew has been arrested, she realises it is a scam. 

The scammers have done their homework via social media and other publically available information in order to carry out this impersonation. The in depth lie aims to confuse the receiver of the call. The reasons the caller gives for not contacting anyone in Poland also prevent the receiver of the call from phoning Poland. However, when she later contacted her sister, she found out her nephew was at work in nearby Warsaw. 

Tips to avoid ‘help me’ scams:

  • If you receive an urgent request for money supposedly from a family member, friend or colleague, try to contact them/someone close to them, by phone, to verify the story before sending any money. If making contact electronically, do not respond directly to the request email or Facebook message as this could go back to the scammers.
  • Be mindful of information you share on social media and make sure your privacy settings are tight.
  • Remember official or government organisations such as hospitals or embassies will never ask for money to be paid by wire transfer. 
  • When using Western Union or other transfer services consider selecting the extra security option for the recipient to be contacted prior to the release of money. Under the company’s terms and conditions, valid identification is required for amounts over $1,000.

Recently (May 2013) Consumer Protection secured a refund of $5,000 from Western Union for a ‘help me’ scam victim in WA. 

When the Perth businesswoman sent the money via the wire transfer service, she selected the option that requires the company to contact the recipient when the money is ready to be collected. The recipient was also required to produce valid proof of identity. You can read the full story here.

If you have fallen victim to a ‘help me’ scam, still have your Western Union receipt and you opted for extra security, such as ID verification, you should contact Consumer Protection to have your case reviewed. If Western Union have clearly breached their terms and conditions, you should be entitled to a refund. Call 1300 30 40 54 or email: consumer@commerce.wa.gov.au.

Send emails to this adress to report Facebook scams

Email: phish@fb.com

First published 22 June 2011
Last updated 27 June 2013