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Consumer Watch: Latest online scam targets troops' grandparents

Jul. 26, 2009 - 04:04PM   |   Last Updated: Jul. 26, 2009 - 04:04PM  |  
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A new scam targeting military families is a good reminder to us all to review the personal information we put on social networking sites.

It's a sordid twist on a longtime scam that targets grandparents. This one specifically targets grandparents of troops deployed to Iraq, most often those who have posted online that their grandson or granddaughter is deployed in the war zone.

Here's how it works: Scam artists gather enough information from social networking sites to contact these grandparents and pose as their grandchildren. They say they're coming home on leave from Iraq, hoping to surprise their parents, and they ask the grandparents to keep the impending visit a secret.

A short time later, the imposter again contacts the grandparents to say the visit's been sidetracked by a broken-down car. The imposter asks the grandparents to wire a large sum of money for car repairs.

Bridget Patton, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Kansas City, Mo., field office, said the office has not had a huge number of reports of this scam but considers even one or two reports to be significant.

"Losing $3,000 or $4,000 can devastate someone financially," she said.

Her office issued an alert, which also went out through FBI headquarters, "because we're trying to be proactive in getting the word out," she said.

The Internet Crime Complaint Center, or IC3, has received about a dozen reports of this military-related grandparent scam, said Brian Hale, a spokesman for FBI headquarters in Washington.

It's against FBI policy to confirm or deny ongoing investigative activity. "But in the past, we have launched cyber investigations as a result of reports coming in to IC3," Hale said.

IC3 is a partnership among the FBI, the National White Collar Crime Center and the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

Hale said people who believe they may be victims of a scam, or are being lured into a scam, should report it to http://www.ic3.gov/">www.ic3.gov.

Depending on the nature of the scam, and how widespread it is, FBI officials might refer it to state law enforcement officials or launch their own investigation.

Officials also work with other federal law enforcement authorities, such as the military services' criminal investigative agencies.

"A lot of people don't realize that they've put personal information on the Internet that could lead to identity theft or a scam," Patton said. "Even in screen names, they use the year they graduated, their school name or other information.

"Be very, very careful of what information you put on those sites," she said.

The FBI and the Better Business Bureau advise military family members to visit social networking sites where they have accounts to make sure that no exploitable information is available.

"Even though their name is used, many people feel free to post large amounts of information about themselves, including pictures of their family, friends and pets, as well as their likes and dislikes," said Doug Broten, president of the Better Business Bureau in central California, in an alert to businesses in that area following the FBI alert. "They willingly share very personal data in the interests of Internet friendships."

The FBI also advises verifying the identity of anyone who contacts you by asking specific questions that only that person could answer — especially if the person contacting you floats the idea of sending him money for any reason.

Another option is to develop a specific code word or phrase to make sure the person contacting you is not an imposter.

"People are conditioned to protecting themselves in their physical spaces, clutching their purses and their children when approached by a stranger," the FBI's Hale said. "Take the same precautions in cyberspace as you do in physical space."

AAFES money orders gone

Army and Air Force Exchange Service stores have stopped selling money orders, citing "stringent anti-money laundering requirements and DoD Financial Management Regulations that forbid ‘base organizations' from selling money orders when banking offices are open."

Marine Corps exchanges are also affected because those stores were included in the AAFES contract. Marine Corps Exchange officials plan to issue a request for proposals for a contract to bring back the money order service, said spokesman Bryan Driver.

You can buy money orders at banks, credit unions and post offices.

Some Navy Exchange locations still feature Western Union services.

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Questions or comments? E-mail staff writer kjowers@militarytimes.com?subject=Question from ArmyTimes.com reader">Karen Jowers.

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