Post Your Problems/Lawrence Walsh: Telling social media about your vacation an invitation to a scam

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Can't wait to use social media to tell everyone where you and the family will be vacationing this summer?

Why don't you just leave the doors and windows of your house unlocked so thieves can comfortably enter and leave with any or all of your valuable possessions?

Almost a third of consumers ages 18-49, each of whom ostensibly is old enough to know better, post details about their vacations on social media before or during their trip, according to a recent survey.

The survey, conducted by GfK Roper for MoneyGram, noted that some respondents were unaware of the potential significance of posting vacation plans on social media.

The word clueless comes to mind.

Fortunately, 35 percent of those interviewed for the survey recognized that the biggest threat of blabbing vacation information online constituted an invitation to crooks to break into their homes and help themselves to money, jewelry, flat-screen televisions, sound systems and other items of value.

Another 28 percent said online yakking about their trip to the beach, the lake or the mountains could open the door for thieves to commit identity theft by obtaining credit card information.

Only 12 percent identified family scams as their primary concern. Such scams typically target elderly family members and friends of vacationing individuals. They are contacted about an "emergency situation" and asked to wire money to help resolve a "crisis."

Crooks use the phone or email to hide their identity and impersonate emergency workers, medical personnel, attorneys or even family members themselves to trick the victims into sending money, said Kim Garner, senior vice president of global security and investigations for MoneyGram.

"Scammers prey on the elderly by trying to confuse them with late-night phone calls or emails sent from accounts hijacked from their family members," Ms Garner said. "The threat of an emergency often pushes victims to act quickly without thinking about the situation.

"When individuals post details or photos about their vacations on social media sites, they're giving scammers the information they need to commit the crime."

Last summer, victims of family scams lost an average of $1,551 each time money was sent to a crook, Ms. Garner said. Scammers instruct victims to use wire transfers because once the money is sent, there is no way to get it back.

She said the safest way to respond to a frantic phone call is to simply hang up and call your relative directly to verify the situation, or to verify the identity of the caller or email sender by asking questions that only family members or friends could answer correctly.

Ms. Garner said a grandmother who lives in Pittsburgh initially fell for the scam. But, thanks to a savvy MoneyGram customer-service representative who suspected the woman might be the victim of a grandparent scam, the transaction was placed on hold and grandma got her $1,500 back.

Here's how it went down:

Grandma received a call from someone claiming to be her grandson. He said he was traveling in Mexico and had been injured in an accident. When grandma said he didn't sound like her grandson, the caller said he had stitches in his tongue because it had been cut in the accident.

After grandma sent the money, she called her grandson on his cell phone to give him the reference number that is required to retrieve the funds at a MoneyGram location in Mexico. That's when she realized she had been scammed.

The grandson responded immediately by driving his grandmother to the location where she had purchased the MoneyGram. Both were relieved to learn the transaction had been placed on hold. The customer-service rep gave her a full refund. Grandma gave the rep permission to provide law enforcement with details of the attempted scam.

"Seniors tend to be more trusting than younger generations and often will do anything for their families," Ms. Garner said. "Scammers coach victims on how to respond to questions that MoneyGram agents ask to ensure the legitimacy of the transaction."

She said scammers always make up an excuse why victims shouldn't contact the family member in need or any other family members or friends before sending the money.

"Elderly victims often are devastated financially and emotionally by these scams," she said. "Many question their judgment and ability to make good decisions for themselves and their loved ones after finding out about their mistake. These scams are truly heartbreaking."

Bottom Line One: Never send money to someone you don't know or to a third-party on behalf of a family member.

Bottom Line Two: Wait until you return home before posting vacation information or photos online.

Information: www.moneygrampreventfraud.com; 1-800-MONEYGRAM (666-3947).

yourbiz - larrywalsh

Lawrence Walsh can be reached at pyp@post-gazette.com and 412-263-1895. Please include your day, evening and cell phone numbers. Due to volume, he cannot respond to every email or phone call. First Published June 20, 2013 12:00 AM


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