I recently received a stomach-dropping text from my brother that began, “Mom is OK but… .” My mother was at her bank trying to withdraw $18,000 to help his daughter/my niece/her granddaughter Elizabeth get out of jail.
Elizabeth was not in jail. My mom was the target of a persuasive financial scam. Earlier in the day, she received a call from a crying young woman who claimed to be and sounded exactly like her granddaughter. “Elizabeth” explained that, while texting and driving, she hit a pregnant woman and was in jail without her cell phone. The woman even named one of Elizabeth’s actual friends, saying her friend’s mother, an attorney, was helping her. Because the arraignment wasn’t for a few days, she needed $18,000 for bail.
It’s worth noting that while she’s in her golden years, my mother is extremely astute. But between “Elizabeth” crying and the mention of her actual friend, my mom was convinced Elizabeth needed her—and headed to her bank. Fortunately, the bank determined that this was a scam by checking local holding cells and calling Elizabeth directly. My mother, while shaken, was fortunately OK. And she later reported the incident to local authorities.
As a mom myself, when I first heard the story, my thoughts went almost immediately to my children and husband. If the caller had information about my mother’s grandchildren, were my children also a potential target? I am grateful that my crisis communication training automatically kicked in to help me do things like:
- Respond clearly and quickly
- Be transparent
- Provide answers to anticipated questions
- Prioritize risks and concerns
This email to my family is so on point it makes me laugh at myself a little!
Fortunately, there were no further incidents related to this event. And the only costs to my mother were her time and the aggravation the situation caused.
Many people are not so lucky. In the last 12 months, over 59 million Americans have lost money due to phone scams. And these crimes are on the rise—with 3 million more victims reported in 2021 than 2020.
From my crisis communication background, I know another important step is to plan ahead so crises can be avoided. My immediate and extended family now know to do the following if ever faced with a situation like this:
1. Ask the person calling where they are calling from. Then hang up, look up the number, and call that place.
2. Try calling the person the caller is claiming to be no matter what story you’re given.
3. Verify the identity of a caller who claims to be your loved one by asking questions only that person would likely know such as, “What hospital were you born in? What color car do you have? What do you call your grandparents?”
At the end of the day, this real life incident did no damage and served as a learning opportunity for a broader group. What is your organization’s crisis plan? Are your team members prepped and ready for what could come their way? If not, we can help.
Martha Holler is the co-founder of ShinePR and has over 25 years of experience in public relations. Her expertise is amplifying brand purpose and delivering tangible and measurable results for her clients.