Phone scammers target parents of Utah's top consumer watchdog

Published: Wednesday, April 10 2013 4:14 p.m. MDT

Francine Giani, the executive director of the Utah Department of Commerce, responds to her father, Sal Giani's, home Tuesday, April 9, 2013, after he received a call from a man trying to convince him to send money to bail out his grandson. She calls it the "grandparent scam," which is making the rounds in Utah.

Jay Dortzbach, Deseret News

CENTERVILLE — The parents of Utah’s top consumer watchdog were targeted by phone scammers Tuesday, and now Francine Giani and her family are warning everyone else about a recurring con.

Sal Giani said the caller told him his grandson had been drinking, was in a wreck and he needed to go to the store to wire $1,800 to an out-of-state bondsman.

“I said to myself, ‘This doesn’t look right,’” the elder Giani recalled.

Rather than take the bait initially, he called daughter Francine — the executive director of the Utah Department of Commerce — to ask her about it. She quickly rushed to her parents’ home in time to field the return call from the con artists.

“I told 'em I was Francine Giani, and I worked for the state of Utah and that this was a scam — and at that point he was done talking to me,” she said.

The "grandparent scam," is making a comeback, Giani said. It's where callers try to trick senior citizens into believing that their loved one is in trouble in a foreign country and needs money to be sent to them immediately via Western Union.

Giani said what made the call more convincing to her father was that the scammer — who identified himself as “Paul Davis” — seemed to know details about her dad and about the local geography.

“Paul” claimed Sal Giani’s grandson was being held in a cell on Harvard Avenue — a wild stretch to those who know the area, but a bona fide street in Salt Lake City.

A reporter subsequently placed a call to the number in Canada that came up on the caller ID. Surprisingly, somebody answered. Trying to gain greater insight into the con, the reporter posed as the father of the supposedly jailed Giani. The man who had called the Giani residence eventually surfaced on the line.

“I’m trying to figure out what I need to do to get him out,” the reporter quizzed.

“Uh, well the damages have to be covered,” the scammer replied. “Not sure if you’re aware of the situation …”

Shortly afterward, the scammer stopped himself and hung up the phone.

Francine Giani said she would likely pursue the matter with the Canadian police, though previous attempts to track down similar scam artists had proven largely unsuccessful.

Giani said all families should be aware of the inherent dangers and that this familiar scam is making a comeback.

"I hope my family's experience will prompt families to share this around the dinner table and remind grandparents to call their families first before acting with their checkbook," she said.

Her story, she added, proves that scams can truly happen to anyone, even if your daughter spends her career educating the public about avoiding scams for a living.

She said people can get on the scammers’ radar by donating to charities or purchasing from solicitors. Often, Giani said, those entities sell their calling lists and they can wind up in the hands of those with nefarious intentions.

“If you give to a charity, undoubtedly you’re going to get on a slew of lists,” Giani said, “and my father is on a lot of lists.”

Her best advice: if a call gets uncomfortable, hang up. She said some might view that action as rude, but it’s better than the alternative of getting scammed.

Sal Giani, meanwhile, is shaking his head and hoping for justice.

“I have a lot of trouble when you have bad guys running around and getting away with it,” he said.

E-mail: aadams@ksl.com

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