Gift card 'grandparent scam' tricks elderly Oakland man into buying thousands in gift cards

ByMichael Finney and Renee Koury via KGO logo
Thursday, July 25, 2019
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A notorious scam that targets the elderly rears up again, as an Oakland man is tricked into buying thousands in gift cards -- and handing them over to scammers.

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- A notorious scam targeting elderly Americans has reared up again - this time robbing an elderly Oakland man of thousands of dollars, and causing a terrible scare that traumatizes him to this day. He wanted his daughter to tell his story to 7 On Your Side's Michael Finney.

It's a con as old as the hills, exploiting the deep love a man has for his grandson. His daughter said the mere thought of his grandson in trouble was so terrifying, he ignored all the red flags. Now he wants to warn everyone - if someone demands you pay them with loads of gift cards - it's a scam.

There's nothing 88-year-old Calvin Benton wouldn't do for his grandson Aaron. So when the call came in, he didn't question it.

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"I'm with your grandson, I can't put him on the phone right now but he's been held overnight," the caller said. They said Aaron was in jail for DUI and drugs, and that he needed bail money desperately.

"If you want him to get out and post bail, you have to send this money immediately," the caller continued.

The caller told Benton to pay with gift cards from Best Buy and to only purchase them with cash.

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"They did mention my son's name so he thought it was real, the person gave him explicit instructions not to discuss this with anyone," said Lisa Hardy, Calvin Benton's daughter. "He was terrified that something horrible had happened to his grandson."

Benton and his wife rushed to Best Buy with a wad of cash. He bought $2,000 worth of gift cards that morning and $3,000 more that night.

"He just panicked and his first thought was, 'I can't have my grandson in prison,'" said Hardy.

Benton did as he was told, scratching off the back of each gift card, reading off all the code numbers to the man on the phone.

And later, both relief and horror.

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"My son said, 'I don't know what you're talking about, I'm fine,'" said Hardy. "He realized he'd been taken, it was a scam, he sounded like he was gonna cry."

Benton is so traumatized he didn't want to talk on camera, but did want his daughter to tell us his story.

"This is just gonna keep on happening. And it's not right!" Hardy said.

She noted Best Buy policy forbids selling more than $2,000 worth of gift cards to a person in one day, as an effort to stop the growing use of retail gift cards to swindle victims.

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"If this is a known scam, I don't think stores should do this," she said.

7 On Your Side reported last year that Best Buy in San Carlos was hailed by the local sheriff for stopping these crimes, training staff to warn potential victims, and posting alerts in every store.

So why didn't it stop this fraud?

"They said there was nothing they could do about it, that my father has rights as a consumer," Hardy said.

Best Buy tells us Benton purchased the cards with cash in two visits, and his wife bought some separately, so it didn't trigger the $2,000 limit. Though Benton said the employees never warned him, Best Buy said they did, telling us:

"What happened to Mr. Benton is a heartbreaking a reminder that despite what retailers like Best Buy are doing every day, we cannot entirely prevent all these scams from happening. In this case specifically, our employees did recognize the signs of the scam and tried to warn Mr. Benton. We were not successful in convincing him that this was a scam. Our employees are trained to spot scams as part of a broader effort to prevent crimes like this. At the same time, we've also lowered our gift card amounts to limit potential victim's exposure and have signs posted around our stores warning of these types of crimes. Additionally, we have worked with AARP and the country's state attorneys general to launch an education campaign for seniors and other at-risk populations."

Benton was going to use that money for Aaron's college education. Now his money is gone.

Best Buy declined to offer any type of refund to Benton, saying someone in Pennsylvania had already redeemed those gift cards.

7 On Your Side's Michael Finney wants to stress to consumers: If a stranger asks you to pay for something with gift cards, it's most certainly a scam. If you have elderly family members or neighbors, please warn them. Do not wire money to strangers. And never pay a stranger with gift cards.

Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.