PLAINFIELD, Ill. (WLS) -- An elaborate ruse known as the "grandchild scam" is being used to fool grandparents and other loved ones into sending thousands of dollars to criminals.
The number of victims is growing and now there's a new, easier way for bad actors to facilitate their scam using some AMs.
Stephen Kocher's mother sent $11,000 to a scammer because she thought her grandson was badly hurt in a car crash and thrown in jail. But it was all a lie.
"It was absolutely draining emotionally, thinking that our nephew, our grandson, was hurt very badly, and that he was incarcerated," Kocher said.
The scammer called Kocher's mother pretending to be the teen in question; the family said the thief may have known the boy's parents were out of town from a social media post, making the story more believable. Kocher thought the story was plausible.
"His parents were away on vacation. They said he got in an accident, and he hit a woman who was eight months pregnant. She had to be put into a coma because of her injuries," said Kocher.
The scammer explained the difference in his voice by claiming his nose was broken in the accident. He also claimed he was in juvenile jail and needed bond, court costs and attorney's fees covered.
The phone rang again with more lies.
"The juvenile lawyer stated that because of COVID that they weren't accepting deposits at the Will County Courthouse," Kocher said the scammer told his mother. "So we had to go to PNC Bank and deposit this money using a pin code that the juvenile lawyer would be writing, producing and giving to my brother to make the deposit at the bank. It sounded legitimate because of COVID. We thought that made sense."
PNC's ATM system allows you to withdraw and deposit money without a physical bank card. So the family went to a PNC ATM and deposited $11,000 in increments, using only a PIN code without a card or any sort of ID.
"That allowed the scam to take place. At my own bank that I bank, I need the bank card or I need my smartphone at the terminal. I have to show that terminal some kind of identification to the customer," Kocher explained.
When the family couldn't find their loved one in jail, they realized they had been scammed. They said they immediately contacted PNC Bank, which said it was investigating the deposit.
PNC was holding the money, but weren't they giving it back to the Kocher family because, according to Kocher, PNC told them they were not PNC customers.
Unlike most victims of this scam, the Kocher family eventually ended up getting the money back, 12 months later, after they said they told PNC that they were working with the I-Team.
"The scammer was not able to get his hands on that money. The problem is, we weren't able to get our hands on the money either, for nearly for a year, because PNC refused to give it back," said Kocher.
PNC told the I-Team it "does not comment on customer matters," but that, "generally speaking... the length of time an investigation may take depends on the complexity of the situation."
Regarding transactions that do not require a bank card, PNC said their mobile app generates a one-time code when a PNC customer enters their unique username and password. The bank recommends any unexpected requests for money or personal information should first be checked with a trusted source.
"We know how fortunate we are to have gotten the money back," Kocher said.
The family also reported the incident to Plainfield police who were able to track down a suspect with the PNC bank deposit number.
The alleged scammer, Jose Vargas of Pennsylvania, pleaded not guilty to three felonies and goes to court this fall.
"The complaints that we've gotten the last several years have been steadily increasing," said Todd Kossow of the Federal Trade Commission.
Kossow said in 2020 they had more than 20,000 complaints of the "Family and Friend Imposter Scam." In 2021 that number grew to nearly 36,000.
"There's tremendous pressure that the perpetrator puts on the grandparent to act quickly. You know, they think that their grandchild is in trouble, and that they need help quickly and they frequently will tell them you know, don't talk to any other family members resist that urge to act quickly and instead, check out the story," said Kossow.
The Kocher family said despite the emotional roller coaster and the initial rip- off, they feel lucky to get a resolution and want their story to be a warning to others.
"Just absolute fear and terror of something happening to a family member of a young family member. And then just the anger and the frustration knowing that you were scammed that you were taken advantage of, and then a whole year's battle of trying to get the bank to do right by you," Kocher said.
While this scam has been around for at least 15 years, The Federal Trade Commission said it's successful because it plays on people's emotions and can take on different variations outside of a grandchild in trouble.