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ExPat Phone Home

As the hubs and I were planning our move abroad, all our goals concerned our immediate family (which includes me, the hubs, and our four legged baby, Tuaca). Saying our goodbyes to extended family as the big day approached, we scheduled family trips back home and vice versa. We are constantly in touch with our relatives via Skype, Facebook, Mobile, and my personal blog. As our friend base grows in Panama, we find that this isn’t always so with other expats.

It’s hard enough to stay in touch with loved ones when you live in a different city or state, but moving to a whole other country brings about new challenges since it’s easy to get caught up in your new life abroad. Tons of new experiences await you in a different country. Phone calls and Skype dates get put on hold and become fewer and farther apart.As expats, sometimes we don’t realize the toll this can take on family back home. They can become part of an emotional roller coaster in a malicious game played by con artists. When we hear about the Nigerian prince scam, we typically laugh and feel sorry for the suckers that have fallen for those obvious tricks. Believing a wealthy Nigerian prince is emailing you in broken English to get their millions safely out of the country and you get to keep a percentage of it just for helping is one thing, but getting a phone call with a voice on the end of the line is a whole other thing entirely.

With all the websites out there detailing ways scammers try to finagle hard earned money out of our bank accounts, it’s hard to imagine that these thieves have come up with a way to prey on the extended families of expats, but they have.
One of the hubs’ aunts was almost manipulated out of $900 when she received a phone call from someone posing as him. The con? The hubs and I were flying into the states to visit her, but for some reason we were flying through Mexico (red flag number one). She was to pick us up at the airport but we were mysteriously delayed by an accident (red flag number two). His aunt would need to wire us money in Mexico so we could make it safely across the border to the states.

A “mysterious” incident is almost enough to send any family into a panic. We all usually have feel our home country is safe while anywhere across the border is automatically dangerous. Since we talk to his aunt on the regular, she recognized right off the bat that it wasn’t his voice (red flag number three), but the “voice” had an explanation; a bad cell connection.

So how did the person on the other end of the line know our names, her phone number, and that we were all related? The “voice” wasn’t even smart enough to block the number he was calling from, but maybe that was part of the con since it was a Mexican phone number and the mysterious incident was happening within Mexico’s borders.
His aunt was smart enough to save the number on her caller ID, tell the caller that she knew it wasn’t her nephew, and that she wasn’t sending him any money, but she was still pretty rattled. We all were. That’s a lot of personal information for a scam artist to know. How did they get it?

Being the web savvy young expat that I am, I took to the internet to get my answers. It turns out that this scam isn’t the newest around, but it’s pretty effective. It’s not an email that could possibly get routed to the junk box. This is an actual person calling your phone and talking to you. They usually target those that have family living abroad and may not have heard from their cousin, nephew, or some other extended relative in some time.
When it comes down to it, family is family and we’ll do just about anything to get each other out of trouble, something these scammers take advantage of and use to play on the emotions of those we left behind.

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After my research, I found hundreds of victims, but those that get bamboozled most frequently are the most elderly family members, our great aunts and grandfathers, that want to help us out of whatever trouble we’re in. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find out how these scammers got these bits of information together, but an old tax return record or forwarding address might be more than enough to connect the dots for them.

We were so thankful that the hubs’ aunt was quick on her feet and stopped the con artist in his tracks. She wasn’t scammed out of money but was definitely shook up, as were we. We blame our desire to stay in touch with family as much as possible to preventing another duped victim in this circumstance.

My tips to those that let their Skype dates go a little too far in between each other? Stay in touch with your families back home. Start a blog and share your blog address with family members. Blogger.com, WordPress.com, and other sites provide this service with hosting included for free. Blogging too hip and a bit much for you? Take more pictures of your new life and post them to web albums. Flicker.com, Live.com, and many other providers give you 2 gigs or more for free and sharing your pictures is as easy as sending a link to your friends and family back home.

Don’t like taking pictures or emailing? Get a Facebook account and keep up with family that way. You get to post albums, instant message, and even video chat without the personal emails. Even if you have family members that still don’t use computers, there are international calling plans for a couple dollars a month or less.

The point? Use free technology available to you to keep your family back home abreast on your endeavors abroad so they know when someone’s crying wolf or you’re actually in trouble. As expats, we made the decision to better our lives, but it’s easy to forget the others we left behind stuck in the day to day grind back home. Be considerate and keep them up to date. After all, we’ll do anything for our families.

Stephanie Angulo became an American expat in Panama at 30. She didn’t go to Panama to retire. She writes about her experiences starting a restaurant, exploring her new country, traveling, and assimilating into Panamanian culture at Xpat Escape. You can also follow her journey on Twitter.

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