The “grandparent scam” is one that has become unfortunately common. In this scam, you get a call from someone claiming to be your grandson or granddaughter. They claim to have been arrested or in an accident while on vacation in a foreign country, and need you to wire them money in a hurry so they can pay a fine or medical bills and get back home.
This scam can be effective because it preys on people’s emotions. One official at AARP said, “We’ve had doctors and lawyers fall for this. It doesn’t matter what your educational level is because it triggers something emotional, it causes you to act.” One grandmother who lost $18,000 to such a scam said, “You are blinded by emotion. Totally blinded. You don’t think rationally when this happens. You know, your family comes first.”
Grandparents who are 65 or over and home alone are especially vulnerable. They’re easy to reach on the phone and many feel like they don’t hear often enough from their (real) grandchildren.
According to one former scammer, who was awaiting sentencing in California, “We target people over the age of 65, mainly, because they’re more gullible. They’re at home. They’re more accessible. Once you get them emotionally involved, then they’ll do anything for you, basically.”
The effect on the victims can go beyond the financial loss. “It’s not simply the loss of the money,” says the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted this former scammer. “They feel stupid, they fell gullible, and they have nightmares about it and anxiety and depression.”
Scammers can be hard to catch, since many operate outside the U.S. and use equipment to disguise their phone number with a familiar number. Many track down information readily available on social media, such as names and ages of actual grandchildren, and use that to make their ruse seem more plausible.
A variation of the scam involves a second scammer, who claims to be an older relative, family friend, or law enforcement official and explains what fines need to be paid. The scammer typically asks for thousands of dollars. He or she may feign embarrassment about the alleged trouble and beg the grandparent to keep it a secret.
How to avoid falling for this scam
As with other scams, the best way to avoid falling victim is to take your time and do your due diligence. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette recommends that you stay calm and avoid acting out of a sense of urgency. Before sending any money, you should verify the identity and location of the grandchild who claims to be in trouble. Even if the caller begs you to keep it a secret, hang up and call a trusted family member or friend who can confirm your grandchild’s whereabouts.
Remember that you should never give out bank account or credit card numbers to anyone who calls you on the phone. Scammers are often expert professional criminals who are skilled in getting you to part with your money. Also, be careful what information you post on social media. Scammers can make use of this information to help make their scams sound genuine.
The scammer will typically ask you to wire money through Western Union or a similar service, or provide bank account numbers. Remember that wiring money electronically is not like writing a check – once it’s picked up, it’s gone.
If you realize you’ve been scammed, contact the wire transfer service immediately. If the money hasn’t been picked up yet, you can retrieve it.
The Consumer Federation of America has additional tips for avoiding this type of scam.