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How to Protect Yourself From the Grandparent Scam

All across the country, Grandparents and others are hearing from relatives in distress. The relative – most commonly a grandchild – says he’s been in a terrible accident or has been arrested. Only you, he says, can help him out of the jam. But this isn’t your grandchild. He’s a criminal, almost always calling from overseas, engaged in a popular scam that can extract hundreds, even thousands, from your pocketbook.

See Also: AARP on Scams and Frauds

Scammers know that when a relative is injured, arrested or suffers some other kind of setback and calls pleading for money to be transferred by wire, your instincts tell you to help. When the situation is urgent, criminals know you’re likely to spring into action. But don’t. Here’s why: once you wire money, you will not get it back.

What’s called “the grandparent scam,” and its many variations, is going strong. In fact, such schemes are growing more sophisticated. The dollar figures involved are increasing, too. In April, a Sammamish, Washington couple lost nearly $90,000 over several days to a caller who they believed was their grandson.

How the scam works

A “grandchild” or other relative calls, saying he’s been in a terrible accident overseas and needs money immediately in order to receive medical attention. A “doctor” might get on the line to say your grandchild can’t talk anymore because he needs medical attention. You must wire money for the treatment to proceed.

The script has different variations. Your “grandchild” has been arrested and a “cop” picks up the line to demand bail money. Your relative’s car broke down and he needs money to get it fixed. Or he’s stuck at a foreign airport and needs money to pay customs and return home. The common theme is that the “grandchild” sounds like yours but can’t talk for long because there’s an urgent situation that demands immediate funds. Often the fake grandchild will beg you not to tell his parents – anything to delay you from discovering the truth before parting with your money.

The call might be random and the scammer will expertly fake his way through the call, picking up cues from you, including your grandchild’s name. Or it might not be a random call. According to the Consumer Federation of America (PDF), “Sometimes the scammers do know the names of your friends or relatives. As the Federation points out, bad guys find information from a variety of sources. Your relatives may be mentioned in an obituary or on a social networking site. Your email account may have been hacked, revealing the names of your relatives. Criminals use marketing databases, telephone listings and a variety of sources to find information used to trick you.

How to protect yourself

Be skeptical. These scams constantly evolve. By the time you read this, there will be new stories – new lies – to persuade you to wire money. However, what you should do to protect yourself stays the same:

  • First, resist the pressure to act quickly. That piece of advice comes from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The fake grandchild says it’s an emergency in order to bypass your natural hesitation before parting with your money. Slow things down to short-circuit the scam.
  • Second, ask questions: what’s your mom’s name? What’s your favorite pet’s name? Where were you born? Your fake grandchild will flunk the test.
  • Third, ask for a phone number: if it’s really a relative, they won’t be shy about providing contact information. If it’s a “doctor” or “police officer,” they should be able to provide an office number. Yes, any phone number provided by a scammer will be fraudulent. However, you will be comforted that if it’s really your grandchild, the number will be legitimate and you can call him back after doing your own careful research.

Finally, and most important, hang up and call your grandchild’s home number or mobile phone number, and call his parents. You will discover he’s safe and sound. In the incredibly rare instance that the call actually came from a relative, you may call him or her back and make payment arrangements.

What else you can do

As the FBI points out, “Never wire money based on a request made over the phone or in an email... especially overseas. Wiring money is like giving cash – once you send it, you can’t get it back.” Remind your family members not to announce on websites such as Twitter and Facebook that they’re leaving on vacation. The Internet is global, exposing them and their families to literally billions of Web surfers – some of whom know how to illegally profit from the information. Also, make sure to keep your family members’ updated contact information easily accessible so that you may easily find out for yourself the whereabouts of your loved ones.

If you fell for it

If you have wired money and it hasn't been picked up yet, call the wire transfer service to cancel the transaction. Once the money has been picked up, there is no way to get it back. You can reach the complaint department of MoneyGram at 1-800-MONEYGRAM (1-800-666-3947) or Western Union at 1-800-448-1492. Then, file a complaint with your local police department and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Visit online or call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357); TTY: 1-866-653-4261. Finally, Washington state residents should file a complaint with the Washington State Attorney General’s Office.

Dan Sytman is Deputy Communications Director for the Washington State Attorney General’s Office