This is how the grandparent scam typically plays out: You get a call from someone pretending to be your grandchild. The person explains that he is in trouble, with a story that goes something like this: “There’s been an accident and I’m______ (in jail, in the hospital, stuck in a foreign country), and I need your help.” The caller adds enough details about how, what or where the emergency happened to make the story seem plausible. And the distraught caller, you think to yourself, does sort of sound like your grandson or granddaughter.
Often the caller tells you that a third person, such as a lawyer, doctor or police officer, will “explain everything to you” if you call him or her. “This makes it seem more real when you call and talk to the authority,” says attorney Kati Daffan, assistant director of the division of marketing practices at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Then the caller asks you to send or wire money immediately, with the kicker, “Please, don’t tell Mom and Dad!”
This financial ruse has been making the rounds in various incarnations for years. In 2017 nearly one in five people reported losing money in an impostor scheme like the grandparent scam, amounting to a loss of $328 million, according to the FTC. And those ages 70 and older have suffered the highest average losses.
“The scammers are very good at what they do — they make the story very convincing and urgent so that you wouldn’t want to make a mistake,” Daffan says. “The stakes are incredibly high, and they’re good at pulling at your emotions. They know how to get your fight-or-flight response activated so that your critical thinking faculties are just not the way they are normally.”
Here’s what you need to know about this scam.
How the tricksters choose their targets
Sometimes it’s random, but often it’s not. “They can buy lead lists of people who’ve been scammed before, people who are older or people they can get lots of personal information about,” Daffan says. Sometimes the information is gleaned from social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, or by hacking into your email account (your contact list may include the names of relatives).
How to handle this if it happens to you
First, hit the pause button on your natural inclination to panic. “What people need to do is slow down” and think of what they need to do to determine if the situation is for real, Daffan explains. “Verify the person’s identity by asking questions someone else couldn’t possibly answer,” such as the name and species of your grandchild’s first pet. Also, get off the phone and check with a family member or the person who supposedly called you. Your grandchild may just answer her phone from the privacy of home or a dorm.
“The other thing that’s a dead giveaway is how they want you to get the money to them,” Daffan says. Usually, it’s through a wire transfer service (such as Western Union or MoneyGram), an overnight delivery service or courier (with a check or cash), or a prepaid card or gift card, in which case the scammer will ask you to read the numbers on the back of the card over the phone. “That’s just like turning over cash to somebody,” Daffan warns. Don’t do it! Remember, “Court systems and hospitals don’t accept gift cards as payment,” Daffan adds.
How to protect yourself in the future
Ramp up the privacy settings on your social media accounts and safeguard your email by using antivirus and anti-spyware software, the Consumer Federation of America advises. Also, don’t open attachments in emails from people you don’t know or aren’t in close contact with, because they may contain software programs that enable criminals to access your computer remotely.
If you’re a victim of a grandparent scam or another form of fraud, report it to the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint or by calling 1-877-FTC-HELP. AARP’s Fraud Watch Network also provides tips and advice on how to spot and avoid scams.