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FRAUD RESOURCE CENTER

Grandparent Scam

En español | Scam artists will use any leverage they can get to separate you from your money. Sadly, that includes exploiting grandparents’ love and concern for their grandchildren, giving rise to a breed of impostor fraud specifically targeting older Americans.

Grandparent scams typically work something like this: The victim gets a call from someone posing as his or her grandchild. This person explains, in a frantic-sounding voice, that he or she is in trouble: There’s been an accident, or an arrest, or a robbery. To up the drama and urgency, the caller might claim to be hospitalized or stuck in a foreign country; to make the impersonation more convincing, he or she will throw in a few family particulars, gleaned from the actual grandchild’s social media activity.

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The impostor offers just enough detail about where and how the emergency happened to make it seem plausible and perhaps turns the phone over to another scammer who pretends to be a doctor, police officer or lawyer and backs up the story. The “grandchild” implores the target to wire money immediately, adding an anxious plea: “Don’t tell Mom and Dad!”

Fraudsters have also been known to ply this trick by email, text message and social media. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the FBI have warned of an uptick in grandparent scams as crooks play on emotional vulnerability and heightened fear about loved ones falling ill. 

Grandparent scams and related cons are common — from 2015 through the first quarter of 2020, the FTC logged more than 91,000 reports of crooks posing as a relative or friend of the victim. And they can be lucrative: Eight people charged in a July 2021 federal indictment allegedly ran a nationwide scam network that used this ruse to bilk some $2 million from more than 70 older Americans over an 11-month period in 2019 and 2020.

Warning Signs

  • The person claiming to be your grandchild asks you to send money immediately and provides details on how — for example, via gift card, prepaid card or wiring money to a particular Western Union office.
  • The call comes late at night. Scammers figure an older person may get confused more easily if they call then, the National Consumers League warns.

Tips to Avoid a Grandparent Scam

Do's

  • Do set the privacy settings on your social media accounts so that only people you know can access your posts and photos. Scammers search Facebook, Instagram and other social networks for family information they can use to fool you.
  • Do ask questions someone else is unlikely to be able to answer, such as the name and species of your grandchild's first pet.
  • Do say you’ll call right back, then call your grandchild’s usual phone number. With luck, he or she will answer, and you’ll know that the supposed emergency call is a scam.
  • Do contact other family members or friends and see whether they can verify the story. Scammers plead with you to keep the emergency a secret precisely so you won’t try to confirm it.
  • If you speak to someone who claims to be a police officer, do call the relevant law enforcement agency to verify the person’s identity and any information they’ve given you.
  • Do trust your instincts. As the American Bar Association advises, if something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.

Don'ts

  • Don’t drop your guard because the number on your caller ID looks familiar. Scammers can use technological tricks to make it appear that they’re calling from a trusted number, the Federal Communications Commission warns.
  • Don’t volunteer information — scammers fish for facts they can use to make the impersonation believable. For example, if the caller says, “It’s me, grandpa!” don’t say your grandchild’s name. Wait for the caller say it.
  • Don’t let a caller rush you into making a decision.
  • Don’t send cash, wire money, or provide numbers from gift or cash-reload cards to a person claiming to be a grandchild. Scammers prefer those payment methods because they’re difficult to trace.
  • Don’t panic, no matter how dire the grandchild’s predicament sounds. Scam artists want to get you upset to distract you from spotting the ruse.

More Resources

  • You can report any fraud targeting older people to the FTC online or at 877-382-4357. You might also want to notify your state's attorney general and consumer protection office.
  • If you sent money to a suspected scammer via Western Union, call the company’s fraud hotline (800-448-1492) as soon as possible. Ditto if you used MoneyGram (800-926-9400). If the transfer has not yet been paid, Western Union or MoneyGram may be able to stop the transaction and refund your money.

Updated August 27, 2021

About the Fraud Watch Network

Whether you have been personally affected by scams or fraud or are interested in learning more, the AARP Fraud Watch Network advocates on your behalf and equips you with the knowledge you need to feel more informed and confidently spot and avoid scams.

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