FRAUD RESOURCE CENTER
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.
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 steal some $2 million from more than 70 older Americans over an 11-month period in 2019 and 2020.
A weather-related twist on grandparent scams
With the arrival of natural disasters, such as hurricanes, in areas that have a high population of retirees, a new variation on the grandparent scam is emerging. Younger relatives who put word out on social media that an older loved one is missing have been contacted to send money for a hotel room or other assistance.
Because details about the disappearance are being circulated with the goal of reaching as many people as possible, scammers have a lot of information to try to persuade you that they are the loved one or that the missing person is nearby and in great need.
Don’t let worry override caution. Ask for information about the missing friend or relative that few people know and that hasn’t been posted on social media.
- 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.
How to protect yourself from this scam
- 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 hang up immediately and call the grandchild or other family member in question, on a known number, to make sure they're safe. With luck, they'll answer, and you’ll know the supposed emergency call is a scam.
- Do contact other family members or friends if you have any concern that the emergency could be real. Scammers plead with you to keep the situation 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’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.
- 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 September 30, 2022