Don’t Get Stung by the Grandparent Scam

eHow Money Blog

Worried woman on telephone

Con artists aren’t playing fair. As phones across America ring off the hook, thieves are doling out a double whammy stealing both seniors’ money and preying on their emotions. Organized teams of crooks involved in the “grandparent scam” are bilking hundreds – in many instances thousands — of dollars from well-meaning doting grandparents, one call at a time.

In one instance, two grandparents in Michigan were taken for $33,000. They initially wired $3,000 to a person they believed to be their grandson calling from a Canadian jail. The “grandson” claimed he was caught fishing without a license in Canada and needed to pay a $3,000 fine. A second call from the imposter impersonating their grandson resulted in the couple being taken for an additional $30,000 for bond after alcohol and drugs were found when his boat was searched. The frantic grandparents later learned their grandson was never in distress, involved in a Canadian legal incident and didn’t receive one cent of their $33,000.

Here’s what you need to know to protect yourself or a loved one from the “grandparent scam.”

How they choose their victims
According to the Consumer Federation of America, these scammers aren’t always choosey. While they may use social networking sites or obituaries to track down names of grandparents or loved ones, they may also contact potential victims randomly. They may also hack into email accounts, sending urgent messages that spell out a loved one’s dire circumstances to all addresses in your contact list.

How they hook you
Once the call is answered, scammers usually say something like “Hi grandma” hoping the person on the other end of the line has a grandson or daughter (depending on the gender of the caller). They wait for the person answering the phone to say “Oh hi, Billy!” or “Susan, is that you?” in order to confirm the person has at least one grandchild. The crooks may also know your loved one’s name thanks to a search of social media, obituaries, etc.

The calls are often placed in the middle of the night when unsuspecting people are aroused from their sleep with an emergency call and to perpetuate the fear associated with a loved one being in need or dire straits in the middle of the night.

What they say
The callers often get right to the point, citing dire circumstances related to facing jail or fines, broken down vehicles while on vacation or car accidents. They’ll say they need money wired immediately to have a car repaired, get out of jail or pay for medical treatment. And by tugging on the heart strings of grandparents (because nobody wants to leave their grandchild stranded on the side of the road in the middle of the night?) the scammers soften your defenses and sense of rationale.

The scammers will request money be sent via services like Western Union and MoneyGram which allow them to easily collect the money in cash. Using fake identification, they walk away with the cash and are hard to trace or apprehend.

How to protect yourself
Using firewalls and anti-virus and/or anti-spyware software greatly reduces the odds your email will be hacked and scam emails sent to your loved ones.

And before divulging any personal information (like bank account numbers, etc.) or wiring money, verify who you’re speaking to. Ask the caller for details an imposter might not know like the date of their mother’s birthday or the color of their first car.

You can also ask for a phone number to call the “grandchild” back. Tell the caller that you need to find your glasses or turn on a light, or that you have a bad connection and need to call them back. If the caller won’t provide a phone number, it’s probably a scam. Remember, even hospitals and jails will have a main number you can call to obtain information. If the caller does provide a call-back number, first use the number you already have (a home, mobile or office number) for your loved one to try and reach them. Chances are your grandchild is safe and sound at home, school or work.

Code words are also very helpful. Select a code word like a flower type, favorite spice, etc., and instruct your family to use that word should the need to phone asking for emergency financial assistance ever arise. Security questions that only you and your loved ones know the answer to can also be a way to determine if the caller is telling the truth.

Photo credit: Getty Creative

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