Most calls from your grandchildren are a welcome occurrence. But when a grandchild calls and they’re in trouble, it can be alarming—especially when it’s not really your grandchild.
Grandparent scams are fleecing seniors out of an increasing amount of cash, according to the Federal Trade Commission. A quarter of people 70 and over who reported a scam said they sent cash to someone posing as a family member or friend, and they lost a median amount of $9,000.
It’s a worrisome trend, but understanding how it’s happening and how to prevent it can help you avoid getting scammed.
What are scams targeting grandparents?
Grandparent scams are efforts to trick someone out of money or personal information, and they’re targeted at older consumers. They’re frequently calls or emails from someone impersonating a loved one and asking a grandparent to send money.
Scammers might work with information from marketing lists, obituaries, telephone listings or social networking sites.
“So many people disclose so much information on social media about what they do, where they are, who they’re doing it with, and what’s going on,” said Adam Levin, a cybersecurity expert and founder of identity protection firm CyberScout. There are scammers who troll social media for this kind of information so they can give you lots of facts that sound really convincing.”
How do grandparent scams work?
In the most common grandparent scheme, someone calls an older person pretending to be a grandchild. They may say something like, “Grandma?” or “Grandpa?” and that person might reflexively guess the name of a grandchild who might be calling. The scammer then explains that they’re in trouble and need money sent right away.
“It happened to my mother-in-law,” Levin said. “It sounded like the distant voice of a young woman, and it said, ‘Grandmom?’ and the line was a little scratchy.”
The scammer told Levin’s mother-in-law that she’d rear-ended someone and was in jail and needed bail money. She also said that in a few minutes, Levin’s mother-in-law would get a call from someone (who could tell her how to send money).
“We were lucky in my mother-in-law’s case because she was on her other phone with her daughter, who owns an insurance agency, and her daughter said, ‘Mom, people don’t get arrested for rear ending people.’”
Scammers frequently tell seniors to wire money or to send money on a prepaid debit card or gift card. Lately, people have increasingly been mailing cash—a bad idea. They’re often told not to tell anyone else.
“They prey on the fact that you can’t clearly hear the voice,” Levin said. “They present a scenario that requires an immediate response, and sometimes they can even spoof a phone ID to make it look like a law firm or a bail bond firm.”
Sometimes these requests also come via email, from someone pretending to be a grandchild and claiming that they’ve had a mishap in another country and need someone to wire them money.
How can I protect myself from grandparent scams?
Avoiding this common scam requires vigilance and a healthy dose of doubt when a friend or family member calls you with an “urgent” request. Here are some strategies:
Take a breath. Scammers are counting on the “emergency” aspect of the call to make you act quickly. “Say to them, ‘Listen, I’m in the middle of something right now, give me your number and I’m going to call you back in five minutes,’” Levin suggests.
Don’t give information away. If someone calls and said “Grandma?” don’t start reeling off your grandchildren’s names. Make them tell you who they are. You might also ask them to answer a personal question that only they would know the answer to, such as a special nickname you have for them or the name of their first pet.
Ask yourself if the scenario makes sense. Is your grandchild really in jail? Does a lawyer really need you to wire money via Western Union right this minute? Are they asking you to put money on a gift card in order to pay bail money? “There’s no reason under the sun why someone would tell you to load money on a prepaid debit card or an iTunes card,” Levin said. “Especially for an emergency.”
Text or call your grandchild or their parents. It’s likely that the person calling you isn’t your grandchild, so check it out. Call or text your grandchild or their parents and verify their whereabouts. They might text you right back and say, ‘Grandma, I’m fine!’
Try reverse phone/email search services. Consider using a reverse phone lookup or people search on the phone number that’s calling you to potentially determine if it’s really coming from the company or location they’re claiming, or if it seems to be a scammer calling.
Don’t send cash. Under no circumstances should you ever mail cash to anyone. Nor should you wire money or give anyone the numbers to gift cards or other prepaid cards they can use as cash.
Lock down your social media accounts. Make sure to set your privacy settings on all accounts so that only friends and family can see your personal information and photos. Otherwise, you’re making it easy for someone to look you up and impersonate a loved one in your life, because you’ve left a breadcrumb trail online.
Trust your gut. If something feels “off” about the phone call, it probably is. Take a number down where you can call them back and verify your grandchild’s location and situation before you take any additional steps.