Warn Seniors About "The Grandparent Scam"

Senior man looks at the touch screen on his smart phone.

Bob’s phone rang early one morning. “Grandpa? This is your grandson.”

“Eli, how good to hear from you!” said Bob. It had been a long time since his college-age grandson had called him.

Eli sounded upset and afraid. He had been arrested for drunk driving in Mexico during his spring break trip, and he needed $5,000 for bail money. “Don’t tell Mom and Dad,” Eli begged.

Bob thought of calling his son and daughter-in-law, Eli’s parents, but he was pleased that the boy had turned to him, and trusted him enough to keep his secret. Bob went to Western Union right away and wired the money to the location Eli had specified.

He waited several days for Eli to confirm that he’d been released from the Mexican jail—but there was no call. Finally he called his son and daughter-in-law to sound them out. “How’s Eli?”

His daughter-in-law laughed. “Oh, he’s been here all week with the flu! We’re going to drive him back to school tomorrow. Want to talk to him?”

Bob got a sinking feeling. He called Western Union, but of course his money was long gone.

Bob was the latest victim of what the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) calls “the family emergency imposter scam.” It’s just as often called the “Grandparent scam,” because so many of the victims are older adults. In this scam, the impostor pretends to be a young relative who is in some kind of trouble and needs money right away. The fake grandchild might claim to be in jail, in the hospital, stranded in a foreign country…you name it.

These con artists are very skilled. They will sometimes glean information from a grandchild’s Facebook page to use in their impersonation. Or they just dial number after number until an older person answers. Then, as in the case of the crooks that conned Bob, they use a clever ploy by merely starting the conversation with “Grandpa?” The victim’s impulse is to respond by name—“Eli, is that you?” Later on, victims like Bob might marvel—“How did they know my grandchild’s name?” It’s one of the oldest tricks in the scammers’ book.

These scammers play on the emotions of a grandparent, knowing that love and concern often will override prudence. The request is always urgent, and the scammer often includes a plausible reason why the grandparent should keep the situation a secret.  And, of course, the “grandchild” always specifies that the money should be sent via wire transfer, a prepaid credit card or other payment method that can’t be traced or reversed. It works: The FTC reports that these scammers bilk seniors out of more than $20 million each year.

If you or a loved one have been victimized by this scam, file a complaint right away with the FTC and your state’s attorney general (you can find the contact information here). If you wired money through Western Union or another company, notify them right away—though your money is most likely gone and the con artist can’t be traced, there’s a small possibility that they haven’t picked up the money yet and you could reverse the transfer.

Knowledge is power

The best way to help seniors avoid these scams is to build awareness. Talk about this scam when everyone is together—including grandchildren! And remember that scammers are always evolving their tricks. A caller might claim to be your grandchild’s attorney, a friend, a doctor, or even a police officer. But remember: Any time you’re being pressured to send money immediately, it’s probably a scam.

Some victims reported that while they were hesitant and things didn’t seem quite right, they didn’t want to risk letting their grandchild down. So the first thing is to ascertain whether the caller is who they say they are! Ask the caller a personal question that only your grandchild would know. “Where did we go on vacation last summer? What was your dog’s name when you lived in Dallas? What kind of car do I drive?” Some families even establish a family code word.

In some cases, falling for a scam could be a sign that a senior needs help managing their affairs, especially if they have memory or thinking problems. But people of every age and sophistication have fallen for impostor scams. If your loved one has been victimized, reassure them that they are not alone. Encourage them to channel feelings of embarrassment or remorse into helping others avoid being victimized. Sharing the information with their friends and other seniors is empowering. Forward this article, or let them know about these resources:

The Federal Trade Commission offers information about imposter scams, and online videos they can watch to see how these crooks work.

Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2017.