Don’t Fall for the “Grandparent Scam”

Senior woman having vision problems, she can't read the messages on her smartphone

Shirley’s phone rang early one morning. “Grandma?” the caller said. “This is your grandson.”

“Well hello, Mark! It’s good to hear from you,” said Shirley. It had been a long time since her college-age grandson had called her.

“Grandma,” said Mark, “I need your help. I’m in the hospital in Mexico with COVID and I don’t have enough to pay my bill for treatment. Don’t tell Mom and Dad—they told me not to go on this trip!”

Shirley thought of calling her son and daughter-in-law, but she felt pleased that Mark had turned to her. Mark instructed her to go buy some Target gift cards and call him back with the numbers. As she was in the checkout line to make the $2,000 purchase, the clerk scrutinized her. “Did someone call you and ask you to buy these?” the clerk said.

“Yes,” said Shirley—and then she started to think. Why would Mark be in Mexico? Why would he be scared to call his parents? She smelled a rat and cancelled the gift card purchase—and found out later she had almost been taken by a common scam.

Shirley narrowly avoided being taken in by what the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) calls “the family emergency imposter scam.” It’s commonly called the “grandparent scam,” because so many of the victims are older adults. In this scheme, the impostor pretends to be a young relative who is in some kind of trouble and needs money right away.

These con artists are very skilled. They call seniors either at random, or having gleaned information from Facebook or elsewhere. Using clever persuasion tricks, they can quickly convince the senior that they’re talking to their grandchild. The fake grandchild plays on the senior’s heartstrings with a story of being in jail, or overdue on their rent, stranded far from home, or otherwise in trouble or danger.

The scammer relies on the fact that for a grandparent, love and concern will likely 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 gift cards, a prepaid credit card, by wire transfer, or even in cash—all payment methods 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 the state attorney general (you can find the contact information here). If the money was wired through Western Union, MoneyGram or another company, notify them right away—though the money is most likely gone and the con artist can’t be traced, there’s a small possibility that the money has not yet been picked up and the transfer could be reversed.

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 over Christmas break? What was your dog’s name when you lived in Chicago? 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 every level of 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 the empowerment that comes from helping others avoid being victimized. They might begin by sharing this blog post with friends and other seniors!

Source: IlluminAge AgeWise with information from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC also offers information about impostor scams and a video consumers can watch to see how these scammers work.

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