grandparent scamMost grandparents are delighted to receive a phone call from one of their grandchildren, something scammers across the country are taking advantage of with phony extortion calls. According to a 2012 FBI news story, these scams usually involve someone calling and either posing as a person’s grandchild (or another relative) with a story about them being in trouble and needing money. Often more than one scammer is involved, with someone playing the part of a police officer, doctor at a hospital or attorney to help increase the legitimacy. Once the victim is convinced that their loved one is in peril, they are tricked into wiring money to help out. Unfortunately, once it’s too late and the money is gone, the victim finds out from their real grandchild that the whole thing was a scam and their grandchild was never in such trouble. Here’s how senior citizens — and their families — can avoid falling victim to these insidious plots.

Tips for keeping the scammers at bay

1. Always keep your wits about you. It’s easy to give in to panic and despair when you hear someone you love is in trouble, but the scammers are counting on this type of emotional response to convince their victims to comply without question. Senior citizens are at risk for all kinds of scams, either by phone or email, and it’s important that family members talk to them about what to do if an “urgent” call or email comes through. Seniors should understand that just because a caller knows intimate details or sounds like a loved one, doesn’t necessarily mean they can be trusted.

If they do receive a call from someone claiming to be a loved one, it’s best to ask lots of questions, write down any pertinent information and then hang up and contact a trusted family member directly. It should be noted that oftentimes the scammer says “please don’t tell my [parents, spouse, etc.] about this” as an attempt to successfully complete the scam. If that’s the case, seniors should hang up the phone and dial the number they have (not the one the scammer provides) for the loved one who is supposedly in trouble. Tell them about the call you just received and that you wanted to confirm it was really them. If you can’t get ahold of that specific family member, try calling their spouse or parents (even if the scammer said not to), as they will likely be able to confirm that the caller was a scammer. To avoid such scams, families can also consider setting up a “safe word” that lets everyone know they’re dealing with a legitimate family member, not just a stranger posing as a family member.

2. Never send money through a wire transfer. As the FBI points out, wiring money is like sending cash, meaning once it’s gone you’re out of luck when it comes to getting it back. If a loved one truly is in trouble and needing monetary assistance, a check or some other form of money transfer that can be tracked and documented will suffice. Scammers may put pressure on their victims to act quickly and send the money as soon as possible, but it’s important to remember that there is almost no legitimate situation where that kind of time limitation is necessary.

3. Remember that secrecy is usually a sign of deception. Many of these scams work because the scammers convince their victims not to tell anyone else in the family what’s going on. Those pretending to be grandchildren will appeal to the heartstrings and beg not to be found out. In the case of a story written for the New York Times by author Christine Sneed earlier this year, the scammer pretending to be her to con her grandfather asked him not to tell her parents so they wouldn’t get upset. As stated earlier, in this situation it’s best to contact the person claiming to be in trouble using the phone number you have for them and confirm they are actually in need of help.

4. Be careful how much information you post online. No matter what age you are, everyone can benefit from using more caution when it comes to their privacy online. Considering that many of these scammers call knowing intimate details, like family member names and other information used to help convince the victim that the sob story is real, it’s likely this information is skimmed from family members’ online accounts. Many of us don’t think twice before sharing what could seem like innocent information at the time, but could easily be used in this type of scam. It’s never a bad idea to use privacy settings or simply not share information.

What to do if you’ve been scammed

While victims of this scam — or any other — may be embarrassed to admit they fell for it, it’s important for them to report it to family members, as they could be the next potential victim, and law enforcement as soon as possible. This scam and others should also be reported to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. While it’s unlikely you’ll get your money back, the earlier people are aware, the earlier assistance can be provided.

The grandparent scam is just one of the thousands of scams out there targeting the elderly population in the United States. To learn more about scams and protecting yourself and your family from fraud, follow our identity theft protection blog.