What Is the Grandparent Scam? How To Identify & Avoid It

October 13, 2023


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    Is Your Family Member Really in Danger? It Might Be a Scam

    Libby, an 82-year-old grandmother from New Jersey, was working on a puzzle when the phone rang. On the other end, her grandson was in tears. He said he’d been in a car accident and needed $8,000 to cover his release, then handed the phone over to a “public defender.”

    Libby was told that a courier would pick up the money in cash, and then her grandson would be free to go. But when she called her grandson later, she realized it was all a scam [*].

    Unfortunately, grandparent scams like this one are getting more common. According to the latest data from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) [*]:

    In 2022, nearly half a million American seniors were victims of fraud, losing $1,000 – $1,800 on average. 

    In this guide, we’ll explain how grandparent scams work, ways to identify them, and how to talk to older family members about scams so that you can help keep them safe.

    What Is the Grandparent Scam? How Does It Work?

    Grandparent scams occur when fraudsters pose as family members in danger and persuade elderly victims to pay bogus fees, fines, or ransoms. 

    Here’s how a typical grandparent scam works: 

    • Scammers contact elderly victims — usually over the phone. Fraudsters pose as a grandchild or family member, either by name (names of family members can often be found online or on social media) or by starting the conversation with, “It’s me, Grandpa!” in hopes that the victim will say the grandchild’s name. 
    • Next, they make up elaborate stories and claim they’re in trouble. The caller will be in hysterics — claiming they’ve been in an accident, are in trouble with the law, or have even been kidnapped while traveling in a foreign country. Often, scammers speak softly, their words muffled amid sobs, or come up with an excuse for why they sound different (such as a bad phone connection). They might also try calling in the middle of the night when the victim is not fully awake or doesn’t want to disturb others to confirm what’s going on.
    • The scammers quickly pass the conversation over to a third party. Fraudsters then introduce another person involved in the emergency. This could be someone claiming to be law enforcement, a lawyer, or a kidnapper. 
    • In order to protect the family member in trouble, the victim will be required to pay money. The caller will ask for bail money or gift cards to get the victim’s loved one out of the situation. Sometimes, scammers even show up at your door or send rideshare drivers to collect money.

    Grandparent scams rely on social engineering to put victims under stress and get them to act without thinking. There have also been recent variations of this scam which take advantage of natural disasters or COVID-19 fears.

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    How To Identify a Grandparent Scam: 8 Warning Signs

    There are warning signs that can help you spot a grandparent scam before it’s too late. 

    Here are 8 red flags to look out for:

    1. The caller doesn’t identify themselves right away. Fraudsters trick you into offering information that they don’t otherwise know. For example, they may start off by saying, “Hi, Grandma, it’s me!” or, “It’s your grandson” — and hope that you’ll respond with the name of your grandchild (whom they will then impersonate during the call).
    2. They communicate with a high level of urgency to make you act without thinking. By creating a life-or-death story, scammers hope to bypass your better judgment. They try to prey on your emotions and hope that you don’t catch any of the warning signs indicating that it’s a scam.
    3. They know your family member’s name but not any specific information. Scammers can research you online or make guesses based on your social media profiles, but they usually skim over details or refuse to answer specific questions.
    4. They claim they’ve been in an accident or are in trouble and need money. The most common grandparent scam includes claims that the caller is in dire need of money due to an accident, trouble with law enforcement, or a robbery or mugging.
    5. They say they’re overseas or traveling. To increase the urgency of the scam, fraudsters pretending to be a grandchild often claim to be overseas.
    6. They beg you not to tell anyone — especially other family members. The scammer might say something like, “Please don’t tell Mom and Dad — they’ll be angry” in an attempt to keep you quiet.
    7. The call comes late at night. Scammers often call in the middle of the night to take advantage of their victim’s sleepiness. They figure that an older person will be more confused if awakened by a call late at night.
    8. The caller tells you that someone else — usually a lawyer or attorney — will be in touch. Emergency scams often involve a third party to make the story seem more believable. During the phone call, the “grandchild” will pass the phone to a person of authority who then explains to the grandparent how to transfer the necessary funds.

    Keep in mind that although grandparent scams most commonly occur over the phone (or via robocalls), con artists have also been known to use emails, texts, or social media messages to run these types of phishing scams.

    📚 Related: The Best Identity Theft Protection for Seniors

    What To Do If a Scammer Calls You Pretending To Be a Family Member

    If someone calls you pretending to be a family member in trouble, follow these steps to avoid falling for the scam.

    1. Slow down and trust your gut

    The number one strategy used by scammers is to create a sense of urgency that preys on your emotions and fear. Don’t fall for it. Take your time and consider the facts: Is this really your grandchild? How can you be certain? Have you spotted any red flags?

    Listen for these key phrases:

    • “Don’t tell Mom and Dad.” Scammers don’t want you to speak with a family member who could expose their impersonation scheme. If they insist that you don’t tell anyone else what’s going on, there’s a good chance it’s a scam.
    • “A lawyer/public defender/attorney is going to contact you.” To bolster their scam, they try to convince you that a person of authority will call you. Don’t give these callers any information until you can verify who they are.

    📚 Related: What Is Voice Phishing (Vishing)? Can You Avoid It?

    2. Verify the caller’s identity

    In the unlikely event that it really is your grandchild, you need to make sure you know who you’re dealing with. Don’t let your guard down just because the number or caller ID looks familiar; scam artists can disguise their phone number and make it look like the call is coming from a trusted source (known as “spoofing”).

    Do the following:

    • Ask them questions that only they will know. If they refuse to answer, or can’t, it’s a scammer. Hang up immediately and call the family member directly to confirm your suspicions.
    • Call the relevant agency to verify the caller’s identity and information. If you’re talking to someone who claims to be a police officer or lawyer, call their respective organizations to confirm what they’re saying. If the agency has no idea what you’re talking about, it’s a scam.

    📚 Related: What Are Tech Support Scams? How To Identify & Avoid Them

    3. Don’t give the caller any information

    If scammers don't already have your personal information, they’ll try to fish for details that they can use to convince you it’s your grandchild.

    If the caller says something like, “It’s me, Grandma,” don’t respond with your grandchild’s name. Instead, wait for them to say it, or ask them directly. If they don’t know the name, you can be sure it’s a scammer.

    Here’s what to do:

    • Don’t give your address or personal information to anyone who calls you. Scammers are always on the lookout for information they can use against you. Don’t let them have it.
    • Check your social media privacy settings. Make sure your social media settings are private and that you share as little personal information publicly as possible. This will prevent fraudsters from using this information to scam you.
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    4. Reach out to a trusted family member or friend

    If you can’t get a hold of the family member who supposedly called, contact another family member or friend who might know more. This person should be able to clear up concerns as to whether the emergency is real. Scammers typically ask you to keep the situation secret — don’t.

    Here’s what to do:

    • Call a family member or friend and tell them what happened. They will likely know the real story and be able to confirm or deny what the caller has said. In all likelihood, your grandchild is safe and sound.

    📚 Related: Account Services Call Scams: Everything You Need To Know

    5. Be cautious of requests for specific payment types

    Scammers ask you to wire money, send gift cards, or use payment apps because they’re difficult to trace (making it nearly impossible for you to get your money back). If the caller asks for payment via one of these methods, it’s likely a scam.

    You should never send money to someone until you’ve confirmed the recipient’s identity 100%.

    Here are some payment methods that raise red flags:

    • Gift cards. Scammers often ask for payment via gift cards (like iTunes or Amazon) because they’re untraceable. No legitimate agency or authority figure will request gift cards.
    • Wire transfers or payment apps. Wiring money is like giving someone cash. Once you’ve sent it, it’s gone. This is also true for payment apps like Zelle and Cash App.
    • Cash that will be picked up by a courier. No legitimate organization will have a driver pick up a cash payment from you.

    📚 Related: The 11 Latest Gift Card Scams (and How To Get Your Money Back)

    6. Report the fraud to the FTC and local police

    It’s important that you report all scams to the relevant authorities. This can help stop cybercriminals in their tracks and prevent other people from falling prey to these scams.

    Here are the authorities that you should contact:

    • The Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Report all cases of fraud to the FTC to help them track the latest scams. You can also call their toll-free hotline at 1-877-382-4357.
    • Your local law enforcement agency. File a report with your local police department so they can investigate the crime. You may also want to contact your state’s Attorney General and consumer protection office.
    • The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). If you were a victim of a scam, you can report it to the FBI at IC3.gov.

    📚 Related: 5 Important Online Safety Tips For Seniors

    Did You Send Money To a Scammer? Here’s What To Do

    If you’ve given money or gift cards to a scammer, there’s a good chance that your money is gone for good. However, it’s not a lost cause. 

    Here’s how you can try to get your money back if you've been scammed over the phone, depending on the payment method that you used:

    How you paid
    What to do
    Gift cards (Walmart, Amazon, Spotify, etc.)
    Call the company that offered the gift card to see if it can revoke the card and return your money.
    Wire transfers (Western Union, MoneyGram, Apple Pay, etc.)
    Contact the bank or wire transfer service that you used to make the transaction.
    Payment apps (Venmo, Zelle, etc.)
    Contact the company that owns the app and report the scammer.
    If you used a postal service, contact the company to see if it can stop your package from arriving.
    Debit or credit card
    Contact your bank immediately; ask to stop the money transfer, and report the scammer.
    Cryptocurrencies (Binance, Coinbase, etc.)
    Contact the exchange site that you used to send the money.

    📚 Related: How To Respond To The Theft Of Your Identity

    How To Talk To Your Family About Grandparent Scams

    Unfortunately, one of the reasons that grandparent scams work so well is because elderly people are nervous about admitting they’ve been scammed — or even targeted by scammers. 

    It can be awkward to discuss scams and financial fraud with your older loved ones. Elderly people are often hesitant to reach out or admit that they were scammed because they’re afraid of being judged or losing their independence.

    But discussing these matters can help them stay safe, retain their independence, and become aware of issues they might otherwise not know about.

    Here’s how to address this issue with your elderly loved ones:

    • Don’t judge or cast blame. Be patient and considerate. The rate at which technology is advancing can be intimidating for senior citizens, and they often feel like they’re left in the dark.
    • Bring up recent scams in regular conversations. Scammers are constantly updating their techniques based on recent events to increase their chances of success. By talking about new types of scams with your elderly family members, they’ll be more aware of what to look out for.
    • Explain what to do if they receive a suspicious phone call. Tell them that the best strategy is to hang up immediately and call the person in question directly. Whether it’s a grandparent scam or another type of scam, hanging up stops fraudsters in their tracks.
    • Leave notes near the phone and computer. Leaving instructions by the phone and computer can act as a reminder if a scammer contacts them. Explain clearly what they should do and how they should act if they get a suspicious call or message.
    • Listen for comments about a change in finances. Many people only realize their elderly parents or grandparents are getting scammed upon hearing talk of financial worries or being broke. Keep an eye out for this type of comment in general conversations so that you can act quickly.
    • Consider family identity theft protection with credit monitoring. Identity Guard’s Family Ultra plan includes bank, investment, and credit account monitoring for up to five adults on a single plan.

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    The Bottom Line: Protect Your Family From Scammers

    As more Americans are getting older and living longer, they are becoming prime targets for scammers. It’s more important than ever to keep an eye out for the red flags of grandparent and other senior citizen scams — and to know what to do if you or a loved one receives a suspicious call.

    Identity Guard keeps your family safe from scammers and gives you peace of mind by providing award-winning identity theft protection, Safe Browsing tools, and credit monitoring. And if the worst should happen, you’re covered by a $1 million insurance policy, along with 24/7 help from a team of dedicated U.S.-based Fraud Resolution Specialists.

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