“Grandma? Is that you?”
“What’s the matter, honey?”
“Grandma, you gotta help me! They’re going to arrest me if I don’t pay the fine — and I lost my wallet! I don’t have a penny on me or any ID. Can you wire me some money?”
Does this sound like a phone call that can really tug at your heartstrings? It’s actually more like a diabolical plot by devious scammers. There’s no emergency, no imminent arrest and no lost wallet. In fact, it isn’t even your grandchild on the line; you’re speaking to a criminal who wants to get their hands on your money.
Family emergency scams, often referred to as “grandparent scams,” are some of the most nefarious around. They prey on the elderly and take advantage of the natural affection a grandparent has for their grandchild. They’re usually pulled off in the guise of a frantic phone call, though they sometimes show up as an urgent email, text, or social media post using the same panicky message.
Don’t be the next victim of this ruse! Read on to learn how to identify an emergency scam and what to do if you’ve been victimized.
3 ways to spot an emergency scam:
1. The caller will insist upon absolute secrecy
Once your “grandchild” has had their say, the scammer will then take the phone, impersonating an authority figure who is out to make the arrest and demanding that payment be made immediately. They’ll stress the importance of keeping the entire business hush-hush so nobody gets hurt. But, of course, the real reason behind their need for secrecy is to keep you from doing too much digging and identifying the scam for what it is. Any true law enforcement officer would have no request for such secrecy.
2. The “authority figure” will only accept certain means of payment
If you ever receive a phone call insisting that you wire money, send a prepaid debit card, cashier’s check, or certified check in return for helping your grandchild from a distressing situation, you can be certain it’s a scam. Criminals love these payment methods because they provide the victim with very little recourse once they’ve discovered the scam.
3. Your “grandchild” does not know basic information about themselves or family
It’s hard not to be duped into helping out your grandchild when they sound so stressed on the phone. It can also be hard to recognize your grandchild’s voice over a phone that has iffy reception, or from an overseas phone call if your grandchild is abroad. To make it even more complicated, scammers will use any information they can find about your grandchild’s life to appear legitimate. If the scam is carried out through email, they may even hack your grandchild’s email account so their missive appears to be coming directly from your grandchild.
If you ever receive a call or an email like the one described above, simply ask the caller about some personal details that a stranger would not be able to scrape off of your grandchild’s social media accounts. Ask about specific family memories or even jokes that will immediately let you know who you’re really dealing with.
If you’ve been scammed
If you’ve gotten a frantic phone call from your grandchild and you believe it to be true, don’t react just yet. You’ll be urged to act quickly, but take a minute to call your grandchild on your own to verify his or her whereabouts. You can also call the grandchild’s parents to ask where they might be at this time. You may be surprised to learn that your grandchild is safe at home!
If you’ve fallen for the scam and you’ve only recognized the ruse after you’ve sent your money, you may still be able to reclaim some or all of your funds by reporting the scam to the Federal Trade Commission at ftc.gov or by calling 1-877-FTC-HELP. Even if you can’t reclaim your lost funds, you’ll be doing your part to help the authorities put those crooks behind bars.
Grandparenting is a wonderful experience. Don’t let scammers abuse your relationship with your grandchild by pulling the wool over your eyes. Stay one step ahead of them by being alert and knowing how to spot these scams. Show them that no one messes with grandma!
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