It’s a scam repeated hundreds of times throughout the day all across America, and it goes something like this:
An elderly person living alone has finished dinner, cleaned and put away the dishes, and is about to sit down and enjoy her favorite television show, when the phone rings.
Happy that someone is calling, she picks up but is confused by what follows:
Scammer: Grandma, thank goodness, I reached you.
Grandparent: Johnnie, is that you?
Scammer: Yeah, my car broke down (or I have been in a horrible accident or I’ve been mugged or I got pick-pocketed or I lost my passport, or I have been hospitalized — substitute your favorite ruse designed to tug at your heartstrings).
Grandparent: Are you all right?
Scammer: The doctor (or lawyer or police officer) will explain everything later. For now, I just need you to send some money right away— but whatever you do, please don’t tell mom or dad.
Grandparent: Where should I send it?
As implausible or as far-fetched as the above scenario may sound, versions of it play out every day, netting scammers millions of dollars from vulnerable, unsuspecting, and too trusting seniors. In fact, losses from grandparent scams — so called because they prey on older adults — increased to $41 million in 2018 from $26 million in 2017, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The average loss was about $9,000.
How victims are selected
The scammer may call randomly or glean your name from a mailing list or social network site, such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. A name could just have easily been culled from an obituary notice. In our current age of hypermedia, sources for obtaining your name and information about you are virtually endless.
How you can better defend yourself against the grandparent scam
- Stay calm
Scammers have a far greater chance of succeeding if you work yourself into a panic. Resist the urge to act immediately, regardless of how dramatic the story.
- Confirm the caller’s identity.
Ask a question that would be hard for the imposter to answer correctly, such as the name of the person’s pet or their mother’s birthday.
- Get off the phone
Don’t linger on the phone. Try to verify the supposed situation with another family member. Despite the caller’s plea not to call mom or dad, ask yourself, “Why aren’t they calling their mom or dad?
- Look for the dead giveaway
Usually, the caller will suggest how the money is to be sent. Typically, it’s through a wire transfer service, such as Western Union or MoneyGram, an overnight delivery service or courier (with check or cash) or a prepaid card or gift card. If the latter, the scammer will often ask that you read the numbers on the back of the card over the phone. As a heads-up, courts and hospitals don’t accept gift cards as payment, which should raise your suspicions further that the caller is trying to scam you.
If you’ve been scammed
- Contact the money transfer service immediately to report the scam. If the money hasn’t been picked up, you can retrieve it, but if it has, it’s not likely a check you can stop — the money has vanished.
- Keep your software updated.
Install anti-virus software if the feature isn’t already built in. Also, don’t open attachments in emails from strangers, since they may contain programs that enable fraudsters to enter your computer remotely.
- Know the code
Before a loved one hits the road, agree on a code word or password only the two of you would know. So, in the event you receive an urgent request for money from someone claiming to be or who sounds like your grandchild (beware the bad telephone-connection excuse), you’ll simply ask the caller for the code word.
- Report the scam
If you fell for a scam and lost your money, the last thing you may feel like doing is reporting it. You may be just ready to move on. But the more you can do to raise awareness that these kinds of scams continue to exist, and even grow, the more resources and attention can be devoted to fighting and curtailing them.
- Keep your guard up
Despite the best efforts of law enforcement and other well-intentioned organizations to crack down on scams, fighting them is like playing Whac-A-Mole: another pops up as soon as you knock one down. And once you think you know everything about a scam or have heard the last about one, it reappears in a slightly altered fashion, a little slicker and more sophisticated than its previous form.
So, stay vigilant and continue to observe the rule of never sending money to anyone unless you have confirmed the caller’s identity and their story.