Beware of the “Grandparent Scam”

It’s late at night and you get a call from your distraught grandchild. They’re in trouble, frantic, and tell you they need money, fast. You’re confused and worried, and you send the money as soon as possible. But what you don’t realize is that you’ve just been conned by the “Grandparent Scam”.

It’s a growing trend; an impersonation scam where criminals specifically target older Americans by posing as family members or friends. Crooks use social media and internet searches to obtain the names, birthdates, and other information necessary to create convincing fabricated stories, aimed at getting the victim to send money to the imposter. In some cases, the scammer may even hack into a victim’s email account to get their hands on all of the names in their contact list.

In a typical Grandparent Scam, a grandparent receives a call or email from their “grandchild” who claims to have fallen into trouble while traveling overseas (usually by getting into a car accident, getting arrested, or getting mugged) and needs money wired to them ASAP. In another version of the scam, the caller pretends to be someone acting on behalf of the grandchild, typically either an arresting police officer, lawyer, hospital doctor, or friend. In some instances the “grandchild” speaks first and then hands the call over to this phony second person in an effort to make the story even more believable.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, between 2012 and 2014, consumers were robbed of more than $42 million in these types of impersonation scams. And because the imposters request the money be sent through wire services like Western Union or MoneyGram, and they pick up the cash with phony IDs, it’s usually impossible to trace them. However, there are some measures that grandparents and their loved ones can take to help avoid falling victim to these scammers.

For starters, it’s extremely important to limit the amount of personal information you post online, whether it be a personal webpage, Facebook page, or blog. If you must post personal details like names and ages of loved ones, be sure to utilize available privacy settings to ensure strangers cannot view the information.

It’s also a good idea to use a firewall and anti-virus and anti-spyware software on your computer and mobile devices to help prevent your email account from being hacked. And never open attachments or links in suspicious-looking emails or ones from strangers, as these could trigger programs that enable crooks to access your email account or computer.

And most importantly, if you ever receive a phone call or email about a loved one in distress, verify the information with other family members before sending any money. For example, try calling your grandchild’s cell or house phone to see if it was really them who called, or check with their parents or siblings to confirm that they are in fact traveling overseas. Another precaution you can take is to ask the caller a question only your family member would know; a piece of information that isn’t readily available online, like the name of their first pet or their childhood nickname. And keep in mind that wiring money – especially overseas – is risky business. Once you send it, you can’t get it back.

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