Avoiding the Grandparent Scam

A while back, I got a call from my Mother.  She was really upset and wanted to know if my daughter was okay.  Wondering what was going on, I assured her that my daughter was doing well and that everything was fine.  How could everything be fine, she demanded, when my daughter was in jail and couldn’t afford her bail?

At this point, I got very confused.  I tried to calm my Mom down and get the whole story.  She had gotten a call from a person who said she was my daughter, saying that she was in jail for drunk driving.  She had a bad cold and was taking cough medicine, which caused a false positive on the sobriety test. She needed bail money, and if she didn’t get the money quickly, she would lose her job and she was desperate.  My Mother was beside herself that she hadn’t sent the money immediately.

I was able to reassure my Mom and calm her down.  My daughter doesn’t drive, and she didn’t have a cold.  In addition, when my Mom called, my daughter was asleep upstairs, having just gotten home from a long day at work.

The “Grandparent” scam is a fairly common phone scam that has cost many elder people money they cannot afford to lose.  The idea is simple.  Call an older person, pretend to be their beloved grandchild in trouble and trick them into sending money.  Illness or injury may be part of the story to explain why they don’t sound like themselves.  Hysteria, urgency, and the need for immediate action is stressed, causing confusion and making it easy to overlook common sense.  They ask that the money be wired to them or that prepaid credit cards be sent. They claim to be embarrassed and beg that no one be told. There are many variations on the basic idea, but it is a very effective ploy.

Federal Trade Commission data shows that consumers reported losing nearly $8.8 billion to fraud in 2022, an increase of more than 30% over the previous year.  This number doesn’t take into consideration the likely larger number of people who were embarrassed that they had fallen victim and did not report the theft.

So, what can be done to help prevent a scammer successfully taking your money?  AARP makes the following suggestions:

  • Set the privacy settings on your social media accounts so that only people you know can access your posts and photos. Scammers search Facebook, Instagram and other social networks for family information they can use to fool you.
  • Ask questions someone else is unlikely to be able to answer, such as the name and species of your grandchild’s first pet.
  • Say you’ll call right back, then call your grandchild’s usual phone number. With luck, he or she will answer, and you’ll know that the supposed emergency call is a scam.
  • Contact other family members or friends and see whether they can verify the story. Scammers plead with you to keep the emergency a secret precisely so you won’t try to confirm it.
  • If you speak to someone who claims to be a police officer, do call the relevant law enforcement agency to verify the person’s identity and any information they’ve given you.
  • Do not rush to make a decision. If the caller insists on immediate action, take your time to review the situation. Do not be drawn into the hysteria of the caller. Take the time to confirm that something has actually occurred.
  • Trust your instincts. As the American Bar Association advises, if something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.

If you suspect that you or a friend or family member has been scammed, please file a report with the Massachusetts Elder Abuse Hotline at 1-800-922-2275 or contact your local police department. For more information about services to protect elders from abuse, visit www.seniorcareinc.org/protective-services.

Thankfully, the person who contacted my Mother was too greedy.  She asked for more money than my Mom could quickly send.  If she had asked for less, my Mother probably would have sent it.  My Mom was convinced that she had been talking to her granddaughter, and was horrified that she hadn’t been able to help her.  Our story had a happy ending.  Many do not.