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This Phone Scam Is Targeting Grandparents — But There Are Ways To Outwit It

“Hi Grandma, it’s me. I need help. I’m in trouble, and I need money for bail. Please don’t tell Mom or Dad.”

When your grandchild says they have an emergency, it’s normal to take their urgent request seriously, even if it seems out of character. But unfortunately, that’s just what scammers want you to do.

The “grandparent scam” targeting senior victims is not new, but according to the FBI, it’s still working all too well.

In late April, the FBI announced that 16 defendants had been charged in connection with a scheme to defraud older Americans. The scammers would call victims and impersonate grandchildren in a crisis. They typically claimed that they had been arrested after a car accident, and that they needed immediate funds from their grandparent for a lawyer or bail.

In total, the FBI said, hundreds of Americans across the Northeast lost millions of dollars as a result.

“Grandma, I love you and I trust you more than anyone,” one of the alleged scammers cries on a call with a victim, according to video found in the investigation. “Just do whatever he tells you to do.“

Mike Lemberger, Visa’s regional risk officer for North America, noted that it’s common for grandparent scammers to look up the grandparent online, in order to learn the grandchild’s name and impersonate them.

“They’ll run this thing against 100 people. Maybe they got the grandchild’s name wrong on 10 of them … The fraudster doesn’t care,” Lemberger said. “But on the 10 or 12 it got right and the one or two that fall for it, they’re making their money.”

How to avoid getting caught in a grandparent scam

Scammers prey on heightened emotions, because when you are scared or worried, you’re less likely to listen to logic, and more likely to hand over thousands of dollars to a stranger.

“That sense of urgency is what leads us to act. And that’s what you have to try to control,” said Kelly Richmond Pope, a professor of forensic accounting at DePaul University and the author of “Fool Me Once: Scams, Stories, and Secrets from the Trillion-Dollar Fraud Industry.” “You can control your emotions and how you respond.”

Listen to what the call is saying, not the familiar voice.

Just because the caller sounds like your grandchild does not guarantee that they are. With just a short audio clip from social media, artificial intelligence can clone a loved one’s voice, and sophisticated grandparent scams are using AI to impersonate the voices of grandkids, according to a 2023 Federal Trade Commission alert on grandparent scams.

Amy Nofziger, the director of victim support for the AARP Fraud Watch Network, said the grandparent scam is effective because when a loved one is in trouble, we want to help.

That’s why it’s more useful to pay attention to what the call is about than how it sounds. Nofziger said grandparents should ask themselves: “Even if it sounds like your grandson, what are they asking for?”

“Don’t listen for the voice. Listen to the ask. If the ask is for money or personal information, it’s 100% a scam,” Nofziger said.

Take the common bail-money demand. Nofziger said a real bail payment is unlikely to be done over the phone. In fact, bail is typically paid in court, in a jail facility or online.

And be wary of anyone asking you to keep a secret from your family, because “that’s a huge red flag” of a scam, Nofziger said.

She said it can also help to speak out loud and ask yourself: “Does this make sense that my grandson is calling me when he’s supposed to be at school?” Voicing aloud what’s happening to you can help you listen to common sense.

Don’t trust caller ID.

Do not let your guard down even if caller ID says the call is a trusted source. Scammers can “spoof” a caller ID to make an incoming call appear like it’s coming from a familiar location.

Nofziger gave the example of a caller ID saying the call is coming from your regional hospital. “So you pick up the phone and they’re like, ‘Hi, this is the ER, your grandchild’s been in an emergency, we need the insurance payment right away.’”

In the scheme recently described by the FBI, the scammers used phone services to make the calls appear to be coming from the U.S., even though they originated from the Dominican Republic, according to court documents.

Hang up the phone and verify the story with a family member.

Experts said having a secret family code word for these situations is less effective, because in stressful situations, it’s unlikely you’re going to remember the password. Or, if the code word is too easy, a scammer may be able to guess what it is.

Besides, if the person sounds like your loved one, you may not realize you’re in any “kind of perceived danger,” Pope said.

But what you can easily remember to do is to hang up and verify if the grandchild is OK. “Call the grandchild, call the parents of the grandchild at the phone number you have for them,” Nofziger recommended.

Have a conversation upfront with your loved ones about grandparent scams.

Scammers win by isolating family members from their loved ones. That’s why one of the best prevention tools is role-playing different scenarios of what a grandparent scam can sound like.

That way, grandparents can talk through what they should do if they get an emergency phone call about a supposed arrest, and they can discuss who they should call to verify an alarming story.

When you care for an older loved one, you care about their health and safety. And part of that “is their financial health and safety,” Lemberger said.

What you can do if you or your loved one is the victim of a grandparent scam

Prevention is the best defense, but if you or your loved one has lost money to a grandparent scam, there are still steps you can take swiftly:

Tell your bank or credit card company.

“The tough part about this is, once the money is gone, it’s typically gone,” Pope said about the aftermath of these fraudulent schemes.

But you should still contact your bank or credit card company right away. In some limited cases, “we can get into the middle of a transaction,” Lemberger said. “And if it doesn’t look right to us, we may contact some folks and stop those transactions.”

Seek professional counseling.

Losing thousands of dollars to fraud can wreak both emotional and financial damage on a family ― even if it didn’t happen directly to you.

When a grandchild actually finds out that their grandparent lost $50,000 to help them, they often feel guilty, and “that’s a significant amount of trauma that they’re going to carry for some time,” Nofziger said.

Nofziger noted that AARP has a free, facilitated peer discussion group that provides emotional support for victims of fraud and their families.

Report what happened.

In additional to reporting your situation to local law enforcement, you can call the National Elder Fraud Hotline, a Justice Department initiative, at 1-833-372-8311.

From there, you will be connected to case managers who can provide resources and agency referrals on what you can do next.

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