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Avoid the 'Grandparent Scam'

Posted on February 20, 2018

Recent cases of two senior citizens in Pennsylvania falling victim to the "Grandparent Scam" are reminders that people of all ages need to pay attention to details and exercise caution before sending money across long distances and state or international borders, says the Keystone State’s Secretary of Banking and Securities Robin L. Wiessmann.

Senior citizens in that state (and many others) have been victimized and lost thousands of dollars to criminals following this script:

  • A grandparent receives a phone call and a young voice says, "Hi Grandma (or Grandpa), it's me." In a moment of confusion, the grandparent answers this greeting with something like "Yes, Michael (or Sharon). How are you?" Alternatively, a stranger purporting to be an attorney, law enforcement official, or friend may be on the line claiming a grandchild has been arrested or is in otherwise dire straits.
  • The scam artist tells the victim about an emergency – legal trouble in a foreign country, a medical emergency, or a lost/stolen wallet – and that grandma or grandpa can help by wiring money to a faraway city.
  • The caller will then swear "grandma" to secrecy ("mom and dad will get angry if they know about the trouble I'm in") or will insist the grandparent's action is required far too swiftly to allow time to contact other family members.
  • The victim then wires hundreds or even thousands of dollars to the faraway city. Sometimes the scam continues for days or weeks, with follow-up calls explaining that for whatever reason, the first wire transfer did not contain enough money and the "grandchild" needs more money wired immediately.

Wiessmann notes that once the wire transfer is completed, the money most likely cannot be recovered.

She advises senior citizens to take the following steps to protect themselves from the Grandparent Scam:

  • Call your relative back using a phone number known to you. If you receive this kind of phone call, contact the grandchild who is supposedly involved by reaching them through a known phone number or check it out with your grandchild's parents before you decide to help someone claiming to be a family member or friend. If they are really your family, your grandchild will understand your need to verify the information you are being given.
  • Ask the caller personal questions known only to family members. Engage the caller in conversation about issues that only family members would know involving information not easily obtainable. Ask about their birthdate or school they attend – or ask them what they got for Christmas from you last year, or ask them to give you the name of the pet cat or dog you have had for as long as they can remember.
  • Don't send money right now. Scammers will play on your emotions and push you to act quickly, but there are few faraway emergencies that require you to act immediately.
  • Be cautious about wire transfers – that money cannot be recovered. Wire transfers are typically the preferred payment method of scam artists. Any request for a wire money transfer should be approached with extreme caution.
  • Review personal information posted on social media. Be careful about personal information you post on social media sites like Facebook or Twitter and advise your family members to be cautious as well. Sometimes this is just enough personal information on social media that anyone can see to help a scam artist convince you that they know you.

If you believe you have fallen victim to this or any other scam, contact your state’s Attorney General or your local law enforcement. (In Pennsylvania call the Office of Attorney General (1-800-441-2555).