Grandparent Scams

Senior citizens are a favorite targets of scammers. 

There’s an old saying that wisdom comes from age. Perhaps that’s one reason why the older we are the more everyone else sees us as trustworthy. And conversely less skeptical. Operators of “grandparent scams” know that seniors are also more likely to be at home during the day and, therefore, easily accessible by phone. Hopefully, we spent our working years raising families and saved up enough money to allow ourselves to retire in dignity and relative comfort. 

So, what would loving grandparents do if they get a phone call late at night informing them that their grandchild, who was traveling abroad, was in an accident? And hospitalized? And now had to pay the bill? Or that the grandchild is under arrest and doesn’t have enough cash to post bond? Or that robbers stole all the money the grandchild had? Or that the grandchild was being held by kidnappers south of the border? Would the grandparents assume the calls are a scam or would they rush to pay the money?

Indeed, in the first week of 2021 an elderly Michigan couple received a phone call from someone who told them she was their granddaughter and was under arrest for involvement in an automobile accident. She claimed she desperately needed money for a lawyer. A courier was sent to their home to pick up $12,000. The next day the supposed attorney called and requested for an additional $14,000, which he said was needed due to complications with the case. They would have paid that too had their granddaughter not stopped by and informed them that they were scammed. 

In November 2020, in fact, two 25-year-old Florida men were indicted in Ohio on nine counts of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. They were suspected of phoning senior citizens in Ohio and claiming to be a grandchild under arrest, or a lawyer working on their behalf. They would supposedly then show up at the victims’ homes (with a U-Haul) and, by the time they were caught, carted away $382,932.    

If you assume it can’t happen to you then consider this: At least 100 New Jersey residents lost over $1 million to grandparent scams in 2020. Among the grandparents who were targeted was the mother-in-law of the special agent who directs the FBI’s Newark office. 

Grandparent Scams Look Real

These creative criminals use spoofed caller IDs to erroneously identify themselves as calling from hospitals, police stations, attorneys’ offices, or embassies and consulates. How do they know a grandchild is traveling abroad? Sometimes they don’t and just make random calls on the assumption that mathematically they’ll eventually stumble upon grandparents who fit the bill. But astute scammers will do their homework. That’s not hard to do. 

They can start by scouring Facebook groups to compile names of young adults touring on their own. Facebook profiles can be set to allow complete strangers to see your list of friends. Each list of friends can be set to indicate a familial relationship, including grandpa and grandma. Bingo. The grandparents may even list their phone number on their own profiles, but if not, they aren’t difficult to find. After all, the scammer now knows where they live, too. In very little time they can find all the details they need to convince the grandparents that their call is for real. They have the grandchild’s name, his or her last verified location and even the photos he took while abroad. 

Grandparent Scams Play on Our Emotions

The scammers will always put pressure on the grandparents by claiming that time is of the essence. Often, someone will join the call (but only for a few seconds). He’ll quickly say “I’m your grandson” (grandsons are much more frequently targeted than granddaughters). And then maybe add a few words more like “Please send the money.” The grandson will probably pretend to be crying too in order to disguise his voice. That will put pressure on the grandparents even more. And then the scammer will tell the grandparents to transfer the money by wire or as gift cards (because they are hard to trace). Or, increasingly in cash via a parcel delivery service, or in bitcoin. Finally, they’ll instruct the grandparents not to tell anything to the parents, at the grandson’s request.

Another version of grandparent scams plays on the perceived honesty of the elderly. One example is scammers posing as census takers. They first will ask their intended victims the types of questions that we expect from census takers: The names of everyone residing at the address, their dates and places of birth, occupations. And as the conversation comes to an end, after they gain the victim’s trust, they will ask for a credit card or bank account number — to be able to confirm the information with the bank, they’ll say. But that’s baloney. No census  requires such personal information. Scammers will do or say anything in order to steal your money.  

In 2020, for example, two Los Angeles men were charged with scamming at least 1,600 investors in 30 states out of more than $185 million. They allegedly did so by charging wildly inflated prices for gold and silver. Most of their victims were senior citizens.  

How Much Do Grandparent Scams Cost Victims?

According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, the average sum sent by relatives or friends of people who supposedly are in distress was about $2,000. But for senior citizens 70 years and older who are caught in this scam, the figure is $9,000. That’s another reason why scammers prefer to target seniors. One estimate is that the total amount of money lost by U.S. residents as a result of all financial scams surpassed $3 billion by January 2019.

According to one convicted scammer, he was able to pocket up to $10,000 a day, even though only one out of 50 calls he made convinced the grandparents. “We’ve had doctors and lawyers fall for this,” a spokesman of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) told CBS News. “It doesn’t matter what your educational level is because it triggers something emotional, it causes you to act.”

If you think you’ve been the victim of a grandparent scam, contact the fund recovery experts at MyChargeBack.