Here at AgingOptions, we’re always on the lookout for stories about crooks and scammers trying to separate you from your money. One of the most insidious scams we’ve heard of in recent years is the Grandparent Scam, where a fraudster poses as a grandchild in trouble. You may think you would never fall for such a thing, but so did the 450 seniors who in 2021 alone lost an average of over $14,000 each. These days scammers are even capturing a grandchild’s voice using clips from social media!
Now with the rise of artificial intelligence to mimic voices, the risks just keep getting worse.
As appalling as this is, seniors definitely can protect themselves. In this article we read last summer from Kiplinger, reporter Elaine Silvestrini updates readers on the Grandparent Scam, and provides good ideas for you to share with family and friends that will help you avoid becoming a victim.
Capitalizing on a “Special Bond”
As Kiplinger explains, scammers make their money by capitalizing on their victims’ vulnerability, and it’s well known that most grandparents have a soft spot when it comes to their grandchildren.
Silvestrini writes, “These victims receive phone calls from people claiming to be their grandchildren, or someone representing them. They say they’ve been in an accident, are under arrest or in trouble in a foreign country and need money fast. But the only urgency is with the scammers, who will sometimes even come to the victim’s home to pick up the money.”
Moreover, these scams are elaborate, often including teams of people to make the lie feel more real, “with some participants in the scheme posing as attorneys or bail bondsmen or medical professionals,” Silvestrini explains. “Part of the approach includes telling victims not to speak of what happened, keeping them from checking out their stories. The imperative is to act quickly, to hand over cash.”
Victimized to the Tune of $6.5 Million
These scams can mean big money for thieves. “In 2021, more than 450 Americans over 60 reported being victimized by grandparent scams that bilked them out of an estimated $6.5 million, according to a report from the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3),” Silvestrini writes.
According to Genevieve Waterman of the National Council on Aging, grandparent scams are only growing in frequency and complexity, evolving with technology. This can include scammers recording the voice of a grandchild and modifying it to use when calling the grandparent. This is made even easier when the grandchild has a large social media presence and plenty of voice recordings online to take and use.
“There’s so many opportunities to trick someone if you think you hear your grandchild’s voice,” Waterman said. “It tugs at the heartstrings.”
The “Grandson” Who Said He Was in an Accident
Silvestrini tells the story of one victim, Genevieve DeStefano, who received a call from someone pretending to be her grandson. This person told her that he had been in an accident and had two black eyes, a broken nose, and stitches. The “grandson” then passed the phone to someone else. “It was someone claiming to be an attorney who needed money to keep her grandson out of jail,” Silvestrini writes.
DeStefano was told to get $9,000 in iTunes cards. “Frightened for her grandson, DeStefano went immediately to a store to buy them,” says the article. But thankfully the transaction was halted in time. “Fortunately for DeStefano, her family members happened to come by and she found out her grandson was at work and had not been in an accident,” Silvestrini adds. DeStefano thinks that the scammers targeted her from information they gleaned from her social media accounts. She has since removed her information from Facebook and never wants to return.
The “Grandson” Who Was in Trouble in Mexico
In another example, “Eleanor Reimer was called by someone claiming to be her grandson saying he was in trouble in Mexico with an urgent request to send him money,” Silvestrini explains. “When she went to the post office to send the package, a worker there warned her to call before sending it. She did, but no one answered and because of the urgency, she sent the package.”
A few hours later, she discovered that her grandson was just fine. Thankfully she acted quickly: “[She] contacted the police,” Silvestrini writes. “Using Reimer’s tracking information, postal inspectors were able to retrieve the package before it was delivered. Authorities warn that before sending money to anyone, verify the story.”
Elaborate Nationwide Scheme Stole Millions from Grandparents
As previously mentioned, these schemes can be incredibly elaborate, to a degree that rivals Hollywood. Silvestrini explains, “Last year, federal authorities in California indicted eight people on charges they swindled more than $2 million from more than 70 senior victims across the U.S., by telling them their grandchildren were in trouble and needed money fast.”
She continues, “According to the Justice Department, the scheme involved multiple participants who played varying roles using a well-rehearsed script. For example, some would play the grandchild, while others would pose as lawyers, bail agents or medical professionals. They provided victims with false case numbers, and they told the victims to lie to family, friends and bank representatives about the reasons for withdrawals and money transfers.”
“As of July, 2022, six of the eight defendants had pleaded guilty and two were deemed fugitives, according to the Justice Department. Sentences were pending,” Silvestrini adds.
Confidence Scams Target Relationships
There are several different types of fraud, but grandparent scams fall under the category of a “confidence scam”, because the thieves use their victims’ confidence in order to form relationships that eventually turn into requests or demands for money. These relationships can be familial—like the grandparent scams—or even romantic, as in romance scams.
Some scams are fast and urgent, like the grandparent scams, which leaves victims with very little time to verify the validity of the scammer’s claims. But romance scams lack that element of urgency. “With romance scams, the requests for money typically come over extended periods of time,” Silvestrini explains. “Using the photograph of an unwitting, but attractive person, they will strike up conversations with the target through social media or other electronic means.”
Romance scammers are financially sophisticated. “They often claim to be working overseas and may even offer phony proof that they have money in the bank that they just can’t access,” Silvestrini continues. “They may request money for small needs at first and then might need money so they can fly to meet the victim. In some cases, they will be offered inside knowledge of a complicated investment or cryptocurrency. Over time, the losses will mount.”
The numbers of scam victims are pretty heartbreaking, and they’re growing. “The Internet Crime Complaint Center received reports of 7,658 people 60 and over who were victims of confidence scams in 2021, compared with 6,817 in 2020,” Silvestrini writes. “Losses for victims over 60 totaled more than $432 million in 2021, up from more than $281 million in 2020.”
How to Protect Yourself from Grandparent Scams
We liked Silvestrini’s list, so we’ve included it here.
- As a general rule, if you get a call from a number you don’t recognize, authorities say, don’t pick up the phone. If it’s something important, they can leave a voicemail.
- If you do pick up, be very wary of any call asking you for money, in any way. Scammers may try to bully victims to get them to transfer money through a mobile payment app, by purchasing gift cards or money orders or by sending it through a wire transfer.
- Before sending any money to anyone, make sure to verify the details of the story. If you think it’s for your grandchild or another relative, call a different relative or a trusted friend who would know where the grandchild is.
- If you get a call late at night, be especially suspicious. Scammers call late because it’s a time when their victims may be more easily confused.
- Be mindful of your posts online and on social media. Scammers gather details about victims through these platforms, including dating sites.
- Even if a phone number showing on your caller ID looks familiar, keep in mind that scammers can use technology to disguise the number they’re calling from.
And finally, Silvestrini concludes: “if you are scammed, contact local law enforcement, the IC3 and file a complaint with the FCC .”
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(originally reported at www.kiplinger.com)