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By Ashleigh, K-Staff
“Grandma, it’s John. I need help.”
“John? Are you ok? You sound funny.”
“I’m in the hospital, Grandma. I need you to send me some money so I can pay my bills because they won’t let me go.”
“What? Your mom didn’t mention that to me!”
“Please don’t tell her, I don’t want her to worry. I’m okay, I just really need money to pay the hospital bills.”
Grandchildren hold a special place in the hearts of their grandparents. That affection, combined with the higher percentage of financial resources and trust that are hallmarks of this generation, is making grandparents a juicy target for scammers amid the coronavirus pandemic.
In this fake scenario above, you can see the trademarks of the classic Grandparent Scam. A claim to be a grandchild or other family member OR a claim to be a bail bondsman, attorney, or some other law enforcement agent calling in regards to a family member. A plea for help, or a threat. A request or demand to not involve others in the family. And a scenario that may or may not be tied to the coronavirus epidemic.
Criminals continue to employ the Grandparent Scam for a simple reason: it works. And in the midst of the pandemic, reports of this particular threat are increasing. According to an AARP report, in New Jersey and New York alone, roughly 100 victims have lost about $1 million in recent months.
Here’s a look at the number of such cases reported to the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Sentinel Network. Cases totalled 91,585 from the beginning of 2015 through March 31 of this year.
Since 2015, some 91,585 people have been victims of impostor scammers who purport to be family members or friends, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says.
“In these days of coronavirus concerns, their lies can be particularly compelling,” FTC attorney Lisa Weintraub Schifferle warns. “They pull at your heartstrings so they can trick you into sending money before you realize it’s a scam,” she says.
And requests, at least in busy cities like New York, are not always for a digital delivery of money. In fact, the FBI has arrested scammers who send a taxi cab or even come to the victims home to pick up the money, acting as a go-between for the grandparent and their “grandchild”.
Knowing the names of family members or referring to family vacations or other events is NOT proof of validity. In the age of social media, it’s scary easy for a criminal to gain access to that sort of information.
Amy Nofziger, who directs AARP’s Fraud Watch Network helpline (877-908-3360), likewise reports an increase in grandparent scam complaints as people isolate at home. Nofziger says the scams exact a financial and emotional toll on people; some have even lost their life savings.
“We’re all very emotional during these COVID-related times, and these criminals want to prey on your emotions,” she says. “And nothing is more emotional than thinking that someone you love is in trouble and needs your help.”
Even victims’ grandchildren — while blameless — may feel aftershocks of guilt and remorse, “so it’s really something that affects the whole family,” Nofziger says.
Here’s advice from the FBI and other authorities on how to thwart a grandparent’s scam.
“We want to warn as many people as possible so that they might thwart the nefarious efforts of these schemers,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Gregory W. Ehrie. “Awareness is a victim’s best defense. Don’t allow criminals to separate you from your hard earned savings. Call, verify, report.”
If you receive this type of call, remain calm and resist the pressure to act quickly. Get as much information as possible, including the phone number, if possible, of the caller. Hang up and call a family member to verify the information or call a trusted friend to ask for help. Report the call to your local police department or the FBI. Never wire money, especially overseas, based on a request made over the phone or in an email. Once you send it, you can’t get it back.
For more information, read the FTC’s guidance on Family Emergency Scams.