How to Protect Grandma and Grandpa From Nasty Scams

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There’s a very hot place in hell for people who steal money from the elderly, but I’m hoping there’s an even hotter place for criminals who pose as desperate grandchildren when they do that. I know many of you have heard about Facebook friend scams and the “grandparent scam” version of that, but I’ll bet there’s an elderly person in your life who hasn’t, and I’m urging you today to reach out and talk to her or him.

In short, criminals reach out to a grandparent — over the phone, or in an email, or through Facebook — and claim to be one of their grandchildren. The scammer then says he’s been hurt in a car accident, or arrested, or gotten in some kind of trouble and needs money fast.

Hard to believe, but these scams still work. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine just issued a warning saying that his office has received 40 complaints this year, with an average loss of — gulp — $4,000.

I’ve spoken to victims of these scams. The conversations are awful. They are heartbroken. They feel stupid. In cases of elder financial abuse, many victims actually try to hide it because they are embarrassed and fear losing control of their money.

In the digital age, it’s not hard for the scammer to come up with enough personal information to make it sound believable: names, colleges, locations.

“Hi, Grandma. It’s me, Bob. Yeah, school is OK, but those accounting classes are hard! Yeah, Krista, the girlfriend is good. But listen, we are in trouble, and you can’t tell my mom and dad.”

To make things even more convincing, DeWine’s office says that sometimes an “officer” or an “attorney” comes on the phone to explain the seriousness of the situation and why money is needed right away (to post bail or to cover medical costs, for example).

Then the grandparents are asked to purchase prepaid money cards, which are commonly available at grocery and convenience stores. Once they purchase the cards, they are told to provide the multidigit codes on the back of the cards. With this information, scammers can go online and drain the cards’ funds.

“One of the reasons this scam works is that the relationship between a grandparent and a grandchild is different than the relationship between a parent and a child,” DeWine said. “Grandparents are more likely to send money, no questions asked. Scam artists understand this, and they take advantage of it.”

(For more general advice on elder financial abuse see my recent two-part series on the issue.)

In a recent variation of the scam, con artists ask victims to buy iTunes cards, to provide the card numbers over the phone, and then to mail the cards to someone else, making it harder for victims to report the scam or attempt to recover their money.

DeWine’s office offers the following tips to help protect the elderly from this scam:

  • Talk to your family about these scams and discuss how you would communicate during a true emergency.
  • If you get a call from a grandchild or other family member who claims to be in trouble, ask questions only your real family members would know how to answer.
  • Don’t send money via wire transfer or prepaid card in response to an unexpected phone call. These are preferred payment methods of scammers because they are difficult to trace or recover once payment is provided.
  • Watch for any unusual banking activity or prepaid card receipts from your grandparents or other family members.
  • Limit the amount of information you post online and limit who can view your information. For example, don’t post upcoming travel plans online, because scammers could use that information to take advantage of your family.

Have you or your family members ever encountered a scam along these lines? Share with us in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

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