Grandparent Scams Peek in Summer

July 12, 2013

Travel “Emergency” Scams Peak in Summer

The BBB and law enforcement agencies struggle in increasing numbers with scams that start with a phone call like this:


“Gramma, I need your help and you have to promise not to call mom and dad.  I got arrested in Mexico and have to give them $2,000 in bail money. They’re only giving me one phone call, but they take credit cards!”


“Uncle Joe?  It’s Pat.  I’m with my friend Chris in London and we just got robbed.  I need you to wire some cash so we can get home.”


Worse:  “This is Officer Friendly from King’s County Georgia. Your number was in the cell phone of an accident victim….”


A scammer poses a friend or family member, usually college-aged and claiming to be on the road or (more commonly) out of the country who is in some immediate danger or trouble and needs a fast bail-out.  Usually, the con man is asking for quick cash or account numbers from an elderly relative.  The call is always an emotional gut-shot, but you need to keep your mind straight, even under what sounds like the worst of circumstances.


How can a con man in Mexico or England know who your younger relatives are?  First, the con men might be anywhere – from down the street to the North Pole – and either mimic a caller ID or just ignore it.  They’re depending on your panic and the natural need to help out a relative (especially a youngster far from home) in trouble. Who, under these circumstances, is going to take the time to even check the area code of the incoming call?  As far as knowing who your relatives are, check the population of Facebook one day.


For a whole generation and more, sites like Facebook provide photos, birthdays, locations and all sorts of personal information.  The amount of personal info people of all ages share on such sites is scary, and for a con man with a sincere devotion to his craft, even a few minutes on the right page can yield enough info to feed a lucrative scam.  Consider a photo of a birthday party.  A lot of excited social media users will identify everyone at the table, including aunts, uncles,grandparents and the waitress.  Looking at that same person’s profile page, you’ll likely see their name, what town they live in, where they’ve vacationed, and other data that give snakes just enough data to make a pretty convincing phone call.  The rest comes down to the con man’s ability to act.


You’ll also notice that the so-called “Grandparent Scam,” as this practice is known, is leveled toward senior family members.  There’s a reason for that.  In our society, it’s typical for the generations to separate a bit, but still be in contact.  For the majority of Americans, the grandparents aren’t living with their grandchildren, and even less likely for aunts and uncles to be under the same roof. That means there’s enough logical distance between us that a con man can call a semi-close relative and expect that the person won’t know where the kids are.  At home?  In Ireland? Some students post trips to places they’ve been.  If a relative knows in some vague way about the trip and where to, the con man might strike a chord even a year after that vacation.  And given the stress of the situation and the reputation of some towns, the chief concern for any caring adult with a bank account is going to be to get that kid out of trouble, not to consider whether or not it’s a scam. Most of the time, the immediacy of saying the car is off the road, the kid is in jail or is in some immediate danger – or even limited in some way to one phone call – is enough pressure to drive the point home without giving the person  on the other end of the line time to think.


If you get such a call, take a deep breath.  Don’t grab for your credit cards.  Ask for a phone number you can call to provide help after you’ve had a chance to check the story out for yourself.