BBB Issues Warning on Emergency Scams Leading into Travel Season

April 10, 2017

As consumers begin to make vacation and travel plans for the warmer months, your Better Business Bureau is warning people to be cautious of emergency scams that claim a family member or friend is out of town and in a dire situation. This scam is often referred to as the "grandparent scam" due to the frequency of con artists targeting grandparents and claiming to be their grandchild asking for money.

There are many variations of this scam, but the scammer's plea, usually facilitated through a telephone call, is often so persuasive that the victim issues payment immediately. It is only discovered after the fact that there was no real emergency and by then the money is long gone. This scam can even work in reverse where the grandparent supposedly contacts their grandchild pleading for help, so anyone of any age can fall victim to it.

In a recent BBB Scam Tracker report, a local woman lost $4,000 after receiving a phone call from someone impersonating a police officer, claiming her grandson had been arrested with a friend for drugs and firearms charges. She was instructed to not contact the parents and to purchase Walmart gift cards for bail, calling back with the card information. The scam was even more believable due to the scammer knowing her grandson's name, along with the name of one of his actual friends.

"Emergency scams prey off of people's emotions and desire to help those closest to them in need," says Warren King, president of the Better Business Bureau of Western PA. "Sometimes scammers will conduct research through such outlets as social media to find personal details and make the story seem more plausible; it's important to update privacy settings and avoid posting too much information about upcoming plans."

BBB advises the following to help limit exposure to an emergency scam:

  • Recognize the red flags. Scammers posing as the victim's family member or friend will typically plead for secrecy and claim that they need immediate payment for thousands of dollars to cover such reasons as posting bail, repairing a car, legal fees, or even hospital/medical bills.
  • Avoid reacting immediately. Scammers hope to evoke an emotional reaction. Resist the pressure to react immediately as a result of the caller's distress. Ask for a phone number to return their call and directly reach out to the person they are claiming to be to confirm the story first. If you can't reach this person, contact another family member or friend to confirm the individual's whereabouts.
  • Ask a personal question, but don't disclose too much information. If a caller says "It's me, Grandma!" don't respond with a name, but instead let the caller explain who he or she is. One easy way to confirm their identity is to ask a simple question that the actual individual would know, such as what school he or she attends or their pet's name. Your family might even consider developing a secret code or password that can be used to verify a true emergency.
  • Do not wire money. Wiring money is like giving cash. Once it is sent, it is almost impossible to get back. If you are asked to wire money based on a request made over the phone, especially to locations overseas, consider it a serious red flag. Always make certain of the recipient's identity before using a wire service or pre-paid debit cards/gift cards.
  • Communicate. Families should share upcoming travel plans with relatives before leaving the state or country. Parents are encouraged to let extended family members know when their child is traveling. Find out where they're going and how long they'll be gone. That information might prove useful as far as avoiding this scam.
  • Educate those closest to you. Family members should remind one another to be cautious when sharing details about travel plans on social media. People often assume everyone is in the know about scams like the emergency scam. However, it's important to discuss scams of this nature and be sure that everyone is on the same page.

Visit and report scams you come in contact with to BBB Scam Tracker.