The average victim of a “grandmother scam” loses $4,000 to the scammers, Ohio's Attorney General Mike DeWine said in a warning to families. So far this year, DeWine's office has received nearly 40 complaints from victims in his state.
The so-called “grandmother” or “grandparent” scam is a form of impostor scam: scammers call their victims while pretending to be the victims' grandchildren, in dire trouble and in need of money to get out of it. It's a big-enough problem that in summer of 2014, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing in an attempt to find some solution to the problem. An 81-year-old Cincinnati resident named Roger W. (his full name was withheld for fear that additional con artists would seek him out) told the Senate committee his story, which is sadly typical: the previous December, Roger got a call from a scammer claiming to be his grandson.
Supposedly, the grandson had been arrested for speeding and drug possession, and needed bail money. Roger and his wife eventually bought and sent $7,000 worth of prepaid (and untraceable) money cards before finally speaking to their actual grandson on the phone and learning he was fine – no speeding tickets, no police encounters at all, and certainly no calling his grandparents to request thousands of dollars for bail.
“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,” said Attorney General DeWine. “Grandparents are more likely to send money, no questions asked. Scam artists understand this and they take advantage of it.”
Another thing that makes grandparents extra-likely to fall for this scam is that in today's age of social media, it's quite easy for the scammers to discover some genuine and specific details about the victim's family. A typical caller won't offer a generic greeting such as “Hi, Grandma, this is your grandson”; a grandparent scammer will do enough research to say “Hi, Grandma, this is Jeff. Yes, I'm doing well in my classes at Expensive State U. But I'm currently in a bit of trouble....”
DeWine suggested that, if you ever receive such a phone call, you should ask the caller questions which only an immediate family member would know (and has not shared on Twitter, Facebook, or other forms of social media).
You should also talk to your older relatives to warn them away from this scam, and also discuss ways you would communicate in the event of a true emergency. And always remember that real police fines, court costs, and other legal bills never require (or even accept) pre-paid money cards, wire transfers, or other untraceable methods of payment which the scammers demand.