What Is a Grandparent Scam?

Emotional Reactions Play Into the Scammers' Hands

the grandparent scam begins when a grandparent is contacted by phone
A phone call can bring shocking news to a grandparent's ears. Photo © Wittelsbach bernd | Getty Images

A grandparent receives a phone call from someone claiming to be a grandchild in distress and asking the grandparent to wire money. A few such calls may be legitimate. More often, it is a grandparent scam, and the money is actually going to a con artist. 

Frequently, the caller claims to have encountered difficulty in Canada or another foreign country, asking that the money be wired there. That is one red flag.

The caller usually requests that the money be sent via Western Union or MoneyGram. That is another red flag, since funds transferred by wire are hard to track and difficult to recover. Sometimes the caller asks that the grandparent not notify other family members, citing embarrassment. That is another red flag. The scammer knows that if you talk to other family members, you may find out that your grandchild is fine. 

The stories concocted by the con artist vary. The grandchild may claim to need money because of an automobile accident, a theft or an arrest.

Don't Fall for the Grandparent Scam

Anyone receiving such a call should not send money without getting in touch with other family members to confirm the whereabouts of the grandchild. Ignore any pleas of shame offered by the so-called grandchild.

If you are unable to get in touch with family members, call the State Department's Office of Overseas Citizens Services (OCS) at 1-888-407-4747.

They will assist you in determining if the call is a scam and can help you assist your grandchild if the call is authentic.

Another strategy that some families use is to ask for a family password, or for something that only the family member would know, such as the name of a family pet. 

What Makes the Grandparent Scam Work

Authorities are not certain how scammers are getting the phone numbers of grandparents.

Some believe that numbers are called at random until a senior citizen answers. Some believe that the numbers come from social networking sites or other Internet sources.

Sometimes the grandparents report that the caller correctly used the name of a grandchild. In other cases, the caller may trick the grandparent into giving away a grandchild's name. It is also possible that the scammers study social media to learn the names of grandchildren.

If you've wondered why a grandparent doesn't recognize the voice of a grandchild, multiple factors may be at work. Often the connection is bad, so that voices won't be easily recognized. The caller may cite illness or allergies to explain why he or she doesn't sound natural. In addition, a grandparent who has just received shocking news may not be thinking analytically. 

Sometimes the grandparent will receive a second call from someone pretending to be an embassy official, law enforcement officer or other authority figure. Those identities are bogus as well. 

Repercussions of Being Scammed

Grandparents who have been scammed may be too embarrassed to go to the authorities or even to tell other family members. Their confidence may be shaken. They may become withdrawn or depressed.

Sometimes they become fearful about answering the phone, fearing another scammer. 

How to Report a Grandparent Scam

The Canadian Anti-Fraud Call Centre has established a website to report this type of fraud. To report by phone, call 1-888-495-8501. Reports can also be filed with the Federal Trade Commission at 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). One's local Better Business Bureau should also be notified.

More About Scams

Check out these frequently asked questions about the grandparent scam. Also learn about another scheme that targets older individuals, distraction burglary.