The grandparent scam has been around a few years, according to the FBI, but numbers have increased dramatically as seniors become more active online and with social media. A typical grandparent scheme involves a phone or email; someone identifying themselves as one of your grandkids will claim to be in trouble and need immediate financial help.
The source of the so-called trouble could be an arrest (so the caller needs bail), loss of money or passport in another country (so the caller needs cash) or even a vehicle breakdown in a remote location (again, cash). Resourceful con artists cruise through social media profiles and attempt to portray themselves as one of your grandkids – so if you get a call from “Tyler” claiming to be in trouble, you may be tempted to send money first and ask questions later.
The caller generally claims they can’t ask their own parents for help and are turning to you in their hour of need. In some versions of this scam, instead of claiming to be your actual grandchild, the scammer claims to be a police officer, jailer or even military policeman seeking money to let your grandchild out of jail.
No matter how the scenario plays out, the scammer preys on your connection to family and desire to help your grandchild when they are in trouble or danger. They attempt to create a sense of urgency to get you to respond right away and prevent you from having time to think. This type of scam can be thwarted if you are aware it exists and of how easy it is for scammers to get your personal details.
Facebook and the Information you Share
Facebook has made it easier than ever to stay in touch with your extended family, but it has also increased your vulnerability to scams. When a con artist attempts to pull the Grandparents Scam, they use details from various sources, including Google, Facebook and other social media sites to make their claims more realistic.
The more information you share on Facebook, the more information the scammer potentially has to pull a fast one. While you shouldn’t stop using Facebook, knowing that scammers could access not only your name, location and personal details, but information about your kids and grandkids is a must. When you recognize that anyone could know the name of your grandchild, his age, school and town, it makes it a lot more likely that you’ll stop and consider the possibility that the late night call you’ve received is a fake.
It’s not just you – your grandkids, nieces and nephews and in laws are oversharing online too, so it is incredibly easy to look up a young adult and then convincingly portray them to a grandparent. Within minutes, a scammer could learn your grandchild’s name, school, workplace and hometown, just by reading their Facebook updates. They can also see the connection to you – and look you up online. Once they have this critical information all that is left is to make that phone call and wait for you to send along the cash.
Social media increases your vulnerability as it boosts your interaction with family members and loved ones. Seniors have embraced Facebook as a way to stay in touch and have increased social interaction with far off family members – but creating a social media presence does expose you to scammers and increase your risk.
How to Protect Yourself on Facebook and From Grandparent Scams
- Make sure your Facebook settings are set to private. This will not keep scammers from seeing your name or connecting you with your young relatives, but it will give you an added layer of privacy and make you a tougher target.
- If you do receive an urgent call from someone claiming to be a grandchild in trouble, asking for verification is the fastest and easiest way to scare them away. Slow down, and ask the “grandchild” their date of birth, father’s name or mother’s maiden name. A real caller will be able to come up with this instantly; a scammer will flounder around and may give up.
- Slowing down also gives you the time to think and realize that this is a common scam and that your grandchild is likely just fine. The same computer that gave the scammer your details could show your family members online. A quick note could set your mind at ease and protect you from this scam as well.
Never send money without verifying who the caller is and checking with other family members to be sure that your grandkids are OK. If the caller is claiming to be in jail, they are safely in custody and not going anywhere while you check things out. Wiring money or sharing your credit card information is just like giving away cash, so slowing down and verifying the information will protect you from huge losses when a scammer calls.