Grandma might not be rolling in dough, but if she's like most grandparents, she's never failed to send you a $30 birthday check or stuff a twenty into the annual holiday card so you can “buy yourself something nice.”
It’s exactly this loving relationship that grandparents have with their loved ones that scammers are using to target seniors in what law enforcement officials call the “imposter scam.”
According to the FTC, victims of the imposter scam lost a median $2,000 per person. But victims 70 and older fared much worse, losing more than $9,000 per person. And a quarter of these elderly victims mailed the scammers cash, making the money all but irretrievable if the scam wasn't recognized immediately.
And it’s a crime that’s on the rise: Americans lost more than $41 million to the imposter scam over the past year, compared to $26 million in 2016.
How does the imposter scam work?
Scammers find out basic information about you and any senior citizens you're related to through social media (for example, your phone numbers and an upcoming vacation). Next, they call your elderly relatives, posing as police officers or hospital representatives and claim you've been in an accident or caught in some sort of legal predicament, such as a DUI. The scammers use the information they've learned about you to convince your unsuspecting grandparent that they're legitimate, and they will often put "you" on the phone for a brief moment, before asking your grandparent to mail or wire cash to pay your bills or to post your bail. After hearing who they thought was their injured or crying grandchild asking for help over the phone, many senior citizens comply.
How to protect your family from the imposter scam
If a stranger calls you and asks you to mail them money, that's a big red flag that you're about to be scammed, and the best way to thwart this scheme is by getting in contact with the person who is supposedly in trouble. Make sure your grandparents understand this. Tell your loved ones that if a stranger calls claiming you need help, they should call your cell phone directly and not trust anybody the original caller puts on the line. If they can't get in touch with you, they should get in touch with the next closest relative: your parents, your spouse or siblings to cross-reference the story.
Apart from getting in touch with you directly, you and your grandparents should also be mindful about what you share on social media, such as contact information. The info you put online might seem innocuous, but scammers can weave together a remarkably convincing story with a just few specific details about your life. An Instagram photo of you renting a moped in Tijuana and access to your grandparent's phone number are all a scammer needs to set up a convincing phone scam. This doesn't mean you can't post about your latest travels online, but give your loved ones a heads up that the imposter scam is on the rise and let them know how to get in touch if they fear you're in trouble.