It’s one o’clock in the morning, and your sleep is interrupted by a phone call. Startled, you answer the phone and hear what sounds like your grandson on the other end, saying he’s been in a bad car accident while on vacation in a foreign country. While waiting for a tow company to come, he was mugged.
Now, he’s hurt and has no money. He desperately needs you to wire him a few thousand dollars to get back home safely. He also asks you not to tell his mom and dad, as he doesn’t want them to know about his dilemma.
This story is just one of many similar tales that phone scammers use to target senior citizens. In what’s known as the “grandparent scam,” crooks scare their elderly suspects with a call in the middle of the night, catching them off guard with a heartbreaking story about someone they care about.
The “grandchild” is always in need of cash, so s/he instructs the victim to wire through a money-transfer service, and repeatedly asks the victim not to tell anyone.
A Growing Threat
As the number of aging Americans continues to grow, more and more scams are targeting people 60 and older, who are often perceived as more trusting and polite.
Based on their success with seniors, many con artists are now attempting to defraud people of all ages with similar schemes. In 2010, the Federal Trade Commission received 60,000 complaints about the grandparent scam and related frauds; in 2011, the number of complaints increased by 22%, to 73,281.
Besides the grandparent scam, those who prey on the elderly have plenty of other tricks up their sleeves.
• Scammers posing as telemarketers ask for donations to civic causes, attempting to appeal to the older generation’s patriotism and respect for authority.
• Imposters pretend to be with a government agency, such as the Social Security Administration, Internal Revenue Service or another trusted source, trying to convince their targets that, in order to comply with new regulations, they must pay exorbitant sums for unneeded products and services.
• Claiming to represent Wal-Mart or another well-known company, scammers inform their targets that they’ve won a sweepstakes and need to make a payment to obtain the supposed prize. They may even send fake prize-money checks to their victims’ homes. But before the checks bounce, the criminals collect money for “fees.”
Keep Your Wits
To safeguard your identity and finances from con artists, keep these tips in mind.
• Never wire or send money to someone you don’t know, no matter what the circumstances may be or how convincing the person is. As with sending cash, once you wire money, you cannot get it back. Also remember that legal sweepstakes don’t require you to pay taxes or other fees in order to claim your winnings.
• Don’t forget your common sense, especially in the middle of the night. Fraudsters call at times when they think they can catch you off guard, shock you and cause you to panic. They also create a sense of urgency, pressuring you to send them money before you find out who they really are. As disturbing as the call may be, remember to keep calm and rely on your common sense.
• Question the caller. If someone contacts you claiming to be a family member, friend or someone else you know, ask the caller questions to confirm his or her identity. You could quiz him or her on the date of a family’s member birthday, the name of a pet or the restaurant you last went to together.
• Confirm the emergency situation. To determine if the story is real, call sources who can verify where the person in question is. If someone calls claiming to be your grandchild, contact your actual grandchild’s parents immediately, no matter how many times the caller asks you not to say anything to anyone.
• Be wary of strange messages. Usually, these scams don’t involve meeting anyone personally; rather, the scammers will keep their distance, contacting you by phone, letter, fax, e-mail or even text message.
• Know that scammers don’t always ask for sizable amounts of cash. In most cases, it’s between $500 and $5,000. If you wire money once, the scammer may continue to contact you in the hope that you’ll keep sending money, upping the requested amounts until the total takeaway is far greater.
• Protect your computer, tablet and smartphone information. Don’t let crooks get their hands on your e-mail account, phone contacts or passwords stored on your electronic devices. To protect yourself, label the phone numbers of family members by their first name, rather than “Mom,” “Grandpa,” and so on.
• Contact your local law enforcement department if you’re concerned that a con artist is targeting you.
Remember, scams are ever-changing, and fraudsters are constantly coming up with new ways to take advantage of unsuspecting victims. To stay up-to-date on the latest scam alerts, visit www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/phonefraud/index.shtml.
Gary S. Williams, CFP, CRPC, AIF, is president of Williams Asset Management in Columbia. He can be contacted at 410-740-0220 or at Gary@WilliamsAsset.com.