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How to Avoid the Grandparent Scam

The phone rings at home and the conversation begins with an innocent, 

"Hi, Grandpa."  

"Who's this?" the senior asks. 

"Don't you recognize my voice? It's Michael. I'm in Boston." (All names have been changed to protect the victims.)

The caller was a young male, but the senior wasn't so sure it was his Connecticut-based grandson. He wasn't aware that his grandson was visiting Boston, though his sister, Charlotte, was working there at the time. 

The caller asks: "Can I tell you something in secret that you won't tell anybody else, please?" 

Intrigued, the senior responds, "Of course."

"Grandpa, here's what happened. Charlotte and I went to a Red Sox game last night," the caller began explaining. "We were on our way back to Charlotte’s apartment when our cab was pulled over by the police. They found cocaine in the trunk and arrested us. I'm at the police station now with a lawyer." 

The senior is both stunned and dubious. "Were you carrying any drugs yourselves?" he asked. 

“No, grandpa.  You know I would not do something like that.”

“Then why were you arrested?”

 "The police say I am a suspect and have to stay in Boston for four to six weeks until the cab driver's trial. If they release us, they want $2,000 to make sure we'll come back." Grandpa knew Michael and Charlotte are college students who were due to return to classes in a few days.

The caller wanted the senior to talk to the "lawyer," his partner in crime. "He's right here next to me." The senior hears muted conversation in the background, but it  doesn’t sound much like the noisy Boston police stations.

Increasingly suspicious, the senior says, "If all this is true, Michael, you should talk to your mother, not me."

"Please, Grandpa," was the heartfelt response. “We need to keep this a secret between you and me. Please don’t tell my mother. Is it possible for you to wire the money to my lawyer?”

Wanting to help his grandson who he loves very much, grandpa says “Okay. How do I get it to you?” 

“Can you just send $2,000 by Western Union to the Congress Street branch in Boston? Make it payable to my lawyer, James Sullivan. (pause) Thanks, Grandpa, it will help me get back to college on time.  I knew I could trust you.”

The senior then wires $2,000 to James Sullivan and feels he has done his good deed for the day.  

The next day, the senior’s daughter, Cindy, calls him.  In the course of the conversation, she says that Michael is back at his dormitory at UConn getting ready for the start of his Junior year.

The senior asks “How was Michael’s trip to Boston?” 

When she says, “Michael didn’t go to Boston.  Where did you get that idea?”

“Oh, I just thought that he would visit his sister before he returned to school.”

Crestfallen, he lets the conversation end. Then he realizes what he has done. He just lost $2,000 wiring funds to a James Sullivan that he does not know. Too embarrassed to admit being a victim of a scam, he does not tell his daughter.  

The senior was too embarrassed to call the police. When he tells his friends and they ask, "How could you have done that?" he could only reply, "I was so concerned about Michael and they had the story down so well."

This senior was the victim of a financial trick that is aimed at countless grandparents across the country, costing them millions of dollars.  In 2015 alone, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received 10,565 "family/friend impostor" fraud complaints. It is impossible to say how many more recipients of these calls didn't notify the authorities. For more information on these fraud schemes, see the AARP Fraud Watch Network.

The scariest part of the experience? These scammers know a senior’s name, his grandchildren's names, his phone number and even some of his personal information like where his granddaughter was temporarily living. 

How? They find it, buy it, or steal it. And sometimes, we give it right to them. Semi-intimate details about our lives often are available online for anyone willing to dig. And many people routinely announce these details to the world on social media like Facebook. No surprise that scammers scout for targets on these networks.

5 Ways to Protect Yourself from the Grandparent Scam

Following are some things grandparents can do to avoid getting scammed.

Build a “wall” around your computer.

Use both antivirus and anti-spyware software to keep intruders from stealing personal information from your computer. Don't open file attachments in emails from strangers. These can contain programs that enable crooks to get into your computer remotely. Be cautious on social media. Anything a family member reveals about family, travels or schedule can be easily picked up by bad guys.

Ask lots of questions.

Asking to keep it a secret turns out to be a familiar request by scammers. If you get an impassioned call for money from a family member, take a deep breath and try not to get emotional. Instead, ask some questions that would be hard for an impostor to answer correctly. Examples are the name of the person's pet, his mother's birth date, or his boss's name.

Slow the process down.

Never say yes to a money transfer based on a single call. Always hang up and do some research, such as trying to contact the person directly on her cell or work phone, or talking with someone the caller is close with to corroborate the situation. Mentioning an authority figure like the lawyer is another traditional ploy of this kind of scam. The senior could have researched the lawyer.

Don't be embarrassed.

If you fear that you have fallen prey to a scam, do not let pride get in the way of contacting authorities. And if you've wired money, immediately call the money transfer service like Western Union to report the fraud. If the money hasn't been picked up yet, you can retrieve it. Even if you lose the money from one scam, it is best to avoid a pattern of being scammed.

Call your lawyer. 

Run the scenario by your own lawyer before you part with the money.  Better to disclose it to your lawyer in confidence than become a target for financial exploitation. At Cipparone & Zaccaro, PC, we see financial exploitation because we represent seniors.  We can serve as a reality check and help you stop it.  

If you ever get a call from or about a grandchild or any other relative in danger or trouble, and the immediate request is for cash, you need to pause, calm yourself, say you will have to consult another family member first and hang up. Then check by calling others. If the emergency is by any chance real, you can still respond appropriately. If it's not—and the odds point to that—congratulate yourself. You just avoided being on next year's FTC list of those scammed by impostors.

About the Author

In his 30 years in practice, Joe has become a leader in the trust and estate and elder law field. He is a Fellow in the Amercian College of Trust & Estate Counsel (ACTEC). He serves on the Executive Committees of the Estates & Probate Section and the Elder Law Section of Connecticut Bar Association (CBA). He has served as chair of the continuing legal education committee of CT-NAELA and the CBA Elder Law Section. Joe has led many seminars for CT-NAELA and the Elder Law Section on topics as diverse as evidence in conservatorship proceedings, special needs planning in the family law setting, veterans’ benefits, and home health care strategies.