News & Politics

The Grandma Scam: How Con Artists Trick the Elderly

People of any age can be financial scam victims, but the elderly are specific targets.

It began late one evening when Harriet, already in bed, answered a call from someone claiming to be a police officer. The caller said that Harriet’s grandson was in a car accident while traveling in Canada and needed some money to tow and fix the car. “Could you please wire some money to us so we can get him on his way home?

“Oh, and please, Grandma,” the alleged officer said, “don’t tell his parents, since they didn’t know he was taking this trip.” By the way, Grandma, what a big checking account you have. 

Yes, it’s a scam.

Sometimes the caller claims to be a lawyer or a close friend and — even more boldly — the grandchild herself, often with a less serious problem such as a missing wallet, lost airline ticket needed to get back from spring break, or a stolen credit card while traveling in Europe. The “grandparent scam” can also happen by email after access to email accounts has been compromised.

Regardless of the story, one red flag is that it always ends up with a request to have money wired immediately. Using cold-reading techniques, the scammers get you to provide the information they need. For example, when you answer the phone and the caller says “Hi, Grandma” it’s easy to respond with, “Is that you Billy?” Of course, the caller says “Yes, and I need your help,” and then proceeds to weave the trap

Sure, many times the recipient of the late night call does not have any grandchildren, but it only takes a few correct guesses among hundreds of calls for the scammer to hit a jackpot, often averaging several thousand dollars each.

And with lots of personal and family information available on social networking sites, con artists now come prepared with relatives’ names, travel itineraries, and school and graduation information, making their probes more credible.

Critical thinking points us to several key patterns. For one, there is always a cry for immediate help — there can be no waiting, so wire money right away. And so there is no time to check the facts by alerting other relatives, and just in case, please don’t tell mom or dad or someone who might pop the bubble, the scammer pleads.

To add insult to injury, in a few cases, victims received calls from a scammer posing as an attorney who just happened to learn about their unfortunate recent financial fraud and can offer legal assistance — for a reasonable fee, of course.

Skeptic that you are, take the time to ask a few questions of people posing as a relative, or friend of the relative, that require answers only a family member would know, such as the name of a favorite pet or someone’s middle name. Be sure this same information is not readily available on a Facebook page or other public website. It’s also not too farfetched to give each family member a secret code word or phrase that could be used in emergencies to verify the caller (may we recommend “I love reading Miller-McCune”?).

Financial elder abuse is not limited to the “grandparent scam.” Reports of other scams on the rise include the “home repair fraud,” in which someone appears at the door and claims there are problems with your roof or hot water heater or electrical system. Of course, the phony contractor will do the work for you at a bargain rate, especially if you agree right now and pay a fee to lock in the special price. Maybe later the workers will actually return to repair the problem, or will do so using shoddy materials.

And do not assume you can win a lottery or sweepstakes that you never entered, especially when it’s required that your money be sent first to pay the taxes or handling fees upfront.

Another common financial scam misuses the once-reliable cashier’s check. In these cases, a cashier’s check is sent to the sweepstakes “winner” or to someone buying something off eBay or Craigslist to cover handling fees and taxes. The victim is asked to deposit it and then send a personal check for the same amount when the funds from the cashier’s are “available” for withdrawal by his or her bank. Since the funds from cashier’s checks are expected to be guaranteed, the victim quickly sends out their good money, only to discover a few weeks later that they’ve been presented a bad cashier’s check.

People of any age can be financial scam victims, but the elderly are specific targets. People over 65 are more likely to have accumulated some wealth and many have health problems that diminish their physical and cognitive abilities (including critical thinking). These factors make them vulnerable to scams and dependent on others for help in financial matters, opening up opportunities for exploitation by caretakers and relatives, as well as strangers.

It’s estimated that the vast majority of financial elder abuse goes unreported, most abuse is committed by family members, most victims are women, and incidents increase with age.

If you’re already in your golden years, stay skeptical and keep an eye on your gold. And if you’re concerned about an elder, be on the lookout for changes in powers of attorney through unusual or deceptive means; large amounts of money being withdrawn or transferred from bank accounts; arrival of new “best friends” in the household; and relatives with drug, financial, or legal problems getting involved in the elder’s finances.

These stories of financial abuse can happen to anyone — anyone who has not sharpened the critical thinking skills needed to prevent the big bad wolves from doing financial harm to Grandma.