New York Attorney General Letitia James today issued an alert to New Yorkers, warning them about the “Grandparent Scam,” a common phone scam that targets senior citizens with calls from fraudsters posing as a grandchild of the victim and asking for money. Attorney General James also shared a public service announcement, in which high school students explain how the scam works and offers tips on how to avoid becoming a victim to grandparents. The announcement features television personality Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who shares her experience about almost falling victim to the scam.
“Due to CoViD-19 restrictions, many grandparents have not seen their grandchildren for months and may be especially susceptible to this common and despicable scam,” said Attorney General James. “I urge all New Yorkers to be on the alert for this type of fraud, and to protect themselves and their family members by following these tips. We should all be speaking with elderly family members and warning them that scammers are ready to prey on their love of family in an effort to take their money.”
The scam typically works as follows: A senior receives an unexpected call from someone who claims to be their grandchild. The caller then falsely claims that there is an emergency and asks the grandparent to immediately send money. For example, the caller might say, “Grandma, I got arrested for drunk driving. I need bail money fast.” Or the caller may claim to have been mugged, or that their car has broken down. The caller will often explicitly tell the grandparent not to call the grandchild’s parents because the parents will be mad or will worry too much. The caller may also pose as an attorney, a bail bondsperson, or a law enforcement official contacting the grandparent on behalf of a grandchild.
The scammers often call in the middle of the night or early in the morning to take advantage of the fact that the victim may not be alert enough to ask more questions. Victims are often instructed that they have to mail cash payments or go out and buy prepaid debit or gift cards and to call back and read the serial number on the cards, allowing the scammer to immediately transfer the funds. Victims often lose thousands of dollars and the money is rarely recovered, as the scammers can be calling from anywhere in the world. The scam is severely underreported, as many victims are often embarrassed and do not want to tell anyone that they fell for the scam.
Attorney General James offers the following tips to protect against the Grandparent Scam:
- Take a pause. Scammers create a sense of urgency to prey on victims’ emotions and their love for family members.
- Verify any supposed emergency by calling friends and family before sending money. This is especially important if a potential victim has been warned not to do so.
- A grandparent may think they would know whether they were speaking to their own grandchild or to an imposter, but it is easy to be fooled. The caller may be crying or the background may be noisy, or the caller may claim the connection is bad.
- If the caller purports to be a bail bondsperson, ask where the relative is being held and contact the facility directly. Grandparents can also call their local police department, where officers may be able to call the jail and confirm the story.
- Be suspicious of anyone who calls unexpectedly asking to be sent money.
- Never send cash through the mail.
- Never purchase pre-paid debit cards or gift cards for the purpose of transferring money.
- Develop a secret code or “password” with family members that can be used to verify the identity of family members over the phone.
- Ask a question that only the real grandchild would know the answer to, such as “what was the name of your first pet?”
- Set Facebook and other social media settings to private to limit information available to scammers, such as the name of grandchildren.
In 2020, the Federal Trade Commission received 24,545 complaints of individuals impersonating family members and friends, up from 20,234 in 2019. New Yorkers alone filed 1,359 complaints in 2020.
Additional information about the Grandparent Scam can be found on the Office of the Attorney General’s website. New Yorkers who have been targeted by this scam are urged to file a complaint by completing and submitting a Consumer Frauds and Protection Bureau online complaint form or by calling 800-771-7755.