Grandparent Scams Get Victims in Their Hearts

If you get a call from someone who claims to be your grandchild in trouble and needing money right away, be wary. Don’t send any money or give any information until you verify the story.

Photo of an older woman talking on the phone and holding her credit card
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Grandparents have special bonds with their grandchildren (opens in new tab), and scammers know it. Thieves get money from their victims by exploiting this vulnerability. These victims receive phone calls from people claiming to be their grandchildren, or someone representing them. They say they’ve been in an accident, are under arrest or in trouble in a foreign country and need money fast. But the only urgency is with the scammers, who will sometimes even come to the victim’s home to pick up the money.

The scammers often will work as teams, with some participants in the scheme posing as attorneys or bail bondsmen or medical professionals. Part of the approach includes telling victims not to speak of what happened, keeping them from checking out their stories.

The imperative is to act quickly, to hand over cash. Sometimes, a scheme participant will come to the victim’s home to pick up the money.

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In 2021, more than 450 Americans over 60 reported being victimized by grandparent scams that bilked them out of an estimated $6.5 million, according to a report from the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).

Genevieve Waterman of the National Council on Aging said grandparent scams have been growing over the last couple of years and has been evolving with technology. One technique the scammers use is to record the voice of a grandchild and modify it for use in a call to the grandparent. This, she said, can be easy when the grandchild has a large social media presence. Scammers can search social media or Google to get voice recordings to use. “There’s so many opportunities to trick someone if you think you hear your grandchild’s voice,” Waterman said. “It tugs at the heartstrings.”

The “Grandson” Who Said He Was in an Accident

One victim, Genevieve DeStefano, received a call one day from someone pretending to be her grandson. “I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ ‘Well, I’ve been in an accident and I have two black eyes, I broke my nose and I have stitches.’” Her “grandson” then said a gentleman would talk to her. It was someone claiming to be an attorney who needed money to keep her grandson out of jail.

She was told to get $9,000 in iTunes cards. Frightened for her grandson, DeStefano went immediately to a store to buy them. “I cannot believe that I fell for this,” she said in a video interview posted by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. Fortunately for DeStefano, her family members happened to come by and she found out her grandson was at work and had not been in an accident.

DeStefano thinks the scammers targeted her by getting personal information about her from social media. She said her daughter removed her information from Facebook and she doesn’t want to use the site anymore.

The “Grandson” Was in Trouble in Mexico

Eleanor Reimer was called by someone claiming to be her grandson saying he was in trouble in Mexico with an urgent request to send him money. When she went to the post office to send the package, a worker there warned her to call before sending it. She did, but no one answered and because of the urgency, she sent the package.

A few hours later, she found out her grandson was not in trouble. “I felt like I was a real idiot,” she said in a Postal Inspector video. So she contacted the police. Using Reimer’s tracking information, postal inspectors were able to retrieve the package before it was delivered. Authorities warn that before sending money to anyone, verify the story. “Assume it is a scam,” Reimer said.

This Would-be Victim Helped Police Catch Scammer

A 73-year-old woman in New York was called by someone claiming to be her grandson, saying he was in jail, according to police in Nassau County, N.Y. A second man called her claiming to be the grandson’s lawyer and said he needed $8,000 to post bail. And a third caller, identifying himself as the bail bondsman, said he would come by the victim’s house to get the bail money.

The victim suspected a scam. She called the police, who came to her house and waited.

Joshua Estrella Gomez, 28, then arrived and took an envelope from the victim, according to police. Gomez was arrested on the spot and charged with third degree attempted grand larceny.

Elaborate Nationwide Scheme Stole Millions from Grandparents

Last year, federal authorities in California indicted eight people on charges they swindled more than $2 million from more than 70 senior victims across the U.S., by telling them their grandchildren were in trouble and needed money fast.

According to the Justice Department, the scheme involved multiple participants who played varying roles using a well-rehearsed script. For example, some would play the grandchild, while others would pose as lawyers, bail agents or medical professionals. They provided victims with false case numbers, and they told the victims to lie to family, friends and bank representatives about the reasons for withdrawals and money transfers.

The indictment described one victim as an 87-year-old woman from Oceanside, California, whose initials were JD. The indictment says JD received a phone call on May 11, 2020, from a woman claiming she was JD’s granddaughter and that she had been in a car accident and was under arrest. She needed $9,000 for bail. She gave the phone to someone who said he was a lawyer. The “lawyer” warned JD not to discuss this with anyone or risk violating a court gag order. A courier went to JD’s address and picked up the cash.

The next day, a man claiming to be an accident specialist called JD and claimed that the other driver in the crash had lost her baby because of the accident. If JD did not provide another $42,000, her granddaughter would be charged with first-degree manslaughter and face 15-20 years in prison. JD sent a wire transfer for $42,000.

Then, about a week later, yet another scammer called JD and said she and her granddaughter had violated the gag order. If JD didn’t pay an additional $57,000, her granddaughter would go to jail.JD sent another wire transfer for $57,000..

As of July, 2022, six of the eight defendants had pleaded guilty and two were deemed fugitives, according to the Justice Department. Sentences were pending.

Confidence Scams Target Relationships

The grandparent scam is part of a category of fraud known as confidence scam because thieves gain the confidence of their victims, either by posing as someone they know or forming a relationship — often a romantic one — with the victim. Sometimes, as in the grandparent scams, the request for money is urgent, prompting the victim to act quickly before they can verify the facts of a loved one’s distress and immediate need for money.

With romance scams, the requests for money typically come over extended periods of time. Using the photograph of an unwitting, but attractive person, they will strike up conversations with the target through social media or other electronic means. They often claim to be working overseas and may even offer phony proof that they have money in the bank that they just can’t access. They may request money for small needs at first and then might need money so they can fly to meet the victim. In some cases, they will be offered inside knowledge of a complicated investment or cryptocurrency. Over time, the losses will mount.

The Internet Crime Complaint Center received reports of 7,658 people 60 and over who were victims of confidence scams in 2021, compared with 6,817 in 2020. Losses for victims over 60 totaled more than $432 million in 2021, up from more than $281 million in 2020.

How to Protect Yourself From Grandparent Scams

  • As a general rule, if you get a call from a number you don’t recognize, authorities say, don’t pick up the phone. If it’s something important, they can leave a voicemail.
  • If you do pick up, be very wary of any call asking you for money, in any way. Scammers may try to bully victims to get them to transfer money through a mobile payment app, by purchasing gift cards or money orders or by sending it through a wire transfer.
  • Before sending any money to anyone, make sure to verify the details of the story. If you think it’s for your grandchild or another relative, call a different relative or a trusted friend who would know where the grandchild is.
  • If you get a call late at night, be especially suspicious. Scammers call late because it’s a time when their victims may be more easily confused.
  • Be mindful of your posts online and on social media. Scammers gather details about victims through these platforms, including dating sites.
  • Even if a phone number showing on your caller ID looks familiar, keep in mind that scammers can use technology to disguise the number they’re calling from.

And if you are scammed, contact local law enforcement, the IC3 and file a complaint with the FCC .

Senior Retirement Editor, Kiplinger.com

Elaine Silvestrini has had an extensive career as a newspaper and online journalist, primarily covering legal issues at the Tampa Tribune and the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey. In more recent years, she's written for several marketing, legal and financial websites, including Annuity.org and LegalExaminer.com, and the newsletters Auto Insurance Report and Property Insurance Report.