While grandparent scams are not particularly new, the proliferation of technologies that enable these frauds are ever evolving. The basic premise of the scheme involves a fraudster contacting an older adult and impersonating the victim’s loved one. Variations of this fraud involve the imposter claiming to be a law enforcement officer, doctor, or lawyer who is contacting the victim on behalf of their relative. Next, the scammer deceives the victim into believing that their relative is in trouble and requires money for reasons such as paying bail or a fine, paying a doctor’s bill, or some other reason. The criminal will often ask that the grandparent not tell anyone about the situation—especially the parents of the “grandkid”—to prevent embarrassment over their (fictitious) predicament.
By preying on family relationships, particularly the responsibility that older adults often feel for grandchildren, fraudsters can extract substantial amounts of money from victims who just want to help their loved ones.
One consumer in Florida reported to Fraud.org that they received a call from someone who claimed to be their grandson and “was in an accident and needed money to get out of jail.” Soon after, the victim received a second call from an individual pretending to be the grandson’s public defender, providing further instructions on how to send the money. The impersonators successfully deceived the victim into paying over $9,000—a portion of which was sent via PayPal.
Unfortunately, there are thousands of similar incidents where the victim believed they were assisting a grandchild who was in legal trouble, hospitalized, or facing other sudden expenses. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) data shows that imposter scams (which include grandparent scams as well as government impersonation fraud) has remained the most commonly-reported category of fraud since 2018. Additionally, Fraud.org’s Top Ten Scams Report of 2021 listed family/friend imposter scams specifically as the eighth most common type of fraud.
Anyone can be a victim of the grandparents scam or other imposter scams. By familiarizing yourself with the following red flags, you can reduce your risk of being the next victim:
- If someone asks you to pay a bill via gift card, peer-to-peer money transfer (such as Zelle, Venmo, Cash App, or PayPal), or via wire transfer (e.g., Western Union or Moneygram), it is a strong indicator of a scam.
- Resist urgent requests for cash. Few legitimate legal or medical bills, if any, will require immediate payment at the time of the incident.
- Hang up and independently contact the grandchild in distress (or their parents) directly. Many victims of grandparent scams realize the fraud occurred once they speak with their actual grandchild, who then informs the victim that they were not in any trouble. Double checking that the family member needs help before sending cash can prevent the fraud from occurring.
- Consider changing the privacy settings on your social media accounts (such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) to only allow your friends to view your account. This can help prevent fraudsters from finding out who your close family members are.
If you suspect that you or someone you know has become a victim of one of these scams or any other fraud, it is important that you report it. You can file a complaint at Fraud.org via our online complaint form, your local police department, your state attorney general’s office, or the Federal Trade Commission. Complaints filed with Fraud.org are shared with our network of law enforcement and consumer protection agency partners who can investigate and help put fraudsters behind bars.