Scam Alert: Be Skeptical of That ‘Emergency’

Take steps to guard against criminals who may pose as family or friends seeking money in an emergency.
Bev O'SheaMay 17, 2021

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I hadn’t heard of the grandparent scam when my father called me a few years ago to report that my son was in jail, out of state. My dad had been asked to wire bail money and not tell me. Dad was all but unshakable in his belief that he had actually talked to my son. Alarmed, I called my son, who was safe at his home.

What happened to my father is not uncommon. Fortunately, he did not wire any money.

The grandparent scam exploits loving concern and uses a sense of urgency to get a victim to pay, thinking he or she is helping in an emergency. In a twist, now a “courier” will come and pick up your cash, due to COVID-19 concerns.

“There are a million variations,” says Susan Grant, director of consumer protection and privacy for the nonprofit Consumer Federation of America, “but the common thread is that someone you know has an urgent problem and needs your financial help.”

You’re contacted by someone posing as a panicked family member or friend — or perhaps a lawyer or law enforcement officer calling on their behalf. The claim involves an emergency such as a car accident, arrest or car breakdown. But they need money, quickly. They may beg that the incident be kept secret or claim that there is a gag order.

It used to be that the scammer would start out saying, “Grandma?” or “Grandpa?” hoping to elicit an emotional response. Now criminals may check social media sites for names, locations and other information to make the call seem legitimate.

Whatever the situation, you’ll be asked for money, says Cristina Miranda, a consumer education specialist with the Federal Trade Commission.

That’s when you should break contact, Miranda says. You can say that you need to verify some information or you can simply hang up (or stop responding to email or texts).

If you hand over money, it’s you’ll get it back.

While the scam is old, scammers are skilled at changing messages and tactics.

Some recent examples:

The best thing to do is to make family members aware, says Grant. It’s much easier to resist an emergency plea for help when family members have asked you to be skeptical.

Other tips, suggested by the Consumer Federation of America and FTC:

If you believe you were contacted by a scammer, report it to the FTC at or by calling 877-FTC-HELP, Miranda says.

If you’ve agreed to pay someone who’s coming to your home, lock the doors and call the police, she says.

Even if you’ve already paid, it’s still worth trying to recoup your money. It’s a long shot, but you may be able to undo some transactions if you act quickly.

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