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The Grandparents Scam: How to Protect Yourself and Your Parents

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A friend of mine recently received an emergency phone call from her grandson, who told her he had gotten in trouble in Mexico. She sent him a considerable sum of money to help him get out of jail, and then discovered that the boy never left town. The caller had been a stranger.

This is one of the most heartless scams I’ve ever run into – but how do you even compare schemes that specialize in the elderly and the confused? Makes you wonder how the perpetrators can sleep at night.

This scenario begins with the victim at home – and ideally asleep, so when they wake up they’re disoriented and at their worst when it comes to responding to a well-rehearsed tale. This pitch doesn’t play on the victim’s sense of greed, as many scams do; it takes advantage of our concern for our grandchildren.

But the aim is the same: separate you from your money, and do it in a way that leaves no trace. The opening exchange goes something like this:

“Hello?”

“Grandma, do you know who this is?”

“Janey?”

“Yes! Grandma, I’m in trouble. I’m . . .”

Pick a believable destination: (a) at the Canadian border, (b) in a Mexican jail, (c) in the airport in Amarillo.
It turns out your granddaughter left town in a rush without you knowing about it, and doesn’t want you to call her parents – too embarrassing, you know. The only thing that will get her out of this pickle is for you to come up with some cash.

That’s one of the first tipoffs for most scams: time’s running out, and the problem can only be solved with money. With other come-ons, the offer expires at midnight, or the stock’s about to go bananas, or a crew happens to be in your neighborhood today, with a load right there on the truck. In this scenario, the caller wants you to wire the money to some distant destination. That’s perfect for them: the money’s virtually impossible to retrieve, and the recipient can remain anonymous.

Of course, the idea that your grandkid has left town without you hearing about it might raise a question in your mind – and the plea not to tell her parents should raise another. But the story may actually sound believable; scammers have been mining the Internet, and they may know a lot of details – like a family’s vacation plans and even family members’ names – that wouldn’t have been available just a few years ago.

Before you lay out any cash, however, it wouldn’t hurt to confirm that it’s really Janey you’re talking to. Don’t worry about sounding uncooperative; a couple of pointed questions shouldn’t delay things too much. If you haven’t given away the girl’s name, and she’s only identified as “your granddaughter,” you could ask which one. That should end the conversation – assuming you really do have a scam on your hands. But if you’re still supposedly talking to Janey, ask something that a scammer wouldn’t know. What’s the name of her dog?

Of course, it may turn out that the little fellow has changed his name and left town, too, but at that point you’re hopefully awake enough to get the idea that you aren’t really talking to Janey. Or some ersatz public official that she’s handed the phone off to – sometimes these scammers work in pairs. Time to call in the troops – forget the possible embarrassment; what do the girl’s parents say? And how about Janey; does she answer her phone?

Take your time, and talk to someone on your end. Once you actually wire the money, it’s probably gone for good, although you can call MoneyGram at 1-800-666-3947) or Western Union at 1-800-448-1492 to report the scam and ask them if there’s anything they can do to reverse the transaction. Even if they’re unable to reverse it, your complaint may prod them to tighten up procedures on their end. You can also report the attempt to your local police department, or the Federal Trade Commission at 1-877-382-4357.

One last caution: if you do fall for one of these schemes, don’t be afraid to admit it, and talk it over with someone you can call if there’s a next time. There just might be: sometimes the scammer has a partner who’ll offer to get your money back for you – as long as you wire them a little something to get things started.