Almost scammed: the “Granny Scam” hits home for my mother

family emergency scams
December 21, 2016 | Pam Leibfried

The Money Mentor blog team periodically covers common phishing and fraud schemes in order to help our members protect their finances and avoid scammers. In the past, we’ve covered the stranded man hoax, caregiver scams, home repair frauddebit card scams and fraud schemes targeting military families

This article, however, marks the first time that a member of our blog team can relate a first-person story of a fraudster attempting to scam her own family. Just last week, my parents were nearly victims of a “granny scam” fraudster. 

My mom’s encounter with the granny scam

Early in the morning, my parents’ phone rang and my mom answered it. She heard a muffled “Grandma?” and responded by saying “Is this Brett?” because that’s the name of her eldest grandson. She assumed it was Brett because he’s the only adult of her five grandsons —the others are more than a decade younger and have distinctly less deep and adult-y voices. 

The caller proceeded to tell her that he had rear-ended another car on his way to work. He assured my mom that he wasn’t injured – except for a split lip from the airbag – and added that the injury to his lip was why he sounded funny. 

He continued to relate that when he got out of the car after the police arrived, he had his cell phone in his hand. The responding officer, assuming Brett had been texting while driving, arrested him. Then the clincher: “Grandma, can you wire me $4,000 so I can get out of jail?” 

My mother’s profound relief that Brett had not been hurt in the supposed accident was immediately replaced by suspicion.

Why would he call her for bail instead of calling his parents? Maybe it wasn’t a split lip that made him sound different than Brett’s normal voice. 

She asked if she could call him back in a couple of minutes, and he responded that the police had taken his phone when he was arrested. She asked him a couple more questions and mentioned calling his mom – who works just minutes from the police station in their hometown – so she could confirm that he had really been in an accident. At that point, the caller hung up. 

My mom called Brett immediately, and he confirmed that he was sitting at work safe and sound. Then, she called the police. They congratulated her for being suspicious and not falling victim to the so-called granny scam. 

Helping protect grandparents from scammers

The officer encouraged Mom to tell as many people as possible about the call, because scammers often make a flurry of calls in one area hoping to take advantage of as many victims as possible before word spreads in a community. 

My mom was very concerned about how easy it would be for one of her friends or neighbors to fall victim to this scam.

After all, she did initially believe the caller to be her grandson; the split-lip explanation was a seemingly valid reason for Brett’s voice sounding different. And he had a ready explanation for why she couldn’t call him back later. The caller had covered a lot of bases. 

What the scammer didn’t know, however, is that Brett is a recent college grad living with his parents. That he hadn’t called my brother or sister-in-law, just minutes away from him, wouldn’t make sense to my mom. 

But many grandchildren don’t live at home or don’t have parents who would be able to help them financially. Their grandparents might not question why their grandson didn’t call his parents instead of grandma and grandpa. 

I reassured my mom – after reiterating the police officer’s congratulations on still being sharp as a tack at the age of 75 – that if she told her neighbors and friends, I’d do my part by spreading the word to Alliant’s membership. Below are a few tips on how to avoid falling victim to granny scams and other so-called “family emergency” fraud schemes. 

7 tips to avoid being scammed by a ‘family emergency’

1. Even if the story sounds dire and time-critical, don’t rush to act. If your “grandchild” claims to be in jail, a short delay to confirm the legitimacy of the situation is unlikely to cause any harm. (And if they claim to be at a hospital, rest assured that a lack of immediate funds will not stop them from being treated; ERs are required to treat anyone in immediate medical danger.)

2. If the caller doesn’t sound like themselves, ask questions that only a family member could answer, and that a stranger wouldn’t be able to bluff his way through. 

3. Don’t wire money or overnight a check. If a caller or an email asks you to wire money, it’s a giant red flag that should immediately raise your suspicions. 

4. Don’t call back to a number that the caller gave you. It could be the number of a fellow fraudster whose job it is to confirm the bogus story. Instead, you should look up the number for where the caller claims to be. Had my mother’s caller persisted in asking for money, my mom could have Googled the number for the jail in Brett’s hometown or called her local police department to ask that they confirm the story with the police there. 

5. Check with other family members to confirm the story. A phone call to my sister-in-law was all it would have taken for my mom to confirm that Brett’s mom was easily reachable, and the caller knew it. The gig was up as soon as my mom insisted that she was calling Brett’s mom. 

6. Don’t volunteer any information, like your grandchild’s name, on the assumption that you know who you’re talking to. Instead, ask the caller to provide a name: “Who am I speaking with?”

7. Encourage your grandchildren and children to be careful about sharing too much personal information online.  Make sure that if they do share any personal or family information strict privacy settings are used to ensure that only trusted friends and family can see their posts. 

Pam Leibfried is a marketing content specialist whose love of words led to a writing and editing career. After a brief stint teaching English, she transitioned to corporate communications and spent 20 years at The Nielsen Company before joining Alliant’s content development team. Early in her work life, Pam’s friend Matt explained the benefits of a 401(k) and her dad encouraged her to start a Roth IRA. Their good counsel prompted her to prioritize retirement savings, which just might enable her to retire early so she can read more and live out the slogan on her fave T-shirt:  “I have a retirement plan: I plan on quilting.”   

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