Securing Our Communities: Grandparent Scams

Each week, the NTIC Cyber Center highlights a different social engineering scam impacting individuals and communities within the National Capital Region. We encourage everyone to share this information with friends, colleagues, and loved ones to help reduce their risk of becoming a victim of financial fraud and identity theft.

Grandparent scams are a type of fraud that targets senior citizens. Malicious actors pose as grandchildren in trouble and seek to exploit grandparents’ emotional responses to steal money from unsuspecting elderly victims.

Grandparent scam telephone calls may come late at night when perpetrators suspect their victims might be disoriented. Mimicking the voice of a frantic or distressed caller, scammers pretend they are a grandchild, relative, or friend in urgent need of help. They may announce themselves using a real relative’s name or, if they don’t know one, they may solicit a name by simply saying “it’s me” or asking, “do you know who this is?” They may claim that they’ve suffered an injury such as a broken nose to explain why their voice may not immediately sound familiar to the call recipient.

These impostors concoct fake stories to ask for money. They may claim to have been arrested, involved in a car accident, injured, detained, or stranded while traveling. To lend credibility to the scam, the actor may enlist a second perpetrator to impersonate a law enforcement official or a lawyer representing the relative. The elaborate sob story ultimately culminates in a plea for financial assistance, usually in the form of wire transfers, gift cards, or cash payments to cover phony expenses such as hospital bills, legal fees, bail, passport replacement, or travel costs. During the call, scammers often maintain a sense of urgency and implore victims to keep their misfortunes a secret—a sneaky practice that enables them to defraud victims as quickly and covertly as possible.

As is the case with many fraudsters, grandparent scam perpetrators are often well-prepared. They research victims and their families in advance before assuming the identity of a grandchild or relative. They may probe social media accounts to gain knowledge of the travel plans or whereabouts of those they seek to impersonate. Furthermore, they may spoof caller-ID information to make phone calls appear as if it they originate from a relative’s phone number or another known entity.

The NTIC Cyber Center recommends educating elderly relatives and friends about the dangers of grandparent scams and sharing the following techniques to defend against them:

  • Beware of urgent requests for action or financial assistance through wire transfers, gift cards, or cash—some of the most common methods of payment that scammers request.

  • Never give out sensitive or personal information over the phone.

  • Verify the caller’s identity by asking a question about a subject that only the alleged relative would know, such as the species of their first pet.

  • Tell another person about the phone call, even if the relative claiming to be in trouble requests that you keep it confidential.

  • If you suspect a call may be a scam attempt, hang up and check on the welfare of a relative directly by calling them back on a known number or by contacting a different family member.

  • If you speak to someone purporting to be a law enforcement officer, use the Internet to locate the law enforcement entity’s main telephone number and contact the entity to confirm the authenticity of the call.

  • Limit the posting of personal details on social media; scammers can use these details to defraud you.

If you believe you or a loved one may be a victim of a grandparent scam, file a report with your local law enforcement entity and a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

The NTIC is governed by a privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties protection policy to promote conduct that complies with applicable federal, state, and local laws. The NTIC does not seek or retain any information about individuals or organizations solely on the basis of their religious, political or social views or activities; their participation in a particular noncriminal organization or lawful event; or their race, ethnicities, citizenships, places of origin, ages, disabilities, genders, or sexual orientations. No information is gathered or collected by the NTIC in violation of federal or state laws or regulations.