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How to avoid falling for grandparent scams

Fraudsters are specifically targeting older people by posing as their grandchildren or young relatives. Find out how to protect your (grand)parents and other loved ones from getting conned.

7 min read

Sometimes it only takes one phone call (“Gran, I’ve had an accident and I need money quick!”) and poof—your grandparents’ money is gone. In recent years, the so-called grandparent scam has been gaining popularity amongst fraudsters. Unfortunately, older people are increasingly falling for the con. But how is it so easy for fraudsters to trick their victims with this scam? In this article, you’ll learn more about the tactics scammers are using and how you can protect your (grand)parents—and older friends and loved ones, too—from falling for them.

What exactly are grandparent scams?

Most grandparent scams typically follow this pattern: Fraudsters contact the victim, posing as their grandchild (or any other close relative, like a niece or nephew). Then, they claim that there’s an emergency and they’re in trouble. This could be an accident, a robbery, or even an arrest.

So, how do fraudsters choose their victims? Typically, they search for old-fashioned-sounding names such Margaret, Mabel, or Wilfred. They use social engineering tactics to first gain the trust of their victim and then to pressure them into handing over their money. The scammers come up with dramatic and urgent stories to catch the victims off guard and leave them no time to think critically about the situation. What makes this scam even more sinister is the fact that some elderly people are hard of hearing, visually impaired, or less tech-savvy. But how exactly do grandparent scammers operate? These are the two most common methods:

Door to Door

This method may seem laborious but scammers like to use it in bigger cities. They go from door to door and strike up a conversation with the victim, posing as relatives or friends of relatives. Then, they tell the victim about an emergency or come up with another ruse to gain access to the victim’s property. They might say they’ve been sent by the relative to fix something or that they’re in financial difficulty and urgently need cash. If the victim doesn’t have enough money at home, the scammers will pressure them into handing over their bank card and PIN so they can withdraw the cash. Of course, they never return the bank card.

Via Phone or WhatsApp

The grandparent scam is even more common over the phone or even messaging apps such as WhatsApp. The scammers will call their victim saying something like: “Hi granddad, guess who’s calling?” This is to catch the victim by surprise and gain valuable information—like a grandchild’s actual name. The criminals start a conversation and listen carefully in order to gain trust. As soon as they feel they’ve established rapport, they open up to their victim about their financial difficulties: an issue with their student loan, an urgent medical bill, or an accident the insurance won’t cover. The criminals usually come up with a heartbreaking reason why the victim is their only hope now, often adding: “Don’t tell Mom and Dad!”

Once the victim is willing to help, the next step is getting them to actually hand over the money. Most often, it’s in cash, but fraudsters might also ask for jewelry or other valuables. A time and place will be arranged, followed by another explanation for why the grandchild won’t be able to pick up the money themselves and instead will send a trusted friend who happens to be nearby. In some cases, the scammer may not pose as the grandchild but rather as a friend, doctor, or police officer who’s calling on the grandchild’s behalf.

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How to avoid falling for grandparent scams

As you can see, fraudsters can be extremely resourceful and imaginative when spinning out a fake story. So, how can you protect your loved ones from falling for cons like these? What can you do if it’s already too late? And why do grandparent scams work so well in the first place?

How to spot grandparent scams

The best way to protect yourself and your family from scammers is by understanding how their methods work and spotting the warning signs early. Look out for the following red flags: 

  • Surprises: If someone visits your granny unannounced and tells her about their financial difficulties, that’s a huge red flag. Scammers use the element of surprise to catch their victims off guard. The best thing to do when someone calls out of the blue asking for financial help? Hang up!
  • Guess work: Fishing for information is a key element of the grandparent scam. Fraudsters will likely use a guessing game in order to avoid saying the name of the person they’re trying to impersonate. Someone you don’t know calls you on the phone saying: “Guess who’s calling?” Hang up.
  • Urgency: The most effective method scammers use is creating a sense of urgency. This could be anything from a burst pipe, a sudden illness, or a limited-time offer that’s about to expire. Whatever it may be, time is of the essence. Fraudsters will try to create panic, stress, and fear in order to keep their victims from using their common sense. If you feel someone is pressuring you: Hang up! Tell your parents and grandparents to do the same and offer to call the number back when you’re together. 

Stay informed, stay alert

Arkadiusz Lakatosz, aka “Hoss,” is said to be the inventor of the grandparent scam. He started posing as grandsons or nephews in 1999 and has since scammed countless elderly victims out of money. Today, fraudsters use numerous variations of his tactic. You can check online (for example, on the website of your local police station) to find out exactly which grandparent scam is circulating at the moment.

One such scam was discovered in July. Two callers posed as the potential victim’s daughters, claiming they had just been in a terrible accident—and that they urgently needed €100,000 to cover their bail. Luckily, their target was familiar with the grandparent scam. They called back their real daughters on their actual phone numbers and quickly exposed the attempted scam. 

Report Grandparent Scams to the Police

If your grandparent or someone else you know has fallen victim to a scammer, you should report the crime to the police immediately. Sometimes the fraudsters can be caught and the stolen money recovered. This happened recently in Berlin, where police were able to capture 20 suspected criminals.

And don’t forget: Many elderly people feel ashamed once they realize they’ve fallen for a scam. They might be too embarrassed to tell anyone about what happened or report the crime to the police. It’s important to assure your loved ones that anyone can become a victim of fraud and that you’re here to help them.

How to protect your (grand)parents from online scams

Unfortunately, the grandparent scam is not the only scam out there. There are also smishing scams, where cybercriminals contact potential victims via SMS, or vishing, where fraudsters try to gather sensitive information through phone calls. And of course, there are your regular phishing attacks, too. But don’t worry. Here are some useful tips on how to protect yourself as well as your family: 

  • Inform: If you hear about a new type of scam, it’s important to inform your family about it. Explain how the scam works and what to look out for, in case someone receives a suspicious text message or email.
  • Explain: Often, a few healthy security habits can be enough to protect yourself from fraud. Explain to your friends and family why they should never share their PINs or passwords with anyone, especially over the phone. It might also be a good idea to print off some of these safety tips and stick them on the wall next to the phone.
  • Keep calm: Whether it’s via text, email, or phone, scammers will always create a sense of urgency to put their potential victims under pressure. Tell your loved ones to be extra vigilant whenever someone asks them for financial help in some kind of emergency. In one popular scam, the fraudster poses as a bank employee and tells the victim their account has been hacked and that they now need their PIN in order to recover the funds. Ask your relatives to contact you first whenever they’re in doubt.

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Security at N26

At N26, your security is our priority. Besides security features like 3D Secure or biometric authentication that are included with your N26 account, we regularly update our blog with articles about how to stay safe online. Learn what to do if you receive phishing emails or if you lost your phone, how to protect your digital identity, and how secure mobile banking works. Or read our guide to creating strong passwords that cybercriminals won’t guess easily. Don’t have an N26 account? No worries! It only takes a matter of minutes to sign up for one of our free or premium accounts.

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