Across the nation, con artists are scamming parents and grandparents out of thousands of dollars by claiming an urgent emergency involving a child or grandchild, posing as kidnappers demanding ransom or grandchildren in distress.
There are different variations of this scam. Often, a grandparent receives a frantic call from someone they believe to be their grandchild. The supposed grandchild sounds distressed and may be calling from a noisy location. The supposed grandchild claims to be involved in some type of trouble while traveling in Canada or overseas, such as being arrested or in a car accident or needing emergency car repairs, and asks the grandparent to immediately wire money to post bail or pay for medical treatment or car repairs. The scammer typically asks for several thousand dollars, and may even call back again several hours or days later asking for more money. He or she may claim embarrassment about the alleged trouble and ask the grandparent to keep it a secret.
A variation of the scam may involve two scammers -- the first scammer calls and poses as a grandchild under arrest. The second scammer, posing as some type of law enforcement officer, then gets on the phone with the grandparent and explains what fines need to be paid. Alternatively, the scammer may pretend to be a family friend or neighbor.
In yet another variation of the scam, parents get calls from scammers saying, "I've kidnapped your relative," and naming a brother, sister, child or parent. "Send ransom immediately by wire transfer or prepaid card," they say, "or something bad will happen." Scammers scour the internet and social media sites, grabbing information about where people live, work, or travel, and names of friends and family. The cons use the details to pick a target and make their calls sound credible. The FBI calls this 'virtual kidnapping'.
A common theme of all versions of the scam is the caller's request for the parent or grandparent to wire money through Western Union or MoneyGram or to provide bank account routing numbers. Wiring money is like sending cash; there are no protections for the sender. Typically there is no way you can reverse the transaction, trace the money, or recover payment from the telephone con artists.
It is possible that the scammers are finding their targets on the Internet. Names, addresses, birth dates, and telephone numbers are easily obtained online. Scammers may also check Facebook or other social networking websites to learn about someone's vacation plans, (especially during spring and summer months when many families take vacations), and then contact that person's grandparent pretending to be the real grandchild. Another possibility is that the scammers are calling telephone numbers randomly until they reach a senior citizen. In some cases, the senior citizen unknowingly "fills in the blanks" for the thief. For instance, the senior answers the phone, the scammer says something like, "Hi Grandma, it's me, your favorite grandchild," the grandparent guesses the name of the grandchild the caller sounds most like, and the scammer takes on that grandchild's identity for the remainder of the call.
Be suspicious when you receive a telephone call where:
A grandchild calls you from a far away location.
The grandchild says, "It's me," or "It's your grandson," or "It's your favorite grandchild."
The grandchild is in some trouble or some type of distress.
The caller asks for money to be wire transferred
If you receive such a call, you should verify the identity and location of the child or grandchild claiming to be in trouble. You should hang up and call another family member who can confirm your child or grandchild's whereabouts. Try calling them at the telephone number through which you normally reach him or her. Stay calm and avoid acting out of a sense of urgency. Do not wire money unless you have verified with an independent third party that your child or grandchild is truly in trouble.
In addition, never give out any personal identifying information such as bank account or credit card numbers to anyone who calls you on the phone. As in the Family Emergency Scam, con artists will lie, cheat, steal, and make up plausible stories to convince you to wire money or divulge sensitive information. The callers are often professional criminals who are skillfully able to get you to wire money or give personal information before you have time to properly assess the situation. For further information, see the Consumer Alert, "Telemarketing Fraud: Never Give Personal Information to Unknown Callers."
If you've wired money to a scam artist, call the money transfer company immediately to report the fraud and file a complaint. You can reach the complaint department of MoneyGram at 800-MONEYGRAM (800-666-3947) or Western Union at 800-448-1492. Ask for the money transfer to be reversed. It's unlikely to happen, but it's important to ask. Reporting fraud can also help protect other consumers by assisting money transfer companies to identify and take appropriate action against agents who do not take reasonable steps to reduce fraud induced transfers.
Then, file complaint with your local police department and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Visit the FTC's website, or call toll-free, 877-FTC-HELP (877-382-4357); TTY: 866-653-4261.
In addition, if the request for money involved a wire transfer to Canada, Canadian officials in the Anti-Fraud Call Center ask victims to report the fraud at their PhoneBusters hotline at 888-495-8501 or on their PhoneBuster's website.
Consumer Protection Division
P.O. Box 30213
Lansing, MI 48909
Toll free: 877-765-8388
Online complaint form