It’s late at night and you get a call from your “grandson” asking for help. He’s been arrested on his European trek and needs $1,500 to be bailed out of jail. He begs you to wire him money — and not to tell his parents. This is a grandparent scam.

It may sound far-fetched, but these calls are all too common. More than 25,500 Americans have wired over $110 million to imposters in so-called “grandparent scams,” according to a report from AARP.

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How do charlatans get the information to perpetrate these scams? In many cases, they don’t. An imposter simply calls and says “Grandma?” and when the victim replies “Peter, is that you?” the deception is underway.

Gleaning Info From Social Media

But as shysters gain access to more and more personal information online, they are becoming more sophisticated in their techniques.

These days, con artists get background information from obituaries, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, marketing lists and even genealogy sites, making it easier to pose as a relative with access to personal information only friends and family would know. “They have become very convincing because they can take information about their victims from Facebook or any other online profile, and make their pitch that more convincing,” says Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman for the FBI in Los Angeles.

Officials say only about 8 percent of victims actually report these types of scams, so the true impact is likely much greater. “Imposter scams, including grandparent scams, have been in our top ten report for the past two years,” says Amy Nofziger, regional director at the AARP Foundation. “We still hear about grandparent scams on our website every week, if not every day.”

Swindlers often target the elderly, presumably because they are assumed to be more socially isolated and less savvy, experts say. Also, they’re more likely to be home to take the call. But anyone – including aunts, uncles, and friends – can be targeted. Grifters also target military families, according to the FBI, claiming their loved one serving overseas is in trouble.

“No One is Immune”

“Generally, fraud is equal opportunity,” says Susan Grant, director of consumer protection and privacy at the Consumer Federation of America. “No one is immune. But the grandparent scam is one particularly troublesome variation because it takes advantage of older people who may be more easily frightened into thinking something dire has happened to a loved one and they need to respond immediately.”

The elderly may also be less likely to report the crime for fear they will look incompetent, which could threaten their ability to live independently. “We need to treat victims with empathy and compassion and not re-victimize them,” says Nofziger. “We all make mistakes. We need to support victims as they try to recover.”

Law enforcement agencies are constantly on the lookout for scammers, who are notoriously difficult to catch. A joint task force between U.S. and Canadian law enforcement agencies helped the FBI nab a Canadian fraudster in Los Angeles in 2012. He was later convicted and sentenced to 5 years in prison for scamming numerous southern California residents out of thousands of dollars by convincing them their grandchildren were in danger in a foreign country.

Unfortunately, this type of conviction is rare. “In many cases the perpetrators are located overseas, and once money goes out of the country it’s much more difficult to get it back,” says Eimiller. “We aren’t going to arrest our way out of this problem, so it’s very important for people to educate themselves about what’s occurring.”

Indeed, the scam shows no signs of abating. In its latest consumer fraud report, the Federal Trade Commission documented more than 350,000 fraud complaints involving imposters. In addition to grandparent scams, complaints include people posing as government agents from the IRS or the FBI.

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How to Avoid the Scam

Here are some experts’ tips for protecting yourself:

Be Wary

“Anybody who contacts you unexpectedly, asking you to send money or provide personal information, is probably a crook,” says Grant.

Don’t Pick Up

“Let the phone go to voice mail if you don’t know who it is,” says Nofziger. “If it’s an emergency, they will leave a message, but scammers usually won’t.”

Have a Refusal Script by the Phone

“This helps take you out of the emotional reaction,” Nofziger says.

Don’t Wire Money Right Away

Insist you need at least a day to get the money, advises the FBI. And never wire money unless you are certain it is going to the intended recipient. Remember, it’s just like cash, and once it’s picked up, there’s little chance you will get it back.

Verify the Caller’s Identity

Ask questions only he would know the answer to (alternatively, you can set up a “safe” word with grandkids in advance to prove identity).

Contact a Family Member to Verify the Story

“Reach out to your loved one directly,” advises Eimiller. “In many cases they are reachable and able to tell you they are not in trouble.”

Don’t Share too much Information on Social Media

“In general, putting less information out there about your friends and family helps to protect them from the potential for fraud,” says Grant.

Report Suspected Fraud to the Authorities

“When you’re told not to call law enforcement, ignore that, and do so anyway,” advises Eimiller. You can also file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

Contact the AARP’s Fraud Watch Network

“We have peer volunteers to take reports,” says Nofziger. “If you don’t know where to go, start with us. We’ll walk you through it.” You can also sign up to receive fraud alerts from the AARP.

Sources:

Mary Purcell, MA, is a freelance health and consumer finance writer and a former director of the International Development Exchange (IDEX). She has written on startup funding, business loans, and insurance for MoneyGeek.com, MNN, Narrative, HealthDay and other outlets.