The Seedier Side of the Holiday Season

It’s my favorite time of the year. Temperatures fall and spirits rise as we approach the holiday season. While we count down the days to year-end and enjoy gathering with our loved ones, it’s a great time to remind ourselves and our loved ones about the seedier side of the holiday season: scams. Scams run the gamut in ingenuity and range in form from charity scams to debt collection scams and from grandparent scams to imposter scams. Each scam has its own unsavory elements, but the grandparent scams strike me as the most deplorable of all by preying upon a grandparent’s natural concern for the welfare of their grandchildren.

Imagine that you are a grandparent and receive a late-night call from your grandchild pleading with you to send them money. The grandchild admits to having been arrested, maybe in a foreign country, and begs you to refrain from mentioning the call or the arrest to mom or dad because they will be upset with the child. Worse yet, imagine that you receive a call from a stranger purporting to be a lawyer, doctor, or arresting officer and discover that your grandchild has been arrested, hospitalized, or hurt in some other manner. This probably tops the list of nightmare possibilities about which grandparents worry. Many receiving this call would not think twice and be only too happy to help their grandchild by sending funds…except those funds never make it to the grandchild and by the time the grandparent realizes the ruse, the scammer has moved on to their next victim.

The grandparent scam has existed for several years and only continues to grow in popularity. With the near ubiquitous use of social media, scammers have more means through which they can obtain and use personal information both about the grandparent and the grandchild. Some social media sites encourage listing family members and connections which only makes determining pressure points easier. Often, unsuspecting users post private details on public forums without realizing that their privacy settings won’t protect the information from ne’er-do-wells. Some of the most common scenarios include receipt of an email or telephone call from the grandchild or someone pretending to be calling to advise the grandparent of the grandchild’s circumstances. Unfortunately, bad actors know how to use artificial intelligence technology to mimic voices and hold a conversation in that voice which makes recognizing the scam that much more difficult.

How can we help protect ourselves or the grandparents in our lives? First, be vigilant about calls from any number you don’t recognize. Understand that scam calls happen often and seem to happen more regularly during the holidays. Some swindlers manage to spoof numbers known to the target, thus it’s vital to use caution whenever someone asks for money, especially in what seems like “high-pressure” situations. Scammers impose pressure and bully targets into sending money quickly through money orders, gift cards, or cash apps, before the target has time to think and when adrenaline runs high because they are worried about their grandchild. Some may even insist upon receiving money in person. If you receive a call like this, hang up and report the call to local law enforcement, and then call your family members directly to confirm that they are safe. If the call came from someone claiming to be in law enforcement, call the agency to verify the person’s identity along with any information provided in the call. Resist the urge to keep the call a secret.

Next, review the privacy settings on your social media accounts and prevent strangers from accessing posts and photos. These sites have many benefits in allowing us to stay connected, but they provide fertile ground for scammers to obtain private information. Even on the telephone call, refrain from providing any information, such as your grandchild’s name. Force the scammer to say your grandchild’s name and remember to stay calm. Scammers rely upon causing panic and getting their targets to drop their guard and make quick decisions in the heat of the moment.

Finally, increase your awareness about the latest scams. The Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) publishes consumer guides on spoofed caller IDs such as Caller ID SpoofingStop Unwanted Robocalls and Texts, and Call Blocking Tools and Resources. The FCC’s website has several links allowing a user to file a report about unwanted calls or spoofing or to find information on imposter scams.

The Better Business Bureau website contains consumer awareness articles about scams targeting older Americans, find these articles by reviewing BBB Scam Alert: Top trick used to scam older adults. The American Association of Retired Persons keeps track of scams by location and allows users to either submit a report or see local scams. To report or view scams in your area look at AARP Fraud Watch Network Scam-Tracking Map.

We can combat scams targeting our elders by learning to recognize the more common signs of a scam, educating our clients on scams aimed at the elderly, especially the grandparent scams, and alerting trusted individuals, such as family members and authorities when we suspect a scam, and understanding the resources designed to prevent, intervene, and investigate these scams. These scams will continue to gain popularity as artificial intelligence improves and makes it easier to replicate a loved one’s voice. It’s important that the community continues to evolve with technology and remember that we all have a duty to protect our elderly clients and loved ones.