BBB issues scam alert

Emergency scams, sometimes called “grandparent scams,” prey on the willingness of an unsuspecting, worried individual to help friends and family in need. Often, they will impersonate their targets’ loved ones, make up an urgent situation and plead for help… and money.

Social media sites allow scammers to look up information and offer plausible stories. They may even incorporate nicknames and real travel plans into the con to convince their targets.

How the scam works
Emergency scams are about a family member or friend in a dire situation. You get a call, email, or social media message from someone claiming to be a distressed family member. They may say they’ve been arrested or there was an accident, medical emergency, or other calamity. They provide convincing details, such as family names and school details.

A twist to this scam targets parents of college students. The scammer calls the family member and claims their child has been arrested and needs bail money sent immediately via a payment app like Venmo or PayPal. They may even text pictures of a mugshot and say that the child is headed to jail with dangerous criminals. Terrified parents send the money, only to find out later that the story wasn’t true — and the money is gone.

A common version is the “grandparent scam,” where the con artist contacts a grandparent claiming to be their grandchild and asking for money. The plea is so persuasive that the grandparent wires money to the scammer, only to find out their family member was safe and sound later. This scam can also work in reverse, where the “grandparent” calls their grandchild, pleading for help.

The FTC has warned that scammers are using voice cloning techniques to imitate the voices of loved ones. The technology enables con artists to copy the voices of persons close to you from videos they may find on social media or other sources. They can then use tools to imitate the voice of your loved one and have it appear to say whatever they wish in a call. Some voice cloning efforts may be crude, and others very sophisticated — either way, this adds to this scam’s confusing and frightening aspect.

Tips to spot this scam 
Resist the urge to act immediately, no matter how dramatic the story is. Check out the story with other family and friends but hang up or close the message and call your loved one directly. Don’t call the phone number provided by the caller or caller ID. Ask questions that would be hard for an impostor to answer correctly.

Know what your family members are sharing online. You may not have control over your family’s social media accounts but familiarize yourself with what they share online and what photos they may have posted. Make sure they’re aware of this type of scam and advise them to use privacy options to keep other people from seeing and stealing their images.

Don’t send any money if there is any doubt about the call. If the caller is asking you to send money via a payment app or a gift card, do your homework to ensure that it’s not a scam. If you wire money and later realize it is a fraud, the police must be alerted.

For more information
To report a scam, go to BBB Scam Tracker. Learn more about all types of impostor scams.

To learn how to protect yourself, go to “10 Steps to Avoid Scams.”