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The Grandparent Scam: What it is and how to protect yourself


Published June 28, 2024 • 4 Min Read

In 2023, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC) reported that the grandparent/ emergency scam was one of the top 10 frauds based on dollar loss, at $11.3M. Since many people don’t report scams, however, this figure is likely much higher.

The grandparent scam is a highly pervasive fraud tactic, and very successful since it preys on a senior’s emotions and their desire to protect their loved ones. Grandparent scams, also known as emergency scams, involve a fraudster who poses as a loved one – typically a grandchild, as the name would suggest. Claiming to be hurt or in trouble, they say they need money immediately.

How the grandparent scam works:

A grandparent receives a phone call from a fraudster pretending to be their grandchild. The caller sounds very distressed and says they have been hurt in an accident, they’re in jail or facing another crisis – and needs money to get out of it. The caller, who may use voice-altering software or speaks with such distress that their voice isn’t recognizable, pleads with the “grandparent” not to tell anyone, especially their parents. The senior, concerned about their grandchild, sends money and because they have kept it all a secret, don’t find out it’s a scam until far too late. Often, there is an accomplice who poses as a police officer or lawyer, who provides instructions on how to transfer the money.

Versions of the grandparent scam:

There are a few different variations of the grandparent scam, and different tactics used to trick seniors into sending money.

“Do you know who this is?” – Often, the caller will start with this question to get the name of the grandchild out of the grandparent.

“I’ve been arrested, and I need money for bail.” In some cases, an accomplice posing as a police officer or lawyer will join the call to make the situation seem even more authentic.

“I’m in another country and I’m in trouble.” The caller may say they’re hurt and need money for medical care, or they’re in trouble with the law and need money to cover bail, legal expenses, or travel costs.

Why the grandparent scam is so effective:

The most effective scams are those that exploit the emotions and vulnerabilities of their targets. The grandparent scam is so successful because it does just that – a grandparent would typically do anything in their power to protect or help a grandchild in trouble, and scammers know this.

The scam also works so well because scammers use sophisticated technology and AI to boost its believability – as such, scams are harder and harder to recognize. For instance, voice replication technology may be used, so the voice on the other end of the line genuinely sounds like the grandchild’s. Or, scammers can spoof phone numbers or Caller IDs such that the call looks like it’s coming from a family member.

How to spot the grandparent scam – and protect against it:

Once seniors are aware of this scam, it is far easier to protect against it. Knowing that a caller on the other end of the line may not be who they say they are, the senior should ask probing questions that only the real person would be able to answer (a pet nickname, for example). It is also crucial to message someone close to the grandchild to verify the story.

It’s important to remember that it is always ok to question, pause and not act. A great rule of thumb is to take a few seconds and think about what is going on – taking that pause and questioning the situation can lead to quickly realizing that something doesn’t add up.

Other tips to protect against this scam include:

  • Other tips to protect against this scam include:

  • Hang up or disconnect a call that doesn’t seem legitimate

  • If you think your family is in trouble, call them directly at a phone number that you have for them

  • Establish a secret word among family members – for instance, if a grandparent gets a suspicious call, they can ask the caller for the “secret word.” If the caller doesn’t know it, the target will know it’s a scam.

Seniors are attractive targets for cyber criminals – and this unfortunate reality is sure to continue. But by being aware of the types of threats that are out there, particularly the grandparent scam, can help seniors and their families build their defences against scammers. 

Becoming more Cyber Aware can help people of all generations stay safe. Visit Be Cyber Aware for more tips.

This article is intended as general information only and is not to be relied upon as constituting legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. Information presented is believed to be factual and up-to-date but we do not guarantee its accuracy and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the authors as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or any of its affiliates.

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