It starts with a late-night call and ends with an urgent plea for thousands of dollars in cash. It's called the grandparent scam.
The bait? Your kids.
Con artists have been playing this game for several years, but it appears to have recently resurfaced.
According to the latest data from the Federal Trade Commission, nearly 83,000 complaints were filed in 2012 about impostors trying to steal money using various come-ons, including the grandparent scam. That was up 4 percent from the previous year and an increase of nearly 8 percent over a two-year period.
Law enforcement experts say elderly people are the perfect target because they're often too kind and trusting and too willing to part with their money to help a grandchild who is seemingly in trouble.
A typical scam starts with a phone call or an email from someone who identifies himself as your grandchild. He says he has been arrested at college or in another country and needs money quickly to pay bail, preferably through a wire transfer. And one more thing, Grandma: Don't tell Mom or Dad, because they'll only get upset.
That's the standard spin, but there are variations to watch for. And as you might expect, con artists are trolling the Internet and social media websites to research their fake identities and find potential targets.
Instead of the "grandchild" making the call, the con artist pretends to be an arresting police officer, a lawyer, a doctor at a hospital or some other person. The FBI said it had even heard about the phony grandchild talking first and then handing the phone over to an accomplice to further reel in the victim.
The FBI said military families have been victimized by a similar plea for help. After researching a soldier's social networking site, a criminal will call the soldier's grandparents claiming that a problem came up during military leave that requires money be sent immediately to an address.
Though known as the grandparent scam, criminals may also claim to be a friend of the family, a niece or a nephew.
Remember that scam artists can be very convincing. In fact, it can be surprisingly easy with so much personal information that can be accessed online.
If you're a grandparent, what can you do to avoid being victimized?
The FBI, the Federal Trade Commission and other federal agencies offered these tips:
-- Never give a caller personal information, including your bank account, credit card, Social Security or driver's license numbers. Don't even verify your name and address.
-- Never wire funds through money transfer services to people you don't know, regardless of how convincing their story may be.
"A stranger asking you to wire money is a huge red flag that it is a scam," said Kathryn Weatherby, a fraud examination specialist with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
Wiring money is like sending cash. Once the money's gone, you can't trace it or get it back, the FDIC said.
-- Resist the urge to act immediately, no matter how dramatic the story. The FTC recommends that you verify the person's identity by asking questions that a stranger couldn't possibly answer.
Call a phone number for your family member or friend that you know to be genuine. Check the story out with someone else in your family, even if you've been told to keep it a secret.
And finally, use caller ID services. If you don't recognize the phone number, don't pick up the phone. That's the only foolproof way I know to avoid the grandparent scam.
(Questions, comments, column ideas? Send an e-mail to srosen(AT)kcstar.com or write to him at The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108.)
Beware of the 'grandparent scam'
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