How to spot the grandparent scam

Imagine being at home late at night and your phone rings. The person on the other end says they're your grandchild, something terrible has happened, and they need your help. They need money.

If you ever receive a call like this, you could be the target of what's commonly known as a grandparent scam, and it's important that you understand the situation and confirm all information before sending any money.

"Please don’t tell my mom, Grandma – she'll be so upset."

Here's how the grandparent scam typically works: The phone rings and the caller claims to be the grandchild of the person who answers. The caller, who typically sounds very distressed (enough for their voice not to be recognizable) says they have been injured or in an accident, and they need money. The caller also pleads with the 'grandparent' not to tell anyone.

READ: 5 ways to protect yourself from financial fraudsters

Wanting to help what they believe is their grandchild, the victim sends money – by funds transfer, gift cards, or sending cash by mail/courier. Since the victim has promised to keep it secret, they usually don't find out it's a scam until it's too late and their money is gone.

Fraudsters can target victims through the grandparent scam by phone call, email and text message, with many using details from social media to make their stories more believable.

A growing problem

In 2016, more than 800 Canadians fell victim to the grandparent scam[i] and lost more than a million dollars in total – and the Canadian Anti Fraud Centre (CAFC) estimates that only a small fraction of victims report these types of frauds due to embarrassment.

READ: How to spot the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) scam

The grandparent scam works well because it exploits human vulnerability and the desire to care for family and friends. More than 7.1 million Canadians are grandparents[ii], so there is a wide net of potential victims.

How to prevent being defrauded

Verify the caller: If you get a phone call like this, ask some probing questions that only the real person would know – for example ask them to confirm the last time they saw you or what nickname you call them by.

Ask questions don’t answer them: These types of fraud calls trick the victim into providing information, which the fraudster then uses against the victim. Make sure you aren't offering names or confirming details that the fraudsters are prompting you to provide. If they are who they say they are, they will be able to answer your questions.

If you think you've been the victim of a grandparent scam, report it: If you or a family member has fallen victim to a scam, report it to your local police, as well as the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.

Talk about it: If you've fallen victim to the grandparent scam, or even received a call and hung up – tell your story. The more people who know about it, the fewer chances fraudsters have to defraud people.