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Family emergency scams

Family emergency scams

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Grandparent / Relative Scams

Scammers employ psychological tactics, exploit emotions, and use technology to deceive victims. Being cautious, verifying information, and maintaining open communication with family members are crucial in avoiding such scams.

  • A grandparent / trusted relative scam is a form of telephone fraud. The scammer phones a grandparent or relative and pretends to be in distress and asks that funds be wired to a specified location.
  • The scammer initiates contact, often through a phone call, pretending to be a grandchild or a relative in distress.
  • They might claim to be involved in an accident, arrested, stranded, or facing some other urgent situation.
  • The scammer relies on emotional manipulation and creates a sense of urgency to pressure the victim into taking immediate action.
  • They may impersonate the grandchild/relative by mimicking their voice or gathering personal information from social media.
  • The scammer pleads with the victim not to tell other family members, adding an element of secrecy to the situation.
  • They ask for financial assistance, usually requesting a wire transfer, prepaid gift cards, or some other untraceable form of payment.
  • To make the scam more convincing, the scammer might provide specific instructions on how to send the money quickly and discreetly.
  • Victims, driven by concern for their loved ones, may fall for the scam and send money without verifying the caller's identity.
  • Once the money is sent, it becomes nearly impossible to recover as the scammer typically disappears and moves on to new targets.
  • Unfortunately, victims often realize they have been scammed after the fact, when they contact the actual grandchild/relative or other family members.

  • How does the scammer choose a target?  No one knows for sure. Phone calls may be made at random until an elderly person answers, or scammers may be harvesting information from the Internet that enables them to choose targets. Some have suggested Facebook as a possible source of information.
  • Why doesn't the target realize that the caller is not a grandchild?  If the target says that the caller does not sound like his or her grandchild, the scammers may blame a bad connection or a cold. Also, identifying voices over the phone is difficult for some senior citizens.
  • Does the scammer know the grandchild's name?  It appears that sometimes the scammers have the correct names at their disposal. This is one reason some investigators think that scammers are gleaning information from the Internet. More often, however, the scammers may elicit the name of a grandchild from the target, who often does not even realize that he or she has supplied a name.
  • What kind of stories do the grandparent scammers use?  The scammers often say that the grandchild needs money because of an accident, an injury, a theft, or an arrest. Sometimes the "grandchild" pleads that other family members not be told because DUI or embarrassing circumstances are involved.
  • Can victims of the grandparent scam recover their money?  Due to the nature of wire transfers and the fact that most cases involve U.S. citizens wiring money to other countries, recovery of funds is very difficult. 
  • What amounts of money are involved?  Amounts can vary widely, starting with less than $1,000. Often scammers who are successful in persuading targets to wire money will immediately ask for a second transfer. 
  • Are there other negative results from being scammed?  Yes. Those who are the victims of scams may lose faith in their own judgment, a doubt that family members may share. Sometimes the result is that an elderly person is prematurely stripped of control of his or her own money. Sometimes older persons become hesitant to answer their phones.
  • Why can't we catch the scammers?  The nature of international wire transfers makes it difficult to catch the perpetrators. Many times they use prepaid cell phones that cannot be tracked. Some scammers have been caught and charged.
  • Why would anyone fall for this scam?  Scammers can be very persuasive. In addition, the emotional distress caused by being told that a loved one is in trouble can make one abandon rational thought.
  • What should be done if someone falls victim to this scam?  The victim should immediately notify the wire transfer company. In addition, the following entities should be notified:
    • Local police
    • State attorney general
    • The Federal Trade Commission

How Scammers Exploit AI for Emergency Scams

Impersonating a loved one:
  • Scammers gather information about the victim's family members through social media or other online sources.
  • Personal information may be purchased from data brokers or obtained through email account hacking.
  • Using voice cloning technology, scammers create convincing fake recordings of the loved one in distress.
  • Scammers claim emergencies like accidents, kidnappings, or arrests, requesting immediate money transfer.
Creating fake recordings:
  • AI tools are used to generate fake voice recordings of a loved one's voice.
  • Voice synthesis analyzes facial movements, lip movements, and visual cues to produce realistic-sounding voices.
  • Short video footage of a person's face from publicly available sources is used to create voice clones.
  • Many voice synthesis tools are free or low-cost and require only seconds of video footage.
Manipulating voice messages:
  • Scammers manipulate existing voice messages from a loved one.
  • The tone of the message is altered to create a sense of distress or urgency.
  • Scammers exploit the victim's emotions to convince them to act quickly without verifying the message's legitimacy.

How can one avoid being a victim?

  • Be careful with personal information:
    • Scammers can extract your voice from videos on social media.
    • Limit the personal information and content you share online.
    • Consider making your profiles private to restrict access to friends and family.
  • Use a family code word:
    • Create a unique code word known only to you and your loved ones.
    • It can be used during emergencies to verify identities.
    • Keep the code word private among family and friends.
    Be cautious of unsolicited calls or messages:
    • Exercise caution if you receive unexpected calls or messages.
    • Verify the person's identity before sending money.
    • Hang up and call the person directly to verify their claims.
  • Never wire money to an unknown person. If you receive a call about a family member in distress in a foreign country, verify the information with family members. Another method is to have a family password, such as the name of a pet, which you can use for verification of the caller's identity.
  • Build a wall around your computer. Use both antivirus and anti-spyware software to keep intruders from stealing personal information from your computer.
  • Don't open file attachments in emails from strangers. These can contain programs that enable crooks to get into your computer remotely. Be cautious on social media. Anything you reveal about your family, travels, or schedule can be easily picked up by bad guys.
  • Ask lots of questions. If you get an impassioned call for money from a family member, take a deep breath and try not to get emotional. Instead, ask some questions that would be hard for an impostor to answer correctly. Examples are the name of the person's pet, his mother's birth date, or his boss's name.
  • Slow the process down. Never say yes to a money transfer based on a single call. Always hang up and do some research, such as trying to contact the person directly on her cell or work phone, or talking with someone she is close with to corroborate the situation.
  • Don't be embarrassed. If you fear that you have fallen prey to a scam, do not let pride get in the way of contacting authorities. And if you've wired money, immediately call the money transfer service to report the fraud. If the money hasn't been picked up yet, you can retrieve it.

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