Friday, November 30, 2012

Grandparent Scam: What to look for

Do you have a child or a grandchild? Is he or she active on Facebook and such? With detailed profiles? This happens more with sons than daughters. If so, you may soon become a victim of grandparent scam.

The scam is quite simple: the scammers will call you from some foreign number, usually in Mexico. A scared voice, greet you by name, says he's in trouble, probably car accident while on a vacation south of the border, need money wired right away for some sort of emergency, like bail, hospital bill, attorney, etc. The "child" will only say a few sentences, then hand the phone to an associate, who'll be the real scammer, pretending to be hospital staff, police, attorney, etc. who wants to help the child, and they need the money now, so the grandparent needs to go to a Western Union like "now, now, now" and send like 2000 or so dollars to this unknown destination. In many cases, they convinced one, who has no money, who convinced someone else to send the money.

There are several variations. It could be your best friend and husband/wife traveling abroad and got robbed, and need money to take care of a hotel bill or they'll miss their plane back home, or something. It could arrive via email instead of voice call. But the voice call involving allegedly wild antics of a grandchild is far more likely.

It's gotten so prevalent, FBI now has a warning for this:

and various newspapers have picked up on this as well:

How *does* this scam work, from a psychological point of view? Let us examine it from a different angle.

The grandpa scam works by preying upon three things:

  • protective instincts ("It's my grandson!")
  • survival instincts ("better be safe than sorry")
  • time pressure ("I don't have time to verify this...")

The instinct is to protect the young, for the survival of the family gene.

Humans have been bred for survival, which means it will tend to assume a danger is true, i.e. assume "false positive".

Time pressure prevents the victims from applying critical thinking skills and additional verification.

The result is victim got scammed.

How to prevent it? This takes a little preparation, but not that difficult.

1) Make sure your kids and grandkids don't reveal too much info on social networks (this can be difficult) such as friending you and such. Clearly, any one old with with similar surname's gotta be grandparents (or grandaunts and granduncles and such).   You can learn a LOT about a person's family by simply Googling his or her name and/or check their Facebook updates.

2) Arrange in advance some sort of authentication phrase if your child's really in trouble. Some sort of childhood detail like favorite type of cookies or cake (you don't actually bake any) that was never posted online, or a childhood pet, or teddy bear, or some special toy, that sort of detail that nobody else would know about.

3) Make sure your child reports their location to SOMEONE that can be trusted, could be a best friend, could be parents, etc. AND have multiple ways of contacting THAT person, even in the middle of the night.

4) Do NOT yield to time pressure. Time pressure is always suspicious. In this case, because you have to hang up to go to a Western Union location, you have time to verify details. If the other party insist on taking your credit card number over the phone, you'd know it's a scam.

5) Do NOT panic. Take down the facts, then consult someone who is calm and NOT as emotionally impacted as you are, so that signs you may have overlooked in the heat of the moment can be picked up.

Don't get scammed out there.

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