Frontwave Blog

Don't Be Fooled by Family Emergency Scams

A call or message from a loved one in distress can get your heart racing. Naturally you’d want to do whatever you could to help. But what if that “loved one” were really a scammer trying to defraud you? This is a tactic that’s becoming all-too-common.

Take this example: A grandmother receives a call from someone claiming to be her grandson. “Grandma, it’s me [grandson’s name],” the caller says. “I’m in trouble, and I need money for bail. You can't tell Mom or Dad about this.” When the grandmother asks questions, the caller may offer to have their lawyer call to verify the story. A second call from that fake “lawyer” comes in, pressuring the grandmother to wire money for bail right away.

Of course, the grandson was never in trouble at all, but by the time the grandmother figures that out, the money is long gone. Don’t think this can’t happen to you if you’re not a grandparent – cousins, aunts and uncles, family friends – it’s all fair game for a scammer. And it can happen not only by phone, but also by text and email.

Spotting a Family Emergency Scam

Scammers play on your emotions. They often do some digging to gather information about you that makes the request seem more real (for example, knowing your name, your loved one’s name and where you live). They’re counting on providing just enough info to get you to act quickly to help your loved one – without stopping to check out whether there’s really an emergency.

Some warning signs that can clue you into a scam include:

  • Your “loved one” says it’s urgent and that you’re the only one who can help.
  • An “authority figure,” like a fake lawyer, police officer, or doctor, gets brought in to make the situation sound more convincing – and scary.
  • They tell you it’s important to keep it secret (because they don’t want you talking to other family members and friends and realizing it’s a scam).
  • They say you have to pay right away by wiring money, sending a money order, or paying with gift cards, reloadable cards, or cryptocurrency.

How to Respond

If someone calls or sends a message claiming to be a family member or a friend desperate for money:

  • Resist the pressure to send money immediately. Hang up, or don’t respond to the message.
  • Next, call or message the family member or friend who (supposedly) contacted you. Contact them at a phone number or email address you know is right, not the one someone just used to contact you. Ask if they’re really in trouble.
  • Call someone else you trust, even if your “loved one” said to keep it a secret. Do that especially if you can’t reach the friend or family member who’s supposed to be in trouble. A trusted person can help you figure out whether the story is true.
  • Never send cash, gift cards, cryptocurrency, or money transfers. Once the scammer gets the money, it’s gone!

Stay Informed

To learn about the latest financial scams and how to protect yourself, check out the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Information portal or sign up for one of our free virtual workshops.