Let’s say you got a sudden call or message from someone you care about, such as a relative, telling you they were in trouble and in desperate need of assistance. Chances are, your first instinct would be to do whatever you could to help.
That’s just what the perpetrators of so called “emergency scams” are counting on. They take advantage of a person’s desire to help a loved one in need and leverage the anxiety they create to extract money. The tactics are simple, but the results are devastating.
A Plea for Help
An emergency scam usually starts with a phone call or a message from someone pretending to be a family member in dire need of help. The circumstances vary, but they almost always involve a sudden turn of events and a request for money to resolve the situation.
Examples of the emergency stories told by these scammers include:
- An unexpected hospital stay and medical bills they can’t pay
- Legal trouble that requires payment of bail or lawyer fees they can’t afford
- Being stranded somewhere far from home and needing hotel money
- Being mugged or robbed while in a strange city and needing to pay for a ticket home
Sometimes the scammer even impersonates a police officer calling about a relative supposedly in trouble.
Who wouldn’t want to help someone in such dire straits? Especially if that someone was a grandchild, a favorite cousin, or even an elderly relative?
The sad truth is that all too often, these pleas for help are in fact fraudulent requests for money, run by scammers who have acquired just enough information about their targets to impersonate a loved one and take advantage of their care and concern.
Spotting someone who is impersonating your grandchild isn’t always as easy as it seems, and the scammers know it. Grandparents are often targeted precisely because they’re not in regular contact with younger family members living in other states.
If the scammer’s identity is questioned by the target, they might claim to have been injured as a way of explaining why they sound “different.” Another common ploy is to have someone else call on their behalf (with enough personal details to be convincing) and claim the “grandchild” is too injured to speak for themselves.
Why These Scams Work
Apart from being very good at impersonation, these scam artists use several tricks to make this fraud effective:
- They play on emotions. The heart of these scams is an appeal to emotion. The target gets so upset about the situation, they fail to notice or question any holes in the story. Once they’re emotionally involved, it’s much easier to get them to act.
- They create urgency. Scammers are very careful to inject a lot of fear into the story they’re telling, so the targets themselves are afraid to make a mistake and will just do whatever is asked of them.
- They request secrecy. Insisting on secrecy keeps the target emotionally isolated. The request is usually something like “Please don’t tell Mom and Dad about this. They’d kill me!” The target is made to feel they’re helping even more by keeping mum. If they do discover the truth, they’ll be too embarrassed to tell anyone about it.
How to Guard Against Fake “Emergencies”
Here are some ways you can protect yourself from handing over money to a scammer:
- Ask a personal question only your family member could answer. Scammers have enough information about your loved one (possibly found on social media) to get in the door, but they usually don’t know too many specifics. Ask a question to verify their identity, but make sure it’s personal enough that only someone with intimate knowledge of them could answer.
- Contact them (or a close relative) independently. Remember, the scammers want to isolate their targets and have them act without talking to anyone else. Ignore that and make some calls to check out the story.
- Be suspicious of wire transfer requests. The method of payment requested is often a dead giveaway on these scams. If your “loved one” is asking for money via wire transfer or prepaid credit or gift card, you should be suspicious. Keep in mind that hospitals and courts do not accept gift cards as payment!
Trust, But Verify
It’s important to keep a cool head when you get a call from a loved one claiming to be in trouble and asking for money. Above all, resist the urge to act rashly. It should be easy enough to verify the story, and if your family member is indeed in trouble, you can still help.