FBI San Francisco
Public Affairs Specialist Prentice Danner
(415) 558-2511
October 27, 2015

FBI Warning of Increase in Telephone Scams Targeting Elderly in the Bay Area

The FBI has seen a recent increase in the number of reports by victims of telephone scams where the caller impersonates a family member of the victim and concocts a phony scenario suggesting the relative is in distress.

The FBI San Francisco Field Office is reaching out to senior citizens to educate them so that they can recognize the signs and identify a scheme in its early stages. The hope is to reach potential victims before they are convinced to send money to impersonators outside of the country.

While common schemes, such as counterfeit check, foreign lottery, and mystery shopper schemes continue to plague victims—particularly senior citizens—the FBI has seen a recent increase in the Bay Area in the number of complaints by victims of the so-called grandparent scam.

This scam is a fraud that preys on the elderly by taking advantage of their love and concern for their grandchildren.

The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) has been receiving reports about the grandparent scam since 2008, but more recently the scam and scam artists have become more sophisticated. Thanks to the Internet and social networking sites, a criminal can sometimes uncover personal information about their targets, which makes the impersonations more believable. For example, the actual grandson may mention on his social networking site that he’s a photographer who often travels to Mexico. When contacting the grandparents, the phony grandson will say he’s calling from Mexico, where someone stole his camera equipment and passport.

Common scenarios include:

  • A grandparent receives a phone call (or sometimes an e-mail) from a “grandchild.” If it is a phone call, it’s often late at night or early in the morning when most people aren’t thinking that clearly. Usually, the person claims to be traveling in a foreign country and has landed in a bad situation, like being arrested for drugs, getting in a car accident, or being mugged, and needs money wired ASAP. The caller usually says he/she doesn’t want his or her parents told.
  • Sometimes, instead of the “grandchild” making the phone call, the criminal pretends to be an arresting police officer, a lawyer, a doctor at a hospital, or some other person. The FBI has also received complaints about the phony grandchild talking first and then handing the phone over to an accomplice who then further spins the fake tale.
  • The FBI has also seen military families victimized: after perusing a soldier’s social networking site, a con artist will contact the soldier’s grandparents, sometimes claiming that a problem came up during military leave that requires immediate funds.
  • While it’s commonly called the grandparent scam, criminals may also claim to be a family friend, a niece or nephew, or another family member.

What to do if you have been scammed:

The FBI recommends contacting your local authorities or state consumer protection agency if you think you’ve been victimized. We also suggest you file a complaint with IC3, which not only forwards complaints to the appropriate agencies but also collates and analyzes the data—looking for common threads that link complaints and help identify the culprits.

The FBI is also working with local, state, and federal partners to aggregate the complaints and identify organized rings targeting multiple victims.

Law enforcement has been successful to a degree in identifying victims and prosecuting offenders operating in the United States and from overseas, but stresses that prevention in the form of education is the key to preventing the continuous problem.

Advice to avoid becoming a victim in the first place:

  • Resist the pressure to act quickly.
  • Try to contact your grandchild or another family member to determine whether or not the call is legitimate.
  • Never wire money based on a request made over the phone or in an e-mail—especially overseas. Wiring money is like giving cash—once you send it, you can’t get it back.