How to Avoid “Grandparent Scams” and Other Threats


In many instances, older adults are the target demographic for emergency scams, hence the phrase "grandparent scams." Photo: Halfpoint/Getty Images

Kids, it’s time to have “the talk” with your parents and grandparents.

But this is about a different kind of protection.

Cybercrime cost Canadians a staggering $530 million in 2022 — nearly a 40 per cent increase in victim losses from the year prior at $380 million.

In fact, the number of victims is likely much higher, says the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC), as the RCMP-based organization estimates that only five to 10 per cent of people report fraud, likely due to embarrassment.

Risks are wide-ranging — from viruses and “phishing” emails and texts (that look like they’re from a legitimate business or government agency) to  “ransomware” attacks that lock your files until you pay up and shopping scams. But growing nearly four times between 2021 and 2022 are “emergency scams,” says the CAFC, where someone is contacted with an emotional story designed to defraud victims.

Considering March is Fraud Prevention Month, here’s a reminder — nay, warning — about how these kinds of scams work, and be sure to share this information with your loved ones.


“Grandparent Scams” Increasingly Common


In many instances, older adults are the target demographic for emergency scams, hence the phrase “grandparent scams.”

Seniors are contacted by phone or sometimes by text, email or social media message claiming to be a grandchild or other family member, or a police officer or lawyer calling on behalf of their loved one.

The fraudster will say they’re in an emergency situation, such as being arrested or needing money immediately to get out of some kind of jam, and beg the victim to provide payment immediately.

“While not new, grandparent scams keep coming back because, unfortunately, they work,” says Vivianne Gauci, senior vice-president at HomeEquity Bank, which helps Canadian homeowners aged “55 and better” retire in their own home.

“Even though the voice may not quite match with the person they’re claiming to be, they pretend they’re under duress, which might explain that,” adds Gauci. “They beg you not to tell mom or dad, but need your help right away, which strikes empathy, and many victims ultimately send money to this individual.”

Often, fraudsters explain how to send the funds through cryptocurrency or gift cards, and other means that are difficult to trace.

“And that’s one of the red flags,” Gauci cautions. “Ask yourself ‘Why is my grandchild asking for money in this way?’, even though the scammer will usually have a good explanation for it.” 

Michael Jabbara, Visa’s VP and Global Head of Fraud Services, says older individuals may be a desirable target because of a lack of technical sophistication and because they don’t always report these crimes to authorities.

Oversharing on social media may also contribute to the problem: “Fraudsters are often able to glean personal details about the grandchild because of posts and pictures on Facebook or Instagram, allowing them to craft a very believable message,” warns Jabbara. “Or in other cases, a family member’s phone number is ‘spoofed’ or an email account is hacked, and so it appears as if it’s coming from the grandchild. These fraudsters play on your emotions.”

Another motivation for cybercriminals is that seniors pay out more. U.S. data published by cybersecurity company Comparitech reveals that while the average loss from those in their 20s was $324, it jumps to $426 for victims in their 60s, $635 among 70-somethings, and a staggering median loss of $1,300 among those in their 80s.


6 Ways to Protect Yourself From Scammers


One of the best practices to fight back is to have a “tech check-in” with aging relatives and friends, advises Jabbara, to go over these assorted tips:

Share With Care: Limit how much personal information you share online. Set your social media profiles to private. If someone asks to connect with you on social media, only accept their request if you know them. 

Be Wary of “Emergencies”: Your family or friends can easily be hacked to send out emails or text messages claiming to be urgently in need of cash or gift cards. When in doubt, just ask: If you really think it could be your daughter or grandson reaching out, don’t confirm by replying to the message you received. Instead, reach out in another fashion, such as calling them. Chances are, it’s fake. Block and report the fraudulent message.

Enable Multi-factor Authentication: Use a passcode or fingerprint to lock your phone, tablet, or computer. When it comes to logging into your online accounts, add a second layer of defense by enabling “multi-factor authentication.” This means you not only need a password or passcode (or biometrics logon, like a fingerprint of facial scan) to confirm it’s you, but also a one-time code you’ll receive on your mobile phone to type in.

Install Good Cybersecurity Software: Just as you wouldn’t leave the front door to your home unlocked, you shouldn’t let your tech be vulnerable to attacks, whether it’s a virus or other malicious software (“malware”) that sneaks onto your device or caused by being tricked into giving out sensitive information.

Use a VPN: Virtual private network (VPN) software conceals your online identity by using encryption technology, therefore what you do and where you go online cannot be seen by your service provider, the government, search engine, browser company, social media sites, advertisers or malicious types.

Avoid Wi-Fi Hotspots: Resist free wireless Internet at, say, a coffee shop or in an airport. It’s best to wait until you’re on a secured internet connection at home, or use your smartphone as a personal hotspot, which is safer than public Wi-Fi. If you must use a hotspot, do not conduct any financial transactions — like online banking, trading, or shopping — as you never know if your information is being tracked and logged.


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