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Family Emergency Scam - How to protect yourself

I was watching my favorite morning game show when I got the call.

“Bobby is in jail. He needs bail money – now,” the caller said.

My heart skipped a beat, and I turned off the television.

Bobby is my grandson. A sweet boy. He’s my favorite among the bunch, but I’ll never admit it. He’s in college out of state. Bobby’s going to be a doctor one day.

“My Bobby?” my voice went up an octave. “Who is this? Where are you calling from?”

“This is Jennifer with Weinstein, Mathews, and Crooks, um - Attorneys at Law. Your grandson was behaving badly last night, and he’s in a bit of trouble. Drunk driving. Our law office can’t help him unless we receive money for his legal expenses.”

I gripped the phone harder. “Oh, my. I’d better let his parents know. Hold on while I get a pen to write down your phone number.”

“We don’t have time for his parents. This was the number he gave us, and he said you really love him so you’ll help him. Besides, I don’t think he wants his parents to know.” Jennifer made sense. Bobby had a speeding ticket earlier this year, and his parents were pretty hot about it.

“All we need is for you to send money today so we can get him out of jail,” Jennifer continued.

“Well, of course, I want to help Bobby but – “

“Okay - great! He needs $1,500. To make things easier, you can purchase $1,500 in Visa gift cards and FedEx them to our office. This is much safer than sending cash.”

I wrote down the address where I was to FedEx the money.

“Now, remember Bobby needs you to get that in the mail today because if we don’t receive it in the morning, well, let’s just say jail isn’t a place for a nice kid like your grandson.”

My eyes stung. I quickly blinked as I read back the address Jennifer gave me.

Before we hung up, she told me that Bobby knew he could count on me.

I couldn’t let him down. That afternoon I purchased the gift cards and dropped off the FedEx envelope.

Several days passed. I thought Bobby would have called to let me know he was okay. Sometimes grandkids can be absentminded, so I finally called him.

“Hi Nanna,” Bobby said after the third ring.

“Oh, Bobby. It’s so good to hear your voice. Are you okay?”

“Yeah - things are going great at school! I’m getting ready for finals, so I’ve been pretty busy. I’m sorry I haven’t called.”

“I understand. I mean, it’s not as if you could actually call me if you wanted to.”

“What do you mean?”

I didn’t want to embarrass him. “Well, you know.”

“Nanna – I don’t know what you mean,” he said slowly.

I told Bobby about my call with Jennifer, about Weinstein, Mathews, and Crooks - Attorneys at Law, and about his drinking and getting behind the wheel. There was a long pause before he finally spoke.

“Nanna, I was never arrested. And, I’ve never heard of Weinstein, Mathews, and Crooks - Attorneys at Law.”

***************

Since Bobby’s grandmother purchased gift cards and provided them to the scammers, this is not considered fraud and the money spent cannot be recovered. The scammers were relying on her to act quickly by making the situation appear desperate or otherwise indicating that the family member would be harmed if they don’t take action immediately.

Family emergency scams aren’t limited to claims that a family member needs money to get out of jail. Other ways scammers snare their victims is by claiming that the family member needs money:

  • For a hospital bill
  • To pay for an accident in which someone else was harmed
  • In order to leave a foreign country

They may even pretend to be the loved one and when questioned about why they sound different, will often claim that they have a cold or have been drinking. Regardless of which tactic is used, scammers play on the victim’s emotions to get them to take action right away.

You can avoid becoming a family emergency scam victim by following these tips:

  • If you receive a phone call, text message or email requesting financial assistance, don’t send money right away, regardless of how desperate the situation seems. This includes wired money, gift cards, checks or cash sent via overnight delivery.
  • Ask questions that only someone close to your family member would know about your relationship. Remember, if the family member has a social media account, e.g., Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. they may share things about themselves but are unlikely to share things that only the two of you would know.
  • Call another family member to confirm the story even if you’re pressured to keep quiet.
  • Report the incident to the Federal Trade Commission and your attorney general’s office.

If you think someone is trying to pull the family emergency scam, you can also contact an F&A Federal Credit Union member representative as soon as possible to discuss steps to remedy the situation.

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