Fact Check

Family Member Impersonation Scam

Distress scam involves an impersonator who pretends to be relative in urgent need of money.

Published Sep 5, 2008

Scam:   Impersonator pretends to be a relative in urgent need of money.

Examples:   [Collected via e-mail, April 2006]

Someone reporting to be our grandson called us today to say he had been picked up on a dui in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and needed $5,100 to make bail. He said to send a MoneyGram via WalMart. When we asked for a specific address, he gave one in, Toronto Ont Canada. I asked him a question only our grandson would know the answer to and the caller couldn't answer correctly. He called back about 10 minutes later, my husband said "Who the hell are you?" and the caller hung up. Our grandson goes to college in Tucson and we live in California so it took us a while to catch on to this scam.

(My husband initially was getting ready to go to WalMart before I caught up with him. What if I hadn't been home?) I reported this incident to the consumer fraud hotline.

[Collected via e-mail, June 2010]

I'm writing this with tears in my eyes, my family and I came down here to London, England for a short vacation unfortunately we were mugged at the park of the hotel where we stayed, all cash, credit card and cell were stolen off us but luckily for us we still have our passports with us.

We've been to the embassy and the Police here but they're not helping issues at all and our flight leaves in less than 3hrs from now but we're having problems settling the hotel bills and the hotel manager won't let us leave until we settle the bills.

Am freaked out at the moment. I Need Your Help Urgently..


Origins:   Some scammers exploit the avarice of people looking to get something for nothing, some take advantage of honest people who are simply trying to conduct straightforward business transactions, and some — perhaps the worst of all — victimize people who are motivated only by a good-hearted desire to help out those in need.

The scheme described above falls into that last category. The basic set-up is that a scam artist gleans just enough information about a family (e.g., names, ages, addresses, phone numbers) to be able to impersonate one of them during a brief phone call to another family member. The scammer will place a call and claim to be in some form of distress (e.g., a victim of legal problems, theft, or fouled-up travel arrangements) that has left him stranded far from home and in desperate need of someone to wire him some cash. In many cases eager-to-help relatives will promptly send money as instructed, not realizing until it's too late that the person they've been talking to is an impersonator and not a genuine family member. (Grandparents are particularly common targets of this scam: They may be easily

fooled by an impersonator because they often have only sporadic contact with their grown grandchildren and therefore may not be very familiar with a particular grandchild's adult voice and may not have current information about the grandchild's whereabouts or activities that might give away the impersonation.)

Such con artists use a variety of avenues through which they make contact — while some telephone their intended victims, others send e-mails, while still others send text messages to cell phones. Some of those who have reported being taken advantage of say they were approached via instant messages through social networking sites such as Facebook.

If you should receive such a call, text message, or e-mail and can't be sure whether it's on the level, the best approach is to elicit as much information as possible from the caller, then contact a direct relative (e.g., a parent, sibling, or child) of the person the caller is claiming to be and try to verify the information. (For example: "I just received a call from someone who identified himself as your brother, Bill, and he said his wallet was stolen in Calgary and he desperately needs some money to get back home. Do you know if Bill is traveling in Canada right now?")

Another approach to use if you can't reach other relatives right away is the one employed in the example quoted above: Ask the caller a question that an impersonator would be unable to answer. Be careful to pose a question that requires more than knowledge of basic family information (e.g., names, birthdates, addresses), because that information is too easy for outsiders to look up — instead, ask about something like a detail of a family event that someone who was not present would be extremely unlikely to know about.

In general, pleas for money from people with whom you have only casual or infrequent contact should be handled with Ronald Reagan's signature phrase in mind: "Trust, but verify."

Last updated:   3 August 2014



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David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.