What is a Family Emergency Scam and How Can You Prevent It?

What is a Family Emergency Scam and How Can You Prevent It?


For a moment, imagine that you receive a call from an unknown number. You hear heavy, panicked breathing over the phone and shouting in the background. Your heart stops when you hear your sister’s voice say, “Please help me! They’re holding me hostage!”

Terrified, you promise to do whatever it takes to rescue her. Your sister tells you that she just needs you to send a money wire transfer right away and you’ll save her life.

Still, even though you’re scared, something tells you that this isn’t the real deal. What should you do?

This is an example of a newer scam called the “family emergency scam.” In it, a phone scammer will pretend to be your cherished loved one, such as a relative, friend, spouse, or child. Caught up in the moment, you do whatever the “kidnapper” asks, such as sending money.

Read on to learn more about family emergency scams and what to do if you ever find yourself unfortunately caught up in one.

The Basics of a Family Emergency Scam

A family emergency scam is often successful because it works in playing on your emotions. Unlike with other money scams, you’re poised to act quickly and urgently, because the situation seems so dire. Because you think your loved one is in danger, you’re more apt to get confused and start thinking less clearly than you normally would as you begin to panic.

Usually, a family emergency scam works as outlined above. In some highly sophisticated cases, someone is able to imitate your loved one’s voice because they’ve listened to them in person or on videos. In other cases, some mobile apps and other programs are actually able to create a “voiceprint” of a given individual to allow someone to ape their voice.

In other cases, the background noise (such as ambulance sirens, dogs barking, or people yelling) will be so distracting and upsetting that you don’t notice the voice isn’t quite right. Finally, the family emergency scammer is counting on your panic to make their scam work. Even if the voice isn’t perfectly imitated, with your heart rate sky-high, your thoughts racing, and your palms sweaty, you might not be able to pay careful attention.

Family emergency scams may only involve one person, or they may involve two or more people. Sometimes, the other two or more phone scammers imitate other people who might be involved in a kidnapping or hostage situation, such as law enforcement officers, accomplices, other hostages, or frightened passersby.

What to Do if You Think Someone is Impersonating Your Loved One

If you think you are falling prey to a family emergency scam, take a breath and a beat. Try to think as clearly as you can. Ask the person questions that only your loved one would know the answers to. Listen carefully to both the answers and to the voice on the other end of the line. Is that really your loved one? You can also try to call a phone number that you know belongs to your relative or loved one. If it’s on and not being used, or of course if your loved one picks up the phone, you might be the victim of an attempted family emergency scam.

Hang up the phone and contact emergency services right away. Afterward, you can contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), law enforcement, and/or your state’s Attorney General for help.