I’ve told you before that the #1 weapon of the crooks pulling fake tech support scams is fear. Fear that your computer is going to be ruined or your data compromised causes you to click on links that distribute malware or give these creeps your credit card number.

Scammers are taking the fear factor to new heights with some scary scams designed to empty your wallet before you have time to even think about it.

I’ve mentioned the so-called “grandparent” scam before but since it’s still going strong let’s talk about how it works.

Criminals call people (usually at random) and someone says either “grandpa” or “grandma.” At this point, most people with grandchildren will say something like, “Bobby?” The fake grandchild then hands the phone over to some authority. Scammers then run with it, telling people that their grandchild is either injured in some remote location or under arrest. There are other variations, but it always involved the beloved grandchild being in danger and needing money. Sometimes for medical treatment or transport and sometimes for bail or legal fees. The money needs to be wired immediately or something dire is going to happen. Often times, the crooks ask for payment with gift cards. iTunes cards are a favorite. Gift cards are untraceable, so it’s much safer for thieves.  When I worked in news, I can’t tell you how many people were conned out of thousands of dollars because they were terrified that a grandchild was in trouble.

As I’ve told you, anyone who wants to be paid with gift cards (unless it’s a 13-year-old mowing your lawn) is a scammer. This is not how law enforcement or hospitals work. If you think a situation might be legitimate, look up the number for the police department where this incident has supposedly happened and call them. (You may find that the town isn’t even real.) Don’t get the number from the scammers. Police will know if there’s been an arrest or an accident in their area. Call around first to confirm the actual location of the loved one who’s supposedly in danger. Don’t panic!

We’ve talked many times about various IRS scams. Crooks call or email and say that you need to pay up right away or a warrant will be issued for your arrest. They’re amping it up these days, though. When you hang up on them, they’ll call you back from a number that shows up as 9-1-1 on your caller ID. A crook will claim to be a sheriff’s deputy whose coming to arrest you if you don’t pay your supposed debt to the IRS. If you hang up on him, you’ll get a call back from the original scammer saying that police are on the way.  They’ll also threaten to call your job. Maybe even name where you work. This can be terrifying. The IRS just doesn’t work that way. They don’t call to threaten arrest. They don’t call you at all. They don’t resolve your tax issues over the phone with credit card payments or gift cards.  If you have any concern that this call might be the real thing, call your local police. They’ll certainly know if you’re in trouble. I promise you, you’ll find out that you are not.

Another scary twist on the panic scam is a kidnapping scam. This seems to have been imported from South America. It involves calling someone and telling them that a loved one has been taken hostage and will be harmed or killed if a few thousand dollars is not paid to the alleged kidnappers.  A family in South Carolina was terrorized after crooks called and claimed that the mother had been taken hostage and would be harmed if they didn’t pay $5000 in the next ten minutes. The crooks had information that convinced the father that his wife was really in danger. He and his son were racing to pay the ransom, but decided at the last minute to go to the police. It turned out that his wife was safe and sound, but not answering her phone because she was in a meeting.  Again, that panic mode.

Where are crooks getting information like the names of relatives and friends or where you work to use against you? Some could come from public social media postings, but another source can be those online coupon scams and silly quizzes that I am constantly warning you about. When you take them, you authorize people to view your information and information about your friends. When you click on those phony coupons thinking “it can’t hurt to try” you could be downloading malware to your phone that can find out about everything about your life and even check your calendar.

Bottom line: don’t let panic cause you to make a serious mistake. If you have any doubt that a scam might be real, call your local police. Otherwise, hang up. Turn off the phone if you have to. Don’t be fooled by caller ID. Crooks can fake that.