With college students making plans to head out of town for much-needed down time, also known as spring break, scam artists are lying in wait to deliver the old "I'm in trouble, grandma" ruse.

The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection said on Tuesday scammers wait for spring break to target elderly relatives, acting like grandchildren in trouble and needing cash, quick.

"It's surprisingly easy for a crook to gather enough online information to impersonate a loved one," said Sandy Chalmers of DATCP in a news release.

"This is a scam we hear about on a regular basis in Wisconsin, so make sure your elderly friends and relatives know what to do if they get this call," Chalmers said.

During the scam call, the "grandchild" tells the grandparent not to say anything to Mom and Dad, and to wire the money so they can get out of their predicament, such as being in jail, in a car crash, etc.

"Of course, the entire story is a hoax, but the threat of a loved one in need clouds the judgment of the victim and makes them eager to help in any way they can," Chalmers said.

DATCP advises families to talk to Grandma and Grandpa to always double check with the parents of a grandchild before doing anything, no matter what the caller says.

The scammer may already know some basic facts about the grandchild, such as name, school, age and friends, because of social media like Facebook.

DATCP offers tips to keep the scammers at bay:

  • Resist the pressure to act immediately.
  • Hang up and try to contact the grandchild or another family member at a number that you know is accurate.
  • Do not wire money or provide your bank or credit card account numbers.
  • Verify the caller's identity by asking personal questions a stranger could not answer.
  • If you cannot reach a family member and are still not sure what to do, call the Bureau of Consumer Protection, 800-422-7128, or local police.
  • The "grandparent scam" isn't limited to grandchildren. Scammers could also play the con on family by claiming to be a nephew or niece, or even a family friend.
  • If you keep getting such calls, call the police.

Bill Novak is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.