Elderly Evergreen woman is victim of scam

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Man claiming to be son says he's in trouble in Toronto

By Vicky Gits

A woman in her 80s who has lived in Evergreen for several decades lost more than $16,000 in a telephone scam involving a caller who said he was her son and had been arrested for drunken driving.

She called the Canyon Courier because she hopes to stop others from being victimized, but she asked that her name not be used.

Wiring money without confirming the identity of someone on the phone is almost always a mistake, said Cary Johnson, a crime prevention officer in the Jefferson County district attorney’s office. Wire scams like this are commonly perpetrated on the elderly, and typically crooks impersonate a grandson or granddaughter.

Once the cash is wired by telegram to another location, it is virtually impossible to get it back. Canada is a convenient base for wire scammers because customers can pick up cash at any Walmart in the country, regardless of where it was sent from.

“They probably don’t know the son’s name,” Johnson said. “They buy a list from a data broker for people age 75 or older. They can even ask for ones who are widowed. They usually count on the grandparent to give away the relative’s name.”

There has been a wave of such wire scams since the first of the year, Johnson said. In one Lakewood retirement home, where Johnson presents crime prevention programs, callers contacted four or five people, but none of them took the deal.

He is working with a woman whose husband has been sending money to a fraudulent concern in Ghana, Africa, for two years because he is convinced they will pay him a huge amount to open a bank account for them in the United States.

Johnson said people forget to think when they get that adrenalin surge of fear. “Nothing is so urgent that you can’t think it through,” he said.

The scammers play on the fear by urging people not to call anyone else.

In the case of the woman from Evergreen, the man on the phone told her he was her son and that he urgently needed money to make bail and pay a fine for drunken driving in Toronto. Her son lives in Alaska, and she assumed he was on some kind of business trip.

“He’s 50 years old and never caused me any trouble in my whole life,” the woman said. The man is her only child, and her husband is deceased.

An unfamiliar voice

Her first reaction was that the man on the phone didn’t sound like her son, but then he said he had a cold, which seemed to make sense. She thought it was odd that he didn’t want to tell his wife, but concluded that was reasonable too.

The stranger warned her against calling his office because he didn’t want his employer to know he had been accused of drunken driving. He wanted $3,000 to pay the fine and avoid going to jail, and $2,700 for attorney fees.

“My impression was he was at jail,” she said.

The next day people called and identified themselves as “attorneys” for her son and asked for another $10,700.

The woman made five trips to Bank of the West to make cash withdrawals from her checking account over two days. She was told to take the money to Walmart and convert it into Moneygrams to send to Toronto. She said she wasn’t given a street address.

The fifth time they called, she told them she had no more money in her checking account and would have to get a cash advance on her VISA card.

When she asked for the advance, the bank personnel became suspicious and intervened. She wound up in the office of branch manager Scott Purcell, who convinced her to call her son’s office in Alaska and find out why he was sent to Toronto.

Her son answered the phone.

“I nearly fainted,” she said. “He was furious.”

She said the ordeal cost her several nights of sleep, as well as the $16,000, which can never be recovered.

Purcell thinks the bank would have intervened sooner, but she used different branches, which attracted less attention. He said it isn’t that unusual every few months to run across a case where an elderly person is withdrawing large amounts of cash in connection with some telephone, wire or mail scam. He always tries to do something. In rare cases, a wire transfer can be retracted if caught soon enough.

“We aren’t being nosy,” he said. “We just want to protect our customers. Our tellers did a great job.”

He remembers one customer who got a call saying he had inherited valuable items from people in Australia. He was supposed to pick up the goods if he would deliver a hefty “customs fee” to the airport first. Purcell tried unsuccessfully to talk him out of it, but he went ahead anyway and wound up with a box of bricks.

“I see my mother. I hope my mother would run into somebody who could say, ‘Let’s just do a couple of things,’ ” Purcell said.

While she was in the bank manager’s office, the woman’s cell phone rang twice with calls from the so-called “lawyers” in Canada. He thought about picking up the phone but didn’t want to alert them that the authorities were onto them.

Purcell called the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, which sent an officer to take a criminal complaint.

“The deputy did a really great job,” Purcell said. “He told her not to feel stupid. The con artists are really good at what they do.”

Contact Vicky Gits at vicky@evergreenco.com.

Tips from the Jeffco DA

• Requests to wire money should always raise a red flag; once the money is sent, it’s probably gone forever.

• Crooks usually stress an immediacy/urgency in their request for money; slow down, take a deep breath and think carefully about any request for assistance.

• Crooks stress secrecy; no one should know about the phone call or problem. Always get another opinion before acting.

• Don’t volunteer any information, such as the name of a family member. Crooks will use this information to make the call seem valid.

• Call the DA’s fraud hotline, 303-271-6980, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The call will be answered by a live person. Discuss the situation or request with them.