Sophisticated Canadian scam targets the elderly
KINGMAN - "Hello Grandma, this is Jes. I'm in a Dallas jail and need your help. Please wire me $3,500 to help me bail out."
That is what 90-year-old Kingman resident Betty Schneider heard when she picked up the phone at 8:30 a.m. on May 4.
"You don't sound like my grandson," Schneider responded.
"I have a cold," the caller said. "That is why I sound so nasally."
Schneider believed the man, and the conversation continued. The caller told Schneider he spent the previous day at a seminar or meeting of some sort in Dallas and drank a couple beers at a restaurant once it ended. On the way back to his hotel room, the caller said he got in a car accident. When police responded to the accident, the caller said they arrested him for driving drunk.
"He sounded very concerned and sad," Schneider said. "He had me convinced."
Schneider told the man - she thought was her grandson - she would help him and asked him to call her back at 11 a.m. when she got home from church.
Once she returned, she received a call not from the man claiming to be her grandson but from a man identifying himself as Jes' lawyer Michael Willis. Schneider said Willis gave her detailed instructions on how and where to send the money via Western Union. He gave her an address - 122 Northaven, Dallas - and told her to address the money transfer to an official of the court named Dwana Bolden.
"Everything they said kept me believing my grandson was in trouble," Schneider said. "I knew I needed to help him."
Schneider is disabled and uses a wheelchair to get around, so she asked the deacon of her church to give her a ride to the Western Union in Smith's. Her deacon provided transportation but told her he thought she was being scammed.
At Western Union, the woman who took Schneider's information for the transfer kept asking her if she was sure she wanted to send this money. She asked Schneider if she was sure she spoke to her grandson.
Schneider said she was sure and went ahead with the $3,500 transfer, but the woman's questions brought Schneider back to her first impression of the caller claiming to be her grandson.
"He really did not sound like Jes," Schneider said.
Mohave County sees more than its share of phone, mail and Internet scams, which are often targeted toward the elderly.
Kingman Police Department Captain Rusty Cooper said he noticed an increase in reports regarding scams about a year ago. Not all of the reports have to do with actual victims, but a lot of them do, he said.
Many of the scams originate in Canada, and the perpetrators have access to their targets' personal information, which Cooper said KPD does not know how they obtained.
There is no likelihood of solving these cases because they often originate outside of America, said Cooper.
These groups of scam artists are organized, tech savvy and prey on elderly people's loneliness and ignorance when it comes to technology.
"What you have is hundreds of people at a time searching for victims and conducting scams," Cooper said. "That is all they do."
Since solving crimes involving international scams is highly unlikely, Cooper said KPD tries to educate the public. That way people know to be leery when receiving calls, mail or emails where someone on the other end asks for money.
The Federal Trade Commission's website has a section devoted to deterring, defending and detecting identity theft. There is also a crime complaint database where people can document scams they have heard about or fell victim to, IC3.gov.
Mohave County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Trish Carter said attempted and successful scams happen all the time. Carter often releases information that details a specific scam and reminds people to be aware. But she does not release information about every scam because she thinks the community would become immune and start ignoring the warnings.
"They are so creative in finding ways to get money," Carter said. "If it is too good to be true, it probably is."
People need to take time and validate that people asking for money are actually who they say they are, said Carter. Never run out and send money no matter if the person on the other end says they are a family member or a banking official.
"Do not immediately trust someone," Carter said. "Stop and think it through."
Schneider does not have a computer, a Facebook or Myspace account. She has never been mentioned in an obituary, either.
After transferring the money, she became worried she had made a mistake, so she called the number the man gave her earlier that Wednesday morning. She reached the man who claimed to be her grandson and asked what his name stood for.
The caller hung up, and Schneider knew she had been took for $3,500. Jes is not Schneider's grandson's real name. His real name is James Eugene Stewart - Jes is merely a nickname.
Luckily, a security official at Western Union called her moments after the con artist hung up on her. He asked for the routing numbers of the wire transfer because he planned to put a block on the money. Schneider did not believe him and thought it was another one of the scammers. However, she reluctantly gave up the information to the official.
Schneider got lucky. Western Union refunded the $3,500, but she is out the $250 it cost her to send the money.
The number the scammers gave Schneider had a 514 area code, which is located in Montreal. The names they dropped - Michael Willis and Dwana Bolden - are actual people who live in Texas. Willis is a lawyer and Bolden works for the Texas Criminal Justice Department.
Willis said he can't understand where they got his information from.
"I feel terrible that my name was used to commit a crime," Willis said. "I do not want my name used like that."
Smith's Western Union customer service representative Stacy Cave said she sees scams all the time, and each time an employee thinks a customer may be a victim of a scam, they attempt to talk the customer out of sending the money. They don't always listen, though.
Schneider, who describes herself as a devout Christian, said she is a trusting person. In fact, she said her whole generation is trusting, which makes it hard to identify liars and avoid scams.
"If people lived through World War II, more people would understand the sacrifices we made and the love we had for each other," Schneider said. "We had to trust each other to survive."