By SHANNON WATKINS
Most of us have a fierce instinct to protect and help our loved ones, especially close family members, no matter the cost. It’s this impulse that holds us together when danger threatens, and it’s that same impulse that some thieves use to scam people out of their money.
Virginia Jessie is a Pulaski town resident who knows about scams; she’s gotten plenty of suspicious phone calls over the years. She says she always hangs up on them. About a month ago, however, she fell prey to a scam that Virginia Bureau of Criminal Investigation officer B. Russell Edwards says, “is one that’s up and coming.”
Jessie says she received a series of phone calls in July. “The first one was my grandson, Jason, and he said he was in serious trouble and he needed money,” she says. “He had been up north (Michigan) where he has a cabin, and he was coming home. The police had stopped him and given him a Breathalyzer.”
He told her the police said he ran a stoplight, but he claimed he didn’t, and that he hadn’t been drinking. “He said, ‘They’re taking me to jail. I need $5,000 for bail,’” Jessie recalls. She says he told her he already had a lawyer.
His lawyer came on the phone and said for her to send the money to an address in California. When she asked him why she should send it there when her grandson was being held in Michigan, the lawyer said it was his firm’s corporate office. The next day, the lawyer called back and said there was a problem. He told her to mail in cash by general delivery, tucked into a birthday card to get around federal regulations about shipping cash.
The next day the lawyer called and asked for more money. He informed Jessie that when the police impounded her grandson’s car, they found over an ounce of marijuana, and consequently the bail went up. She was told she’d have to send another $30,000.
Jessie, worried, said she simply didn’t have the full amount. It turned out $15,000 was all she could manage. The lawyer said he and his associates would put up the money that she couldn’t, and that she should send what she could by wire to a Wells Fargo bank account.
It was at this point that suspicion began to overtake fear. “I asked him if this was a scam. He laughed and said ‘Well, you talked to your grandson, didn’t you?’ I thought it didn’t sound right.”
Confused but still concerned for Jason, she sent the money, and finally called her grandson at home later in the day, when she figured he’d been freed. “When he answered, I asked, ‘Why didn’t you call me when you got out of jail?’ He said, ‘Mawmaw, I wasn’t in jail.’ That’s when I knew it was a scam.”
The scam, which relies on panic and familial affection to overtake critical thinking, was successful. By the time she was able to stop and consider the situation fully, Jessie was out $20,000.
“At first I felt like I’d been took, had, which I had been,” she says. “Then I felt like it was my fault. But I thought it was my grandson (who called). Everything he said fit into place.” Nobody is certain who made the call or how the caller was able to manage such close vocal mimicry.
“They knew all about my grandson. They knew he had a cabin, the whole nine yards,” she says. “I don’t know how they found out so much about him.”
“I believe that the guy that called Ms. Jessie got her grandson’s information off of Facebook,” said Edwards of how he thought the scam worked. It was also successful as not only did the thief who called sound remarkably like her grandson, he also appealed to her sense of love and loyalty. “He said he was embarrassed about getting arrested and didn’t want her to tell the rest of the family,” noted Edwards.
Jessie says she later heard of people nearby, as well as in Ohio and Florida, getting taken by the same ploy. “I guess I wasn’t the only person who got scammed,” she said. “I felt really stupid.”
Her grandson said he would call his dad and tell him what happened to her. His father, Jessie’s son, then started a state investigation, which put her in touch with Edwards.
Edwards contacted her the following Friday, saying he thought the money she’d wired was sent to Germany. The Monday after that, he called and said he had great news for her: the bureau alerted Wells Fargo that Jessie’s money was going into a scam account, which they stopped payment on. She’d get $14,500 of her money back. (Edwards says she eventually got $ 14,950 back altogether.)
Unfortunately, the $5,000 cash appears untraceably gone. As for the chances of Jessie’s getting it back, “It’s not very likely,” said Edwards. “The $5,000 was mailed directly to a UPS store type-place. Being general delivery, it didn’t have to be signed for.”
“This one’s the first DUI scam I’ve had,” said Edwards. “I do know of a former judge in this are who was scammed the exact same way a few years ago.”
He continued, “The lottery scams, there’s quite a few of them. People call and say you won a car and some money, you just need to send $2,000 in processing fees. You just can’t trust sending any personal information or money to anyone you don’t know. Ms. Jessie’s very lucky that Wells Fargo reimbursed her and stopped payment on that account.”
While the information on this incident is available for the FBI to purse to Germany, it’s likely that they won’t, says Edwards. “To my knowledge, the FBI will not come in unless it’s several million dollars,” he says.
“It’s best not to give money to anyone you don’t know,” adds Edwards, on how to avoid being taken in by scams. “If you can’t verify it through the family members, I would not attempt to send any money to anyone you don’t know. I would suggest that when a family member calls from a strange phone, looking for money, tell them you’ll call them back on their phone.”
Of life after her encounter with the DUI scam, Jessie says, “I had my phone number changed and I feel much better about it. I always look at the phone to see who’s calling me. I still use my phone, I just screen my calls.”