Homer woman taken in by 'grandparent scam'

Posted: Monday, March 22, 2010

It isn't new -- consumeraffairs.com lists the grandparent scam as one of the top 10 scams for 2006 -- but it's still effective. Just ask Jolee Ellis of Homer.

After receiving a phone call from someone who addressed her as "Aunt Jolee" and reported needing money to bail him out of jail in Canada, Ellis is $5,000 poorer. She's also smarter and eager to ensure others learn from her mistake.

"I'm embarrassed and I feel like an idiot, but that's not going to help anyone else," said Ellis. Of talking about her experience, she said, "The reason I'm doing this is because I don't want anyone else to get caught."

One morning last week, Ellis was at home when her phone rang.

"Hi, grandma," said the voice at the other end of the call.

Ellis, who has no grandchildren, assumed the call was for her sister, with whom she shares a residence. Ellis offered to give the caller the number where her sister could be reached.

"Well, actually, I guess I need to talk to you because I only get one phone call," said the young man.

As the story went, Ellis' grandnephew had gone fishing in Canada. While there, he picked up two hitchhikers. When law enforcement stopped him for having a light out on his vehicle, it was discovered one of the hitchhikers was in possession of cocaine and the other had three firearms.

"I'm really in a tough spot and I need some help. I need some money to bail me out," the caller told Ellis. "Then he turned me over to a sergeant so he could tell me how to get the money."

After being briefly disconnected, the phone rang and an individual identified himself as Sergeant Eric Matthews. After asking Ellis to verify her identity by confirming contact information, the caller offered to contact a bail bondsman to help Ellis pay for the bail, a sum of $7,500.

The caller stressed the need to pay the bail within four hours, as a bus would soon be transporting Ellis' grandnephew to another facility where he would be held until his case was tried, a time period estimated to be six months.

"By this time I was panicking," Ellis said.

Ellis was given detailed instructions to wire the money through Western Union. When she said she was uncertain if there was a Western Union in Homer, the caller assured her one was located at Safeway. He said there was a limit on how much could be sent in one day and she would have to wire the money in three separate transactions, two that day and one the following day. When Ellis questioned the London address he gave her, she was told the bail bondsman had three offices -- one in New York, one in Canada, one in London -- and the two people that owned the business were at the London location. She was directed to call as soon as the money was on its way.

"I told him it sounded like a scam. He said, 'If you feel that way, don't pay, but understand that your nephew will be going to jail and he'll be there for six months,' which panicked me some more," Ellis said.

Eager to help, Ellis withdrew $7,500 from the bank, went directly to Western Union and sent two wires of $2,500 each. She then called "Sgt. Matthews" to confirm the money was on its way. He said he would call once was the money had arrived.

When Ellis' sister returned home a short time later, the pieces of what was happening began falling into place. Phone calls to family in California, where the grandnephew lived, confirmed that he had, in fact, just left home, but it was to go to work, not to go fishing in Canada.

"That's when I realized it really and truly was a scam," Ellis said.

Calling the Homer Police Department, Ellis was directed to Sgt. Lary Kuhns.

"It was clearly out of our jurisdiction, and I called an associate at the FBI and he told me, 'Look, this is Canada. We have no jurisdiction in Canada,'" Kuhns said of the international twist to the story.

He gave Ellis the Web address for Internet Crime Complaint Center, www.ic3.gov. Kuhns also directed Ellis to research the area code of the contact number the callers had given her and then contact police in that particular jurisdiction. However, Ellis found the process for filing a complaint on the ICCC site confusing. Trying to track down the area code and contact police in Canada also was challenging, with Ellis never able to make contact anyone who could help.

"I'm sure it had to be frustrating on her part," Kuhns said.

The day after the phone calls, Ellis read an article by Sid Kirchheimer in the latest copy of the "AARP Bulletin" that detailed the grandparent scam.

"I thought, 'Oh my god, look at this. They got me,'" Ellis said of her response to the article.

In 2009, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police report American grandparents lost more than $4.5 million to the scam. In 2006, the TV program "Inside Edition" reported scammers had taken senior citizens for "hundreds and even thousands of dollars by posing as their grandchildren." An article by Consumer Affairs, also in 2006, quoted Dave Zampelli, a detective who tracked one case from Ohio to Canada as saying, "(The scammers) are very organized. They know what they're doing. They're cons. They're smooth talkers and daily they're persuading victims to wire them money."

When Ellis' third payment wasn't received, "Sgt. Matthews" called to ask if there was a problem. Ellis, who was between conversations with Kuhns at the time, fabricated a story about being questioned by Western Union. Kuhns later advised Ellis to not take any more calls. When she didn't answer her home phone, she received a call on her cell phone.

"I asked how he got my cell number and he said I gave it to him. The unsettling part is that I probably did. He had said he needed to get hold of me and could I give him the cell number," Ellis said. "I did all these stupid things because I was just frantic."

The calls have finally stopped.

As protection against scammers, Kirchheimer suggests:

* If a caller says, "It's your granddaughter," asking which one is sometimes enough for the caller to hang up.

* Confirming your grandchild's identity by saying you will return the call at his or her home or cell phone, but don't ask the caller for that number. If you don't have the numbers, get them from a trusted family member.

* Never provide bank or credit card account information to the caller.

* Beware of requests for money wires.

"Just like (Ronald) Regan said, trust, but verify," Kuhns said. "If somebody says they're a relative or friend and says they're hurting or need money or something, be as nice as you would be. It doesn't cost anything to be nice. Then, after you've hung up and got the information, call and verify that this person is who they say they are and in the situation they say they're in. That's the best advice I can give."

Kuhns also suggested just hanging up.

"Changes are, if it's not legitimate, they won't call back," he said.

Having learned her lesson the hard way, Ellis is hoping her experience will be helpful to others.

"It could happen to anybody," she said.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky.@homernews.com.

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