August 1, 2012

Maine Voices
A cautionary tale: Elderly man nearly falls prey to phone scammer

The quick thinking of a Western Union worker foils the plot. But many like it have been reported.

By Maj. William L. King Jr.

ALFRED - Last week, my elderly father narrowly escaped being victimized by a scam.

He got a telephone call from a man with a tropical island accent who identified himself as "Daniel Moore." Daniel told my father that his grandson was going to jail in the Dominican Republic if he didn't come up with $2,700. Daniel explained that my father's grandson had rented a vehicle while on vacation and was involved in a traffic accident that was his fault. My father was immediately shaken and while trying to identify which grandson offered the name "Joel."

Armed with this new information, Daniel played on my father's elevated emotional state. He said that Joel had been injured and needed to return home for medical care. But he couldn't leave until he pays the $2,700 for repairs to the vehicle he damaged, and his American insurance isn't any good in the Dominican Republic.

Daniel then gave the telephone to "Joel." The scammer posing as Joel verified that he had been in an accident and broke his nose (his reason for the voice change). Joel promised to pay his grandfather back and begged him not to tell anyone about their conversation. My father gave the imposter his word.

Daniel then instructed my father to wire $2,700 via Western Union to Maria Alicia Guzman-Abrew in Santiago, Dominican Republic. A career spent in a factory did not prepare my father to conduct wire transfers -- he never needed to know anything about them. But Daniel was prepared. He knew where my father lived and provided an address to the nearest Western Union store in South Portland. My father thanked Daniel.

For several hours my father rushed around town on what he considered an important mission. He went to the bank and withdrew the money as fast as he could -- he did not want his grandson spending any time in a Third World jail, especially since he was injured. He also wanted to honor his commitment not to notify anyone -- the arrangement was solely between him and his grandson, and "Joel" could count on him.

Because of his nervousness, he forgot the information he needed to send the wire transfer, so he had to make two trips to Western Union. On his second visit he explained to the clerk, Megen Tinz, what he needed to do.

Megen was skeptical even after my father explained that he had spoken with Joel. Megen suggested that she call Joel just to make sure. That meant another trip home to get Joel's phone number. Finally, Megen called Joel and learned that her hunch was right. The money was never sent. Nonetheless, my father's nerves were shattered. He broke down and wept.

The plot was foiled, but my father's sense of trust was shaken, and he felt vulnerable and foolish. Somebody from a foreign country tried to steal from him and was even brazen enough to call back later that day to see if the money had been sent.

This is a story that is too often repeated; our elderly are being victimized. Some of us may think that people who fall for these scams are stupid or naive. My father is neither. He ran a factory employing several hundred people during his working years. Now, at 86 years of age, he exercises daily, drives an automobile on the correct side of the road and manages his own checkbook. But as health-care professionals will tell you, the logical side of the brain deteriorates with age. A few years ago my father would never have entertained the scammer, let alone jumped through hoops of withdrawing money and sending it to a private individual in the Dominican Republic.

We are fortunate in Maine because we have companies that are using their resources to fight the scammers. Fairpoint Communications is a leader in warning our elderly about another insidious scam that preys on the elderly, the Jamaican lottery scam. Fairpoint established a website (www.bewareof 876.com) to warn people of calls coming from Jamaica's area code, 876.

Also, Chris Rose of WCSH Channel 6 did a three-part series on the Jamaican lottery scam, which included a "call-in" hour where law enforcement officials received more than 100 calls from people reporting scams.

Megen Tinz and her supervisor, Peter Desantis, at Western Union need to be acknowledged for their expertise and for going the extra step in identifying the scam and preventing another victim.

Maj. William L. King Jr. works in the York County Sheriff’s Office.

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