Local residents continue to fall prey to phone fraud
JANESVILLE The phone call rattled Eileen Meredith.
The Evansville woman was so shaken that she was at her bank within an hour Tuesday morning, a $3,800 withdrawal sitting in front of her.
Meredith's next stop was going to be Walmart, where she planned to buy and send a MoneyGram—an online money transfer—that would free her grandson from the custody of Mexican officials.
"It all sounded so real," Meredith said. "They were so convincing."
But "they" were crooks running a common phone scam that hooks victims with a surprising amount of personal information and any one of several scenarios that typically involve a relative in custody in a foreign land.
Between the first call from the scammers and her planned trip to Walmart, Meredith learned that her grandson Brad was not in a Mexican jail. Instead, he was taking a biology exam at UW-Rock County.
"The whole thing sounded so crazy that I thought it had to be a scam, but then I thought, 'What if they really do have him in a Mexican jail?'" Meredith said.
She isn't the only area victim, said Lt. Jay Koehler of the Evansville Police Department.
"It's usually either calls like this one or mail or emails about people inheriting large sums of money," Koehler said. "If people do send money, it's so hard to track and recover once it leaves the country."
A 90-year-old woman reported to Janesville police last week that she wired $2,000 to "someone" to free her grandson from a Mexican jail. She later learned her grandson was safe and nowhere near Mexico.
Janesville Police Lt. Keith Lawver said his department has received similar reports.
"These people are very good at what they're doing," Lawver said. "They know what they're doing, and they've practiced and prepared very well.
"They do it all the time, and no matter what kind of response you have for them, they have a reply."
Meredith said her call involved a conversation with someone who said he was her 19-year-old grandson.
"He was crying, and it really did sound like him," Meredith said.
She was told her grandson had flown to Mexico to attend a friend's funeral. Somewhere along the line, he accepted a ride from someone who was subsequently pulled over and arrested for having drugs in the vehicle.
The story got crazier when Meredith was told that her grandson and the other person needed to be flown to Haiti, where the grandson supposedly could fill in Haitian authorities on the activities of the other person, the one police really were interested in.
"It sounded like with the drugs, they were gonna nail them to the wall," Meredith said. "They said Brad was cooperating, and they believed his innocence, but they needed to fly both of them to Port-au-Prince where he would tell them what he knew and then come home."
After sniffing out the scam and talking with her grandson, Meredith was ready when the scammer called back to get the receipt number for the MoneyGram.
"At first I said I didn't have it, but then I said 'I think this is a scam, and I'm going to go to the newspapers and TV stations and the police,'" she said. "He hung up real fast.
"I'm just so angry. I want these people shut down."
Lawver said that's difficult—if not impossible—because the scammers are in foreign countries and money is leaving the United States.
Consumer protection officials say the scams are becoming more common as scammers are able to pick up personal information from Internet and social media sites that make their calls more compelling.
"People really have to be on their toes because there's so much information that's available," Lawver said. "If people get these calls, they need to ask a lot of questions and make follow-up calls to other people."
Lawver said the police department has worked with businesses that handle international wire transfers to help them educate people who might be scam victims.
"That's worked, and they've helped turn people away from the scam," he said. "In the case of the 90-year-old woman, she was told by several people not to send the money, but she kept at it until she found someone who would send it for her."
Sandy Chalmers, administrator of the state Division of Trade and Consumer Protection, said the scammers typically target the elderly, who often have cash readily available and who sometimes have difficulty hearing.
The scammers posing as grandchildren often ask the grandparents not to involve the parents, primarily because a drug or alcohol offense is the ruse for the supposed arrest, she said.
"They really prey on that emotional connection between a grandparent and a grandchild, and the grandparent wants to spring into action," Chalmers said. "Any time someone asks you to wire money, stop right there and check with other family members first."