The account below was written by Ruth Thomasian in June 2014 shortly after the scam took place. The name of the key person has been changed. Ruth sought publication of the account now as a warning for others in the time of COVID-19 when so many online scammers are at work.
The Phone call
It all began with a phone call for each of us—me and my 90-year-old friend Kay.
“Hi Ruth, can you take me down to Home Depot, right away?” There was urgency in Kay’s voice. “I need to get some gift cards, right away.”
“Well, gee, I guess so—but I’m sort of…” I paused, thinking of Kay, who rarely calls me for errands and now sounded desperate and depressed. So I said, “Sure, give me a few minutes.”
I wondered what kind of gift cards Kay needed to buy at Home Depot—maybe something for her nephew for Fathers Day tomorrow. When I arrived, she was very happy—well, actually relieved—to see me. Soon we were gathering her things to go on her errand—her pocket book, which she asked me to carry, and her walker, which I stashed in the back of my car. As we headed to Home Depot, I was still wondering about the gift cards, but I didn’t ask. I figured if she wants me to know, she’ll tell me. She asked me to leave her at the entrance of the store to avoid her having to walk over from the handicapped space. “I can’t walk all that way,” she moaned. So I set her up with her walker at the store entrance where she was going to wait for me. She left her pocketbook with me to carry.
However, I found her already in the store, heading towards the gift-card kiosk. Still carrying her pocketbook, I walked with her. Not being much of a gift-card buyer myself, I found this an interesting. It turned out that Kay wasn’t looking for any old kind of ‘gift card.’ What she really wanted, she told me, were what’s called “reloadable money cards,” which we found at the gift-card kiosk display. However these reloadable money cards all had the ‘Visa’ imprint on them, which Kay did not want. “No,” she said to me, “it can’t say ‘Visa’ on it. I was told not to buy that, and he said that Home Depot carried cards without ‘Visa’ on them.”
“Well,” I said to Kay, “since I don’t know anything about gift cards or money cards, let’s find a salesperson. The helpful salesperson talked with Kay, telling her that now Home Depot only carries Visa cards. Kay kept insisting, so the sales person offered to get the store manager, who, he said, could tell her more about these things.
While we waited, I asked Kay, “So who is telling you to buy these ‘non-Visa,’ reloadable cards?” She confided in a hushed tone that her nephew’s son was in jail and that a Boston police officer was working with her to get him out without his parents’ knowledge. She showed me the name of the officer on her scrap-paper note, along with the name of the type of cards she was supposed to purchase.
“Like bail money?” I ask.
“Yea, like that. And I can’t tell anyone, because if his father finds out, he’ll kill the kid.”
My response was, “Don’t you think that’s a little strange for a police officer to be in direct contact with you, his great auntie, in secret, to arrange for bail money to get him out? Just how is that supposed to work ‘in secret?’ Don’t you think you’re being intimidated?”
As I ask this, Kay removed an envelope from her pocketbook, and I saw that it was stuffed with cash. I advise her to put it back in her bag, and at the same time I told her that she was making herself very vulnerable carrying that amount of money in her bag, which would be so easy for someone to ‘rip and run’ from her.
In utter frustration she continued on about how she had already gotten two of her neighbors to take her to stores that were supposed to have the correct cards. Today these friends weren’t available to help her, so she called me. Lucky for Kay that she and I have a personal relationship, and that I am able to speak my mind with her. Whereas, evidently and quite understandably, her neighbors treated her request to take her to the store to buy gift cards as if it were like going to the corner store for a loaf of bread. As for myself, I had read the local newspaper police reports and warnings about scammers taking advantage of vulnerable senior. And, it turns out that Kay had already bought 8 of the wrong kind of $500 cards, with cash, and also had them in her pocket book, hoping she could exchange them, or get her money returned! Oh my God!
Shopping for Money Cards
Now the manager arrived, and began to explain the deal on “non-Visa reloadable cards.” “Yes,” she said, “we used to carry them, but we don’t any more because they proved to be risky—an open invitation for people to commit fraud.”
“Why then would he tell me to buy these here if you don’t carry them?” she demanded.
I, being taller than Kay, made eye contact with the store manager and mouthed, “Thank You.” to her, and then said to Kay, “I think we need to listen to what the manager is telling us about these cards someone has told you to buy. They sound very suspicious to me.”
Kay, in her determined way, kept insisting that’s what she was told to buy. The store manager was very patient, but after her third calm repeat of the whys and wherefores, I thanked her for her time, and ushered the very frustrated Kay out of the store, saying, “They simply don’t have what you’re asking for, and besides, it’s nearing 5 o’clock when you said this person is going to be calling you again. We should probably get you home.”
Shortly after we got back home, the phone rang. It was ‘the voice.’ Kay had the phone on ‘speaker,’ and I heard ‘the voice’ ask, “Is anyone with you?” I motioned Kay to say “No!” When he asked if she had the Visa cards, she told him in her very forceful and frustrated voice that Home Depot didn’t have them. “Where am I supposed to buy them?” she demanded. She really wanted to get her nephew out of jail. By now the scammer was getting exasperated with her. “You now must go to Walmart,” he tells her and at the same time asks her where the nearest Walmart is. Interesting, I think, that he doesn’t know where it is that he’s telling her to go. She was about to ask me where it was, and I again motion to her with a finger across my lips. So she looks Walmart up in her phone book, can’t find it, and says so to ‘the voice.’ He tells her he will call her back at 7pm with a plan.
Before she hangs up, she asks ‘the voice’ about her nephew’s well being. ‘The voice’ assures her that he is still in jail but OK—“alone in a holding cell reading a book.” Kay is relieved to hear that and hangs up the phone.
I sit next to her on the sofa and start in again on the scam issue. I am persistent. I realize that she has swallowed ‘the voice’s’ story, hook, line, and sinker. I hammer away: “Don’t you understand that the clues you are giving me are a scam? Police officers don’t get involved with bail-bond money. It’s unethical, unprofessional, a conflict of interest, a form of intimidation, and immoral to say the least. You give money to this ‘police officer’ and I can assure you, you will never see it again.”
Kay responds with, “Well, he hasn’t told me yet how I’m going to get it to him. He won’t come to the house for it, and he doesn’t want cash. He wants the non-Visa cards, but I still don’t know where to buy them, and how I’m going to get them to him.”
I understood that nothing I had said to her set off any alarms in her head. All that she can remember are the instructions she is unable to follow. Then she showed me her handwritten notes from her phone conversations with ‘the voice’ and points to the police officer’s name—Sgt. John Jameson—and two phone numbers. She said she had called the phone numbers but couldn’t understand what was being said. So I called the numbers. The female-recorded voice spoke en français, a little of which I could understand—like the word ‘massage’ along with a lot of numbers. I told Kay that it was a woman’s voice speaking in French. Kay asked me, as if I should know, why he would give her these phone numbers. I wondered why he would give her any phone number and if she was being charged for overseas phone calls.
I listened as she continued her rationalization for this not being a scam, and thought to myself, “This is something for the police to be dealing with, not me.” In my heart and mind, I knew this was an honest-to-goodness scam on an elderly person who, quite naturally, had great concern for her dear grand nephew’s welfare. She has been led to believe that he had gotten himself into some kind of trouble that was not his fault. In fact, Kay told me, her nephew had called her two days ago and said he was in jail. He had been driving with friends “when our car was pulled over, and drugs were found. But,” he told her, ”They were not my drugs. I don’t do drugs, but they still put me in jail.” He pleaded with her to deliver the money to get him out, and above all, to do it in secret. “Don’t tell anyone, Auntie,” he pleaded, “especially my father—he’ll kill me.”
This bit of news, that she actually had a phone call from her nephew, set a new tone to our conversation. It was pretty hard for me to sell this situation as a scam if she had spoken to her nephew in jail. She really believed he was in jail, and no amount of talk from me would convince her otherwise. Now she was his salvation, and could be helpful. The scammer had worked her emotions over. “If this is so,” I proposed trying to find a new angle to help open her eyes, “perhaps your nephew is in cahoots with a scam artist to get money out of you. Do you think this is something Timothy would do?” She said she really didn’t think so, but she knew he wouldn’t want his father to find out he was in jail—that would be the end of him.
Consulting with Police
To me, all the clues certainly added up to ‘scam’ but I couldn’t figure out how it was a scam if Kay had actually talked with her nephew. I knew I couldn’t allow this to continue without counsel from the police. So I told Kay that this had been going on for too long—now in its third day—and that it was time to call the police and ask for their help. “No,” Kay pleaded, “I can’t have them come here.” Thinking fast, I propose that I go back to my house to call the police and ask the dispatcher to have an officer come and talk with me there. Kay said that would be OK. I had half an hour to accomplish this before Kay’s next scheduled phone call. I wanted to be with her when ‘the voice’ called back.
In 5 minutes I was home and called the police dispatcher to explain the situation. In another 5 minutes, which seemed like 5 hours, a police officer was at my door. I sat with a notebook in my lap and a pencil ready to write down his suggestions. He listened as I explain, and agreed 100% that this was, indeed, a scam. He advised that Kay not answer the phone for several days and that she actually change her phone number, neither of which sounded very practical for a 90yr old. He also suggested that she Google the “Do Not Call List” as a way to cut calls down in general—another impracticable suggestion since she knows nothing about the Internet or computers. By the time you’re 90 years old, nothing seems very practical. Everything takes more time and effort than ever before—time just evaporates into thin air.
The officer continued that unfortunately the police could do nothing about this type of illegal activity, for several reasons. First of all, technically, at this point no law had been broken, since it is not illegal to ask someone for money. A scam is not a scam until there has been a financial transaction. Additionally, these calls are perpetrated by thieves outside the USA, often as far away as Africa or as close as Haiti. So it is not an illegal activity within the local jurisdiction of the police. Neither is it an interstate issue for federal law enforcement agencies to handle.
Now with this understanding of the legal aspect of telephone scamming, I could see why the officer only offered me practical solutions. But he did ask if Kay herself had actually called her great nephew, which was the correct question for me to ask rather than, “Have you spoken with your great nephew?” Kay must herself call Timothy. The officer guaranteed me 100% that Timothy would answer his phone, that he was not in jail, and that he knew nothing of the scam.
Contemplating how hard it was going to be to convince Kay that Timothy was absolutely not in jail, I asked the officer about calling the Boston Police. “Would they tell us if her nephew was in jail?” The officer wasn’t sure what their protocol was for such phone requests, but encouraged me to make the call. He suggested telling them what was going on and why I needed to know. He asked me to keep him informed of our progress. In another five minutes I was back in my car and at Kay’s door.
The 7 o’clock call had not yet come through—it was another half hour before it did. I shared with Kay the officer’s information and suggestions. “Do not answer your phone” went over like a lead balloon, as did “Change your phone number.” Kay was dying to hear what ‘the voice’ was going to say this time, so she had every intention of answering the phone. Changing her number from the one she had had all her life and that all of her friends knew, just wasn’t going to work. When I told her that the officer gave me his 100% guarantee that Timothy was not in jail, she would not believe that the officer could possibly know Timothy was not in jail. How would he know?” Kay demanded.
“Because this is a scam, Kay ,” I said.
“No,” countered Kay, “I have spoken with Timothy, and he is in jail.”
“And how did that happen?” I asked. “Did you call him?”
“No, they put him on the phone.”
I suspected that since Kay is hard of hearing, it didn’t take much to make her think it was actually Timothy on the other end of the line. And she had probably revealed his name to the scammer, by excitedly asking something like, “Is that you, Timothy?”
“Well, you need to call him,” I said.
“OK, we’ll do that after we get ‘the call,’ Kay said.
‘The call’ came one-half hour late—I imagined that this was one of 1,000 calls ‘the voice,’ in some far off place, had to make each and every day. In fact, there was that pause of a few seconds, typical of a computer-generated telemarketing-type call, before the voice asked, “Can you hear me?” Immediately, with his nondescript American accent, he demanded of Kay, “Are you alone? Is anyone with you?” I motion to her to say, “No.”
Immediately he started the intimidation. “Did you get the cards?’ And she in frustration, raised her voice and defiantly said, “No, Home Depot does not carry the ‘No Name’ cards you told me to buy! Where am I supposed to get them?”
‘The voice’ sent her to the phone book, to find Walmart—Kay had no idea where there was a nearby Walmart, and neither did I. She finally gave up in frustration and demanded what his plans were for her nephew. “How is my Timothy?”
The answer was the same, “He is comfortable in his holding cell, reading a book.”
Kay continued her questioning, “And tell me how am I going to get these cards to you?” He keeps stringing her along, “I will call you tomorrow morning with a plan.” Click. Kay’s sigh was of exasperation, not relief. “When is this going to end,” she demanded of the air?
Again, I told her that the police officer advised that she not answer the phone—a hard thing for her to do. I also told her the officer was actually surprised the scammer continued to call, because Kay was not an easy take and really too much trouble. She asked too many questions and was not easily intimidated, although it is obvious to me that she has fallen into the scammer’s trap of emotional vulnerability. She was distraught about her nephew being in jail and depressed with her inability to help him. In spite of this, the law of diminishing returns was now working in Kay’s favor, as the clock ticked closer to day four.
Once Kay got off the phone, I urged her to call her great nephew on his cell phone. “But he is in jail,” she protested. “He won’t have his cell phone.”
“That is exactly why you are going to call him. Because the police officer guarantees you 100% that Timothy is not in jail. Now we are going to test that out.”
“But how does the officer know that?” Kay demanded again, in absolute disbelief of everything opposite what the scammer has put in her brain.
“OK, then,” I suggested, “let’s call the Boston Police, and ask if they are holding Timothy.” She agreed to let me do this.
The Boston Police were very cooperative even on this late Saturday evening. I explained the scam situation, and the dispatcher connected me with the jail. I gave the name of the person we were looking for, and it came up negative. No such name was on the incarceration list. I breathed a sigh of relief, and was glad for the speakerphone, allowing Kay to hear this herself.
“Now what do we do?” she asked myself.
“So, you need to call Timothy on his cell phone.” Unfortunately, he did not answer, so I told her to leave a message. Then I ask her to give a call to Timothy’s brother to see if he knew of his whereabouts. And sure enough, his brother said Timothy had been busy all day helping a friend move. “Yes, he is fine.”
Kay asked this nephew to have Timothy give her a call. In another 20 minutes, Kay was speaking with Timothy. I suggested that Kay hang up and call him back so that she would know it really was Timothy on the other end of the line. Kay was overcome with relief at the sound of his voice assuring her that he was not being held against his will. And at the same time, she was overcome by her sense of utter helplessness as the target of a scam. She was reduced to speechlessness.
Fathers Day Sunday was the fourth day of this scam-in-progress. Kay’s nephew and his two sons had planned to pick Kay up and take her out for lunch. Now Timothy took charge of the situation and contacted the Watertown Police himself. Father’s Day Sunday morning an officer met with them at Kay’s home, and wouldn’t you know, the scammer called. When he asked if she was alone, the police officer took the phone, identified himself, and told the caller to stop calling.
Even the presence of Timothy with his family around her, and the police officer, did not convince Kay that Timothy was really safe. It took days of continued conversation with Kay for her to feel less vulnerable to ‘the voice,’ far off in the distance, that had controlled her for four days.
Recovering the Funds
And that was not the end of it. She had eight $500 Visa Reloadable money cards to deal with. Since her nephew and grand nephews lived an hour away, I helped Kay deal with the bureaucracy of corporate America. Home Depot had already told her that they could not refund the purchase price because they had no control of the money, which had gone directly to Visa and not through Home Depot’s systems. They offered no suggestions as to how to proceed other than “Spend them yourself.”
So, I suggested we try Kay’s bank to see if they would treat the cards as cash and simply deposit them in her checking account. That turned out to be another dead end since her bank—a community bank—had no transaction ability on such cards. They suggested trying a commercial bank, which I did, but to no avail. Wherever I turned, I was told that you have to spend down the cards on ‘product,’ and in stores that deal with Visa Reloadable Cards. This was turning into a never-ending game of “Now I got cha!” For a 90-year-old senior, who neither drives nor shops, and can hardly walk, these Visa cards were unusable.
I called the Watertown Police Community Division to consult with them on this angle, to see if I could get their police report to help substantiate Kay’s claim regarding a scam. Turns out that even though there was a case number, there was no written report made because no “crime” had been committed. As we’d heard before, a scam is not a scam until money has actually exchanged hands. Only then does it become a crime for which the police write up a report. Here we go again!
But as I was talking with the community-policing officer, his use of the word ‘fraud’ reminded me that my nephew was a fraud investigator for American Express. I mentioned this to the officer, and he thought I should definitely consult with my nephew about retrieving the purchase price of the cards. And indeed, my nephew gave me what seemed like the perfect answer: File a complaint with the Federal Consumer Financial Agency.
I Googled it and discovered that it was relatively new—established in 2011 by Harvard University Prof. Elizabeth Warren (now Massachusetts U.S. Senator). She went to Congress advocating for consumer affairs and actually testified as to the importance of having such an agency deal with corporate issues that were generally beyond the reach of the average consumer. That sounded to me like Kay! So I proceeded to write up the complaint to submit on the agency’s web site, consulting with Kay to make sure I was including the correct info and all the aspects of it that were important to her. I sent it off and received a follow-up email receipt with a claim number, saying we would hear back from them in not more that two weeks.
Their eventual response was a big disappointment. This agency that promises to help consumers deal with corporate America on fiscal matters informed us of the two possible reasons they were unable to help us: 1. either we had not given enough information like the name of the vendor, or 2. the issue we described is not within their jurisdiction. And it turned out, there was no possibility of communicating with a real person over the phone.
With this discouraging response, I decided to consult with customer relations at Kay’s bank, which is very customer-oriented. My big question was, How should we proceed. What are we overlooking? Customer service suggested that we call Visa customer service directly and discuss it with them. Unfortunately, by this time Kay was hospitalized with pneumonia, and I had no access to her cards. Visa’s offshore customer service rep was curt with me, insisting that she could not talk with me without the card numbers, and cut off the phone call.
In the end, Kay exchanged the cards with her nephew for their cash value, and he spent them down. Now six years later seniors are still being scammed, and reloadable money cards still exist.
Scammer Fact Sheet
- A scam is not a scam until money has been transferred by the victim to the perpetrator.
- A caller asking for money is not a prosecutable offense. Anyone can ask for money. But as soon as the money has been taken by someone through fraudulent means, such as misrepresentation, intimidation, or force, it is a prosecutable offense.
- Local police are unable to stop these phone scammers because the scammers call from outside USA borders in foreign countries, often as close as Haiti or as distant as countries in Africa. The person calling speaks very standard American English, so the victim assumes the caller is local. While this sense of localness does add to the fear factor, local police are powerless to stop the offshore perpetrators. But the local police will help you determine if something is a potential scam, and the police actually welcome these calls so that they can track rate of incidence and types of attempted fraud. The police do put advisories and warnings on their websites and in community newspapers.
- Scammers prey on the elderly because they are ‘easy.’ Their emotions are tender, and they believe whatever someone is telling them about a loved one in need of their help.
- Often seniors have poor hearing and are unable to distinguish voices, so the scammer is able to pull ‘a fast one’ and make the senior think it’s their relative speaking to them on the phone.
- Any form of intimidation over the phone should be regarded with suspicion. Call your police and ask the dispatcher (usually the person who answers the phone) to have an officer call you for a consultation regarding your situation, either over the phone or in person. It is also a good idea to have a trusted friend with you when you have this consultation so that two sets of ears and brains hear and understand what the officer recommends.
Scam Tip-Off List
- Caller asks: Are you alone? Is anybody with you?
- Caller instructs: “You mustn’t tell anyone—he/she [the victim] doesn’t want his parents to know. This is confidential. It must be kept secret.”
- Caller states: I don’t want cash, and I don’t want to come to your house to get it. You need to buy Reloadable Money Cards.
Victim To-Do List
- You, yourself, call the person who is supposed to be in danger. In a scamming situation you will find that that person is not in jail nor kidnapped as you have been led to believe. Hopefully your loved one answers the phone right away, but if that is not the case, call another family member to ask where he or she is.
- Never give out personal information like your Social Security number; your date of birth, your mother’s maiden name, or your address.
- DO NOT KEEP THIS A SECRET. You have been intimidated into believing that your loved one has been involved in a bad thing. It is extremely difficult to get that thought out of your head once the seed has been planted and your emotions have been stirred.
- Confide in people that you trust and ask for their help.
- DO NOT go it alone. Two brains are better than one.
- SIMPLY HANG UP. When you get the first call, HANG UP. When you get a second call, simply hang up. DO NOT get sucked into any kind of conversation. Report it to your police department.
- ASK FOR HELP, either from family, friends, or police, regarding any suspicious calls, if you suspect a scam. Family and friends will provide the support you need to stop this harassment. The police want to know of scam attempts so that they can track it and issue public warnings to prevent others being sucked into the scam labyrinth of intimidation, victimization, and fraudulent exchange of money.
DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE the ability of scam artists to emotionally traumatize you over the phone with a sense of urgency, safety for a loved one’s life, and a false sense of hope created by a transfer of money from you to them.
IT IS ALWAYS ABOUT THE TRANSFER OF MONEY, out of your pocket into theirs! Nothing else.
Ruth Thomasian is a resident of Watertown who cares deeply about community issues.