The Ozaukee County Sheriff's office has encouraged residents to warn their elderly friends and loved ones about phone scams after a 79-year-old town of Grafton woman was scammed out of $5,000 earlier this month.
"It's unbelievable that people will prey on the elderly like this and scam them out of money they worked hard for," said Lt. Wayne Lambrecht of the sheriff's office.
Lambrecht said his office receives about two reports of phone scams each month, but lately the crimes have been on the rise, which is why law enforcement authorities have turned to social media and other means to educate the public. In a post to its Facebook page Aug. 19, the sheriff's department posted this plea: "Please! Protect your elderly. Talk to them about this scam. Come up with a family (pass code) that can be given in times of crisis to know the callers identity."
About the scam
The town of Grafton woman, who didn't want to be named publicly, has turned to law enforcement for help in spreading her story so that others don't suffer the same consequences.
According to officials, the woman received a phone call from someone who sounded "identical" to her grandson. The suspect told the woman he had struck a parked vehicle in Las Vegas, causing damage to both his rental car and another vehicle. The suspect asked the woman for $2,000 to cover the damage to his rental car and instructed her to put the money on a gift card.
The woman complied and told authorities the suspect knew "all the right answers" when she questioned him about his identity. It's common for these suspects to do research on their victims so that they're prepared if they ever are challenged, Lambrecht said.
The suspect contacted the woman again; the second time he asked for an additional $3,000 to pay for damage done to the other vehicle in the accident. The woman, again, sent the money using gift cards.
A few days later, the woman was contacted a third time. The suspect asked for $5,000. The woman wrote a check and when she went to the bank to cash it, the teller warned her that it could be a possible scam and advised her not to send any more money and call police.
Banks are fully aware of these sorts of scams, Lambrecht said, and bank employees often warn customers of the possible scams. Of course, he said, a bank would never refuse a withdrawal, but they do try to look out for the best interest of their customers, he said.
Police were informed of the incident Aug. 15.
When the suspect contacted the woman again, looking for more gift card numbers (serial numbers from the gift cards are relayed by phone to the scammers for their use at stores), a sheriff's deputy was on scene and listened in on the phone conversation. The suspect threatened the woman and said if he didn't receive the money immediately, he would be arrested. The deputy spoke to the suspect directly, who then questioned the deputy's credentials. The suspect ended the phone call in frustration.
It's unclear where the suspect called from, even though he said he was in Las Vegas, Lambrecht said. The suspect never left a callback number; they always contacted the woman first.
Out of luck
Since the woman's money was spent on gift cards, it is non-refundable, according to the sheriff's office. The woman's credit card company declined her reimbursement request for fraudulent charges. The woman's real grandson was found to be safe and not involved in the incident.
"They're taking advantage of elderly individuals who are concerned about their family member," Lambrecht said.
Director of the Aging and Disability Resource Center of Ozaukee County Michelle Pike said her office is aware of the problem and routinely includes guidelines in its quarterly newsletter that warns senior citizens about the scams. She said one reason why the demographic is targeted is because they're simply at home.
"They're home, they answer their phones and often they're too polite to hang up the phone," she said.
Pike added that since some of the elderly population is on a fixed income, they are more likely to believe a scammer who calls claiming to be from the Internal Revenue Service and asks for money, another common scam.
"They grew up in an era where people didn't steal from others," she said. "It's hard to try and teach them that the world is very, very different now."
Pike said the center tells senior citizens that if they receive a call from someone asking for a social security number, bank account, or payments, they should ask for a call back number and inform the caller they will be in touch once they verify the situation.