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International fraud scams local woman for $4,200

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Imagine getting a phone call and it’s a relative who needs help. Your loved one has been involved in a car accident in Peru and needs $4,200 to help pay for the damages. Sounds like the makings of a scam, right? But this person knows information that only this relative would know, and there is even a police officer on the other end that confirms everything is true.

But nothing about this story is fact, and now someone in Peru is $4,200 richer.

This story is exactly what happened to an 84-year-old woman from Polson. She wanted to remain unidentified, but she and her family hope by sharing their story it will save another individual from the same fate.

“My sister has a son who works for the railroads,” said the unidentified woman’s daughter, who said the scammer was posing as the elderly lady’s nephew. “He told her that he was in Peru for a friend’s wedding when the accident happened, and the best way she could help was to send money Western Union.”

Her “nephew” also told her not to call his mother because he would explain the situation to her later.

When the money needed to be sent in two transfers because of the large amount, she called her nephew’s phone, leaving a message. By the time her real nephew was able to call back, confused about the message his grandmother left him, it was too late; the money was already sent.

The next day, the con artist called back, asking for $2,700 more, but by that time the whole family had caught on to the scam.

The daughter said she contacted Western Union and the representative immediately recognized the scam.

“This sounds like a real common (scam),” said the daughter, who added that she thought Western Union employees should be more vigilant.

“Especially if they are elderly and they are sending money to Peru?” the daughter questioned. “(But) there’s really nothing that can be done.”

According to Detective Dan Yonkin with the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, there is really nothing that can be done to get the money back, but by sharing their experience, victims can warn others of this con.

The unidentified woman’s family quickly contacted law enforcement but Yonkin said unfortunately since the money left the country, local investigators have neither the jurisdiction nor the resources to investigate. The same is true with the majority of these types of cases, even at the federal level.

“They are very difficult to follow up and investigate,” Yonkin said. “And we never know who is the one picking up the money.”

Yonkin added that the initial phone call was made from Toronto, Canada, but the money was picked up in Peru.

“They are not wiring the money to Billings. It’s going to places like Miami or overseas,” he explained.

So how did the person on the other side of the phone know so much about this lady’s family? Yonkin said the answer is simple: the Internet.

“Oddly enough, they are able to produce enough information,” Yonkin said. “It’s reputable enough.”

“The unfortunate story is that whether we like it or not strangers are in our lives more than ever, not just in our community but the world community,” he continued. “Coming from a small community, we want to trust everyone and not think anyone would take advantage of us. The reality is that the outside world has access to us.”

Joanne Shaw, an in-house supervisor who also provides information and assistance for the elderly with the Lake County Council for Aging in Ronan said when scams like this are reported, an e-mail is sent out to clients, senior centers and banks. Shaw said family should communicate so grandparents know that their grandchildren or their children would never call and ask for money over the phone in such a manner.

“I’ve received emails a couple of times from people I knew from California who said they were stuck somewhere, their child was in trouble, and they needed money,” Shaw shared. “Never give out personal information or bank information over the phone.”

Yonkin said that a couple of years ago, he was getting a couple of complaints of fraud every week. Now he estimates he receives about one report a month.

“At one point it looked like an epidemic, but (con artists) still put their feelers out there to see if people will bite,” Yonkin added.

The problem is less today, and Yonkin credits this to banks holding funds or recognizing the signs of fraud if a customer suddenly takes out a lot of money. However, he said there is a fine line between policing and prying into people’s privacy.

“There are so many legit (Western Union) transactions that happen daily,” Yonkin said. “They are for personal reasons that people wire money all the time. It’s an issue of privacy.”

On the Western Union website, a section devoted to consumer fraud lists the common types of fraud and how people can protect themselves. There is also a fraud hotline to route complaints and share suspicious activity.

Unfortunately, Yonkin said once the money is sent, there really are no happy endings.

“Sometimes these stories defy logic, but (the victims) think they are helping out a family member,” Yonkin said.

“She went with her heart,” the victim’s daughter said of her mother’s actions. “It has made her very concerned, and now if there is a number she doesn’t know, she won’t answer it.”

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