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Telephone scammers targeting seniors Wilson woman loses $5,600 for 'bail'

When a recent caller asked an 83-year-old Wilson woman to guess who was on the other end of the phone, she said it was her grandson.

The caller told her she was right.

It cost her $5,600 before she figured out she wasn't.

That was the money she spent to bail her grandson out of jail in Montreal after talking to a second caller who told her he was a police officer.

She might have lost more but caught on to the scam before wiring another $5,500 to hire a lawyer to handle the fictional criminal case.

"I'm just so embarrassed. Now I can think of all sorts of things I should have said," the woman told The Buffalo News last week. "But that morning I would have sworn on a stack of Bibles that was my grandson. It sounded just like him."

Such grandma and grandpa scams are not new, but State Police have asked senior citizens -- and others -- to be on guard after several similar cases have been reported recently in Erie and Niagara counties.

The grandmother told her story on the condition that her name not be used, to protect her privacy and prevent her from being targeted again.

Those making the calls are targeting seniors, said State Police Investigator Thomas Gibbons, who is among those trying to crack the case.

They're very cunning, Gibbons added. "They keep [the conversation] broad and let people fill in the blanks," he said.

They also appear to be using the Internet to do background research on their victims, Gibbons said, and money wire services to siphon money away from their victims.

The Wilson grandmother and her husband believe their scammers may have been "casing" their phone for several weeks, because someone kept calling and hanging up whenever the answering machine picked up.

The woman got the fateful call Sept. 3, as she was heading out the door to go shopping. About 9 a.m., someone called and hung up on her, but then called again and said, "Do you know who this is?"

She said it sounded just like her 28-year-old grandson, who lives in Lockport.

The caller said she was right. "Gram, I have a secret," he said. "I know I can trust you. I'm in some trouble here in Canada. I'm here in Montreal, Quebec, with two friends and one of my friends was carrying some dope and we are all in jail, and I can get out if I have some bail money."

Similar grandma scams ask for money to get out of jail after a drunken-driving offense, or to cover insurance costs after a crash.

The same morning, she was asked to talk to a Sgt. Brauer, who gave her instructions on how to get her grandson out of jail.

Gibbons said the "fictitious Sgt. Brauer" said to send $5,600, breaking it up via Western Union and a MoneyGram.

The grandmother said it took her and her husband until 4 p.m. to get a loan from a bank and then call back with the verification numbers. They were then told to send the money to the United Kingdom. She said she's not sure why she didn't question sending it overseas. She just did it.

"The police" told the grandmother the couple would have to wait until the next day to hear from their grandson. Next morning, they called to say they had "great news." The grandson could take care of the charges because there was a special court hearing that day. The grandmother was asked for more money for an attorney. The caller wanted another $5,500, and the couple's credit card number.

"I told them I didn't have a charge card and they were surprised and asked me to wire more money, but I should have thought, I already paid bail," she said. "Instead, I said, 'I'll try.' "

It was then that she decided to break the secret.

She walked across the street to her son's house to ask for help for the attorney -- and there was her grandson, who happened to be visiting.

"I was more shocked when I saw him walking across the yard than when I heard he was in jail," the grandmother said. "I started feeling him all over and said, 'Oh my god, how did you get out of jail?' He thought I was off my rocker."

Then the pieces of the horrible ruse started to fall into place.

The scam has been around for years, Gibbons said, but has resurfaced lately, and is being reported coast to coast. The accounts are similar. Montreal also has popped up in other cases. Police have said they are unsure how the criminals are getting the names of seniors.

Gibbons said law enforcement agents are investigating the case in Niagara County and three or four similar cases in Erie County. The U.S. Secret Service also is involved.

"We've put a request in to Interpol. The money was actually picked up in London, and we are dealing with [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] out of Canada, since a lot of these scams originate out of Canada," Gibbons said.
Interpol is the world's largest international police organization, with 187 member countries.

Gibbons said the latest cases serve as a warning.

"We just want people to be aware because people are still falling victim to this," he said. "There's no way to get them their money back and this woman is still responsible for a $6,000 personal loan, with interest."

Gibbons said the tough part of a case like this is that a sweet elderly lady just got duped by people who prey on people's emotions.

The grandmother sees a silver lining -- but also has learned a valuable lesson.

"The trooper told my grandson, 'Now you know how far your grandmother will go for you,' " she said. "But I said, 'No more secrets.' "

e-mail: nfischer@buffnews.com

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