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Robbery without shame


6/18/2010

By ERIN MATHEWS

Salina Journal

When they look in their garage, there’s no new Mercedes-Benz.

Their bank accounts — far from containing the promised riches — are now substantially smaller and no longer within their control.

But the daughter of an elderly Salina couple says she knows if the scam artist who bilked her parents out of an estimated $150,000 could get hold of them tomorrow, they could probably be convinced to send him more money.

“I know if he could reach them right now it wouldn’t take much for them to fall back into the cycle,” she said. “He could convince them in a matter of time that one more payment would do it. It would have come true, and they would prove everybody wrong.”

The Salina Journal agreed not to name the couple because the man refused to report the crime if his name would be printed in the paper. The man also declined to be interviewed for this story for fear his identity would become apparent. The couple reported this scam to police May 14.

Salina Deputy Police Chief Carson Mansfield said it was his hope that police might be able to help the couple retrieve some of their money, which had been sent to locations within the United States.

During the investigation that followed, Salina police sought the aid of various federal agencies and the Austin, Texas, police department, in an attempt to retrieve what they could of the couple’s life savings. Along the way, they found more scam victims who had sent nearly $500,000 through the same channels, Mansfield said.

No money recovered

Unfortunately, Mansfield said Thursday, police discovered the money had been immediately wired to Jamaica. Although police are working with authorities there, he said there is little chance of any of the money being retrieved.

The couple’s 56-year-old daughter took multiple steps to end the con man’s control over her parents, who are in their 80s. She got power of attorney over their financial affairs, changed the phone number they’d had for 55 years, closed bank accounts and took away their checks. Now they each receive a debit card loaded with $200 to pay for incidentals, she said.

“I can’t be there 24-7,” she said. “I can only hope we’ve gone far enough.”

She said she discovered the scam in time to prevent her parents from losing their house.

“I’m sure if it had continued, they would have gotten there,” she said.

A call with exciting news

It started in January with a phone call from a man who had some exciting news. The Salina woman in her 80s was told she’d just won a Las Vegas MasterCard drawing and would be receiving a new Mercedes-Benz and $2.5 million tax free.

There were just a few small matters she would need to take care of before that car and fabulous wealth were hers, she was told. The woman, who had recently experienced health problems, knew she couldn’t comply with the man’s requests and was about to hang up when her husband took the call.

“Now he sometimes says if I had just not come home at that moment, we wouldn’t be in the predicament we’re in,” his daughter said.

Within 15 days, the couple had made wire transfers almost every single day, sending off thousands of dollars supposedly needed to pay customs charges, taxes, insurance, vehicle storage and other fees. Eventually, they were sending off boxes of cash to cover checks they’d already sent that supposedly couldn’t be cashed. (They already had been, their daughter said.)

At Salina banks and grocery stores, where the man went to arrange the wire transfers or withdraw money he was frequently asked if he was sure about the transaction and knew the person he was paying.

The man told different stories — that he was paying for a new roof, paying off his mortgage or paying some bills — so as not to reveal the big prize he was expecting. His “agent” on the phone had told him it should remain completely secret until the big announcement, his daughter said.

The couple was contacted repeatedly by phone and told they needed to send more money between Jan. 1 and May 14, when the police report was made.

The daughter discovers

Their daughter said she discovered the scam during a visit to her parent’s house when she overheard a phone call about a package not arriving when expected. After some questioning, her mother eventually told her the package contained $5,000 in cash. Actually, the box was stuffed with $7,500 in cash, the daughter said she found out later.

With the help of police, the size of the loss began to become apparent. The man had sold stocks, cashed in IRAs and borrowed against CDs — in some cases more than they were worth — to satisfy the scammer’s demands, depleting the couple’s life savings. They sent cashier’s checks, personal checks, wire transfers, and by the end were shipping boxes of thousands in cash, their daughter said.

“He was constantly asking them ‘What are you going to do with the money? Have you thought about that?’ to get them dreaming,” she said. “They put their whole life on hold. They sat at home waiting for the phone to ring.”

The man appealed to her parents with enticing details — for instance, that their winnings would arrive in cash in five bags accompanied by federal marshals. And he seemed thoughtful, often offering to take care of half their bills personally if they could foot the rest of it, she said. He also promised to buy special gifts from him personally that he would place in the glove box of the Mercedes.

They trusted him

“They’ve never met this person, but they trusted him with everything,” she said. “In one of the phone calls we recorded they told him they loved him, and he said he loved them as well.”

The man also used ploys to convince the couple that he was looking out for their best interests. One time, after he had convinced them to send him a signed, blank personal check, he called them back and told them to put a stop payment on it. There had been a break-in at his office, he said, and he feared the check had been stolen.

The couple were relieved when the check, which had been written for $25,000, was rejected by their bank.

He’d been a banker

A long-time Salina resident with years of experience in the banking industry, the man who was scammed is the last person anyone who knows him would think could fall for such a thing, his daughter said.

“When he was in banking, he did a lot of business on a handshake and a promise, and this person promised,” his daughter said. “He befriended them. Every time he called, he’d say, ‘Hi Grandma and Grandpa.’ He knew when her hair appointments were and what nights they would go out to dinner with friends.

“These people are so convincing and so good, they build up trust,” she said. Now she recommends to anyone who cares about an elderly person that they speak about scams and how they can be taken advantage of.

“Don’t assume they’re smarter than that,” she said. “These people will take whatever they can get, whether it’s in increments of a hundred or a thousand. They will never, ever stop calling. That’s scary too.

“As long as you can still go to your hair appointment and still go out to eat with your friends, you still have money, and they will still try to get it.”

They’ll take every penny

Mansfield agreed.

“What I want to get across is how good these scammers are,” he said. “This is these people’s full-time job. They’ve risen to the top by being very, very good at what they do.

“Even with their daughter and the police department telling this couple this was a scam, they didn’t believe it. They were still in touch with them by phone.”

Mansfield said people need to remember that legitimate prizes are given without the expectation of payment of any kind from the recipient.

“If you really win something, you’re not ever going to have to send money for it,” he said.

n Reporter Erin Mathews can be reached at 822-1415 or by e-mail at [email protected]






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