By Pieter van Heil, staff
Jul 02, 2012 – 10:41 AM
It was the sort of phone call that every mother dreads. Last week, Linda Smith (not her real name) received a call from her son. He was crying and in pain. Through the tears, she heard him say he’d been injured in a crash.
“All I heard was this person crying, ‘Mum, mum, this is Tom. I’m hurt real bad, and I’m in jail,’” said Linda. “He was crying, just sobbing.”
Linda was concerned, but also confused. Her son said he was in Quebec, but was due to go for delicate back surgery, and should not have been driving that far. Had the accident further injured his back? And why did his voice sound not quite right? The person on the other end had a ready answer.
“He said, ‘Mum, my nose is broken, my face is all smashed up. I can only talk to you a few minutes, there is someone here who wants to talk to you,’” Linda said. The phone was turned over to a man identifying himself Walter Green, a lawyer. Green explained that Linda’s son had been arrested for drunk driving in Quebec. He had been injured in the crash, and needed bail money to be released. Linda was dubious about the story. Why was her son in Quebec? Why was his voice different? Why wasn’t he in hospital? The lawyer seemed to have a reasonable answer for her every question.
“They went out drinking and his buddies got so drunk they couldn’t drive. (He) got behind the wheel because he’d only had two beers. But he had an accident and the air bag went off and really, he said his face is really in bad shape and his nose is broken,” said Linda.
Green told her that he wanted to get her son out of jail as fast as possible, but neither her son nor his friends had the money for bail. He needed her to send $1,400 through Western Union. The sum increased as the conversation continued, with Green claiming Smith also had to cover a $300 service fee, and then $100 more for a private ambulance service back to Toronto. He made Linda swear secrecy, saying if she told Western Union the money was for bail she would be charged more service fees. He even forbade her to consult with her daughters, claiming client confidentiality.
“I kept questioning him, but every time I questioned him, he would come up with an answer,” said Linda. She went to the local Western Union, where she told the clerk the money was for a friend in financial need. The payment was a severe blow to her finances.
“I’m on a fixed income now my husband is gone. I watch every penny. I had to just about empty my bank account,” she said. On her way home, she stopped in at Clausen’s Towing in Grimsby to have her car serviced. The worry and anxiety over her son and her doubts about the situation spilled over. Noel Pendlebury of Clausen’s is a family friend, and he noticed that Linda seemed to be in distress.
“Thank God for Noel. My husband and I have known him since he was a little boy. I came in to get my car fixed and as soon as he saw me, he asked me what the matter was. As soon as I told him, he said ‘You’ve been scammed.’ He got on it right away,” said Linda.
Pendlebury knows the scam from previous experience. A relative had been taken in by it, and some of his other customers.
“Believe it or not, this was the second one this month I’ve stopped. I had another customer frantically talk to another staff member here, and they asked me what I thought. I told them, don’t pay it. It’s a scam,” he said. “It’s the third one I’ve heard of in Grimsby in the last two and half months. In the last two years, it’s number five I’ve heard of.”
Pendlebury contacted Western Union on Linda’s behalf. Once they heard the details of the transaction, they confirmed it was a fraud and managed to stop the money transfer. Linda was able to confirm with her daughters that her son was healthy and at home.
“If only I had called my daughters. My oldest daughter had been in touch with him, texting him all day,” she said. Linda admitted to feeling foolish that she had fallen for the scam. However, experts in fighting fraud say Linda has no reason to feel badly. She responded in good faith to a cry for help and fell victim to a plausible con artist.
“These guys are really good at what they do. You wonder how anyone could fall for it, but hindsight is always 20/20,” said Det. Sgt. Paul Spiridi, the head of the Niagara Regional Police’s fraud unit. “They’re well versed in what they are going to say to these people. Automatically the urgency gets their heart racing, and before they know it, the money is gone.”
Spiridi said seniors are often targeted. Con men can look up personal details about relatives on Facebook, or from newspaper articles and obituaries. No matter how plausible the story sounds, Spiridi said there are three clear warning signs that a call for help is a fraud.
“The secrecy of the call, asking for a money transfer, and the sense of urgency,” he said.
Western Union agents are trained to recognize bail scams, so victims are told to keep silent about their reason for sending the money. Keeping silent also prevents them from checking with other family members. Spiridi said the best thing to do is confirm the details of the call. No matter what the caller says, there is no hurry to send bail money.
“Take a rest. Even if the person really was arrested and they’re calling for help, take a few minutes, call around to verify, no matter what they ask. Call to verify where they are. The majority of the time it is going to be scam,” he said. “They make it sound urgent, but really, if it’s true, and they have been arrested, they aren’t going anywhere. It takes a while to process paperwork. It’s never do or die, you have time to take a look and verify the information.”