Concord Monitor - Officials warn of phone scam
Older people are targeted by callers
By Megan Doyle
/ Monitor staff
July 27, 2012
New Hampshire senior citizens are among the victims of a Jamaican telephone scam that has targeted elderly residents of several New England states over the past 10 years, resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Representatives from FairPoint Communications, the New Hampshire Attorney General's Office, AARP New Hampshire and law enforcement warned senior citizens of the scam yesterday at a senior center in Manchester. FairPoint Communications also launched a state-wide campaign to educate seniors about fraudulent calls with online resources and public service announcements.
The scam begins when elderly residents of New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont receive calls to congratulate them on winning the lottery and a new car. The scammers then ask the victim to send money for registration or processing fees, just a few hundred dollars until the millions in winnings can be delivered. They keep calling, asking for more money for fees and taxes on the prize. They warn the victims not to tell their families, saying they can plan to surprise their loved ones when the money arrives.
The individual losses have been as high as $750,000 in one case. FairPoint spokesman Jeff Nevins said in a phone interview that the scammers prey on older people, usually living alone.
The caller "can be somebody who's trying to befriend (the victim), trying to make them feel like they're in their court," Nevins said. "They empathize with them. . . . These people are lonely, so they are looking for somebody, if nothing else, to talk to."
Larry Caruso, security director at FairPoint, said the company's customers started reporting the fraudulent calls about four years ago, but the scam itself has been going on for about 10 years. In New Hampshire, FairPoint has so far received 100 complaints and identified 10 victims who actually lost money because of the scam.
Nevins said the actual number of victims is likely much higher than the number of reported incidents.
"It really puts the person in a significantly embarrassing position," Nevins said. "They don't want to tell anybody, they don't want their neighbors to know and they keep it to themselves. That's why we believe there's lots more of this going on."
The phone numbers might appear to be from a United States area code on a caller ID, but Nevins said FairPoint phone records trace the fraudulent calls to the Jamaican 876 area code.
Maine resident Kim Nichols said her 76-year-old father, Bill, a resident of West Ossipee, lost $85,000 as a victim of this scam. Nichols requested her father be only identified by his first name because he has received threatening letters from the scammers since cutting contact with them earlier this summer.
Nichols saw a news report about telephone scams in February and asked her father if he had ever received a similar call. She said he immediately went quiet, and then told her he had received a call just a few weeks earlier telling him he won a car and a large amount of money. Bill sent $500 to the caller to cover taxes and other fees on the prize, but he told his daughter he suspected a scam and got his money back.
When Nichols visited her father in March, she realized the scam had not ended as she thought.
"The phone was ringing off the hook for people asking him to mail money different places," Nichols said.
Her father often talked about a woman who identified herself as "Diane" and claimed to be a secretary for the company sending him the lottery winnings.
"She spent a lot of time gaining his trust and making him believe she cared about him, asking him what he was going to do with the money," Nichols said.
Nichols and her family intervened, changing his phone number and telling him the calls were fraudulent, but Bill continued to contact Diane and send money to her fake company. If he ever became suspicious or asked questions, Nichols said another scammer would call impersonating agents from the FBI, the IRS or even the Lottery Commission in Nevada, ready to assure him the deal was safe.
Several months and thousands of dollars later, Nichols and Caruso finally sat down with Bill to walk him through the story of another phone scam victim. When Bill saw how similar the story was to his own, his daughter said he finally began to understand.
"We just had a really hard time getting him to see that this woman Diane wasn't who she said," Nichols said. "He very much wanted it to be real."
Nichols said she believes the scam is over for her father, but she has taken certain precautions to protect him. She has legal power over his finances, and she said the local post office employees know to contact her if they notice suspicious behavior.
"They really work hard to undermine, they try to isolate the victim," Nichols said. "His phone would ring between 40 and 80 times a day, he lost a tremendous amount of weight and I thought he was going to end up in the hospital. He was coming apart at the seams."
Senior Assistant Attorney General James Boffetti said similar scams have targeted New Hampshire residents like Bill in the past.
"They're all sort of the same," Boffetti said. "They're preying on people's good will, they're preying on people's sympathies, they're preying on people's kindness."
Boffetti, who works with the New Hampshire Consumer Protection Bureau, said both his office and the Federal Trade Commission have received calls about this scam as well.
If someone is the victim of these fraudulent calls, Nevins said that person or his relatives must first alert local law enforcement.
"Secondly, they've got to find out how much money the person's given," Nevins said. The scammers "may have their Social Security number, they may have their Social Security checks, they may have access to the bank, they may know their credit card numbers. Once the relatives find out a person has been scammed, there's a lot of work to undo it."
Nevins said more information about the scam can be found online at bewareof876.com.
But the best way to handle the fraudulent calls is just to stop talking, Nevins said.
"They just have to hang up," he said.
(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3316 or email@example.com or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)