TODAY / msnbc.com - Seniors warned about 'ruthless' phone scam
Today / msnbc.com
"I was in bed crying," a senior citizen from Maine wailed in a recorded phone conversation Fairpoint Communications played for reporters Thursday at the Rutland, Vt. police station. "I don't have any oil. I'm freezing in here! It's getting cold here," the tape continued. Fairpoint said that real customer was driven to her emotional breaking point after repeatedly getting terrifying and costly calls from con artists.
"These are simply ruthless, heartless criminals, intent on destroying lives," said Fairpoint's Vermont president, Mike Smith. Fairpoint is now partnering with AARP and law enforcement to warn seniors about phone calls from the 876 area code.
"I was not aware myself, being in law enforcement, about this scam," revealed interim Rutland, Vt. Police Chief Jim Baker, suggesting how few people may know to watch for calls from area code 876.
The calls come from Jamaica and ask victims to wire money to cover fees for bogus prize winnings. To help convince people that they're credible, the scammers may read newspaper obituaries to identify recent widows, and tell them to wire funds to cover insurance expenses, consumer advocates explained. They may also use Google Earth to identify victims' houses to issue realistic-seeming threats, the advocates added.
The office for Vt. Attorney General Bill Sorrell said several hundred Vermonters have reported calls from Jamaican scammers over the past few years, and Sorrell suspected far more people were contacted than actually told authorities. The losses reported ranged from several hundred dollars to $18,000, Sorrell said, estimating the national yearly take for Jamaican scams at $300-million. Frank Smead is the court-appointed financial guardian for a senior in Rutland, Vt. who was duped.
"What started as small participation escalated," Smead explained. "And nobody kept track. By the time it was over he lost over half a million dollars."
Advocates say playing foreign lotteries isn't even legal, so a call like that is more than likely a scam. They note that real winners would never have to pay first to collect a prize, either. Police hope shining attention on the spike in scams will serve as a warning to adult children of elderly parents to pay more attention to their finances.
"They really make you afraid," said retired nurse Jean Britt. Britt, a resident of Castleton, Vt., told New England Cable News she lost thousands to a different phone scam to a man masquerading as a lawyer. "They are so good at what they do," Britt remembered. "They could sell you the Brooklyn Bridge!" Britt vowed to tell friends and neighbors to be on the lookout for calls from area code 876.
Attorney General Bill Sorrell, D-Vt., said awareness may be the best weapon, because prosecuting foreign scammers is very hard to do. "The money you wire is gone," Sorrell warned.
Fairpoint, AARP, and their partners in law enforcement hope fewer New Englanders have to endure losses. For more information on the Jamaican scams originating in area code 876, visit Beware of 876.