Fran Carson would do anything for her granddaughter, Martha Reilly. And the scammers counted on that.
Carson received a call at 10:30 in the morning from someone who said she was Martha. She sounded like Martha, a 22-year-old who grew up in Omaha and now lives in Chicago, and Carson remembers the imposter calling her “Nana” — what Martha has always called her.
“Martha” told Carson she'd gone to Cancun, Mexico, and gotten into a minor automobile accident. She was in a holding cell in Cancun and needed $2,200 to pay for the damages on a car she hit or she wouldn't be allowed to leave Mexico. She asked Carson not to tell anyone else because it might impede her getting out of Mexico.
Carson took five more calls over the next two hours from “Martha” and from a man supposedly from the U.S. Embassy, Osiel Castilla Garcia, who had obtained “Martha's'' release from the holding cell. The two of them were to pick up the money at a Western Union office, deliver it to authorities and get Martha on the next plane home.
The calls felt reassuring to Carson. She was convinced she was talking to her granddaughter.
Carson wired the money to a Western Union office in Cancun and spent the rest of that day and all that night worrying about her granddaughter. Saturday morning, Carson tried Martha's cellphone again. She'd been calling it, of course, but kept getting a disconnect message. This time, though, Martha answered and told her grandmother she had not been in Mexico.
Carson realized she'd been scammed.
And now she wants to know: Can she get her money back? Can she press charges? Why isn't more being done to stop this?
When it comes to fraud, prevention is our most effective tactic, because once the money is wired, it's challenging to get that money returned or to get justice of any kind.
Carson, though, is giving it her best shot.
She has contacted the Federal Trade Commission, the Attorney General's Office, her congressman and her U.S. senator. She also tried the police station in Cancun, but the only English speaker there was quite unhelpful.
Philip Ley, vice president of security for Western Union, told me he has had similarly challenging experiences in his efforts working with foreign law enforcement entities regarding the pursuit and prosecution of these criminals. Because the victims reside in the U.S. and the perpetrators do not, it's excruciatingly difficult to track them down.
Our neighbors to the north, though, are making some inroads. Interestingly, even though the money was sent to Mexico, the scheme Carson got wrapped up in is likely operated from Canada.
Apparently, the crooks often set up in Canada and use “mules” in other countries to pick up the money for them. Six people who allegedly operated this “grandparent scam” from a boiler room in Montreal were arrested recently in Los Angeles.
Authorities have found American information at the crime scenes, and Steve Baker, regional director of the Federal Trade Commission, is pleased with the cooperation the FTC gets from Canadian law enforcement.
Investigators in this case determined that these criminals got their data from mass-produced lead lists and from the Internet and social media sites. In other Canadian raids, American obituaries have been found, which reveals another way the thieves glean personal information they use to gain the trust of their marks.
That's why you've heard this story before. Senior citizens get calls from grandchildren in trouble and believe it's them because the callers know a lot about them and are able to sound familiar. Money is wired to rescue kids, and nobody's the wiser until the money is gone, gone, gone.
Most people think they wouldn't and couldn't fall for this. They'd be suspicious, right? They'd recognize their grandchildren's voices?
The World-Herald's executive editor, Mike Reilly, knows Carson and knows she is sharp. She's a shrewd consumer, a retired police detective and Reilly's mother-in-law. And he says that if she can get caught up in this scam, it shows how crafty and sophisticated the scammers can be.
Carson wants to know why Mexican authorities won't go to the Western Union office and look at a videotape of the transaction. Wouldn't that show who picked up the money?
Theoretically, yes, but not all Western Unions videotape such transactions, and money wired to Mexico (or the U.K.) can be picked up at any location, anywhere in the country. According to Shelley Bernhardt, head of consumer protection for Western Union, her company actively seeks to prevent fraud in many ways but is reluctant to be involved in sting operations or to actively attempt to capture criminals using their Western Union employees.
These are very bad people, and Western Union is not willing to risk endangerment of or retaliation against their employees.
Perhaps Western Union could require money to be picked up at a specific location? To be fair to Western Union, that would interfere with their very mission, which is to be a convenient way for people to send and pick up money. The vast majority of the money they wire, of course, is not involved in fraud, so it may not be reasonable to ask for those kinds of restrictions.
People do have to show a government ID to pick up money, so perhaps Western Union personnel could be asked to photocopy the identifications to contribute to a database? Or perhaps fingerprints could be required? Again, though, Western Union understandably ensures the safety of its customer service agents first, and any practices that might imperil their personnel in any way are out of the question.
Western Union is not in the criminal-catching business, but it is in the business of preventing fraud on many fronts and is constantly trying to protect its customers through awareness campaigns and the education of its employees.
Western Union has empowered customer service employees to refuse transactions. If fraud is suspected, even if the consumer insists, the employee can refuse to wire the money.
This might have helped Carson — Western Union employees have been given Eagle Eye awards for stopping transactions just like hers — but she didn't reveal the true nature of the transaction to the customer service representative. She told the Western Union agent the money was for repairs to a condominium she owned in Mexico.
Why would she do that? The answer, again, lies with the sophisticated, masterful scammer. Perpetrators of these crimes socially engineer their victims. Carson was prepared by the callers. They told her the Western Union employee wouldn't send the money if fraud was suspected, and then poor Martha would have to stay in Mexico over the entire weekend.
The callers helped her to come up with an excuse that would allay any misgivings from the American side, sliding her right around all of Western Union's security measures.
Western Union issues posters of a man wearing a mask. The mask has writing on it, saying things like, “Trust me” and “I need help, please send money,” with a warning in capital letters, saying, “DON'T FALL VICTIM TO FRAUD.” But Carson didn't see any posters.
Western Union's “Send Money” form warns consumers about this very grandparent scam; the first item on the list of warnings actually says: “You should NOT proceed with your transaction if it's to a grandchild, friend, or family member for an emergency situation you have not personally confirmed.”
But by the time Carson was looking at that form, she thought she had confirmed the emergency — she had spoken to Martha repeatedly, or so she thought — and she didn't want anyone to get in the way of her helping Martha to get home.
That's how smooth these operators are. They think of everything and are highly skilled at grooming their victims. If a retired police detective like Carson can fall prey, imagine the vulnerability of those who are less skeptical.
The FTC's Baker estimates that in 2011, more than 100,000 victims reported losses of $428 million due to schemes like this, and most victims don't admit to being scammed because they're embarrassed or concerned that loved ones will question their abilities to manage their own affairs.
Even with the huge financial losses to our citizens, though, it often seems that nothing can be done to stem the seemingly endless supply of criminals, who get craftier and more elusive every year.
Because the criminals are often outside the U.S. and because the individual losses in these types of schemes are relatively small, law enforcement entities are not likely to launch specific investigations in cases such as Carson's.
That seems reasonable — until it's your money and you're the victim. Imagine burglars stealing $3,000 from many homes or businesses in town, and law enforcement being unable to aggressively investigate the crimes. Public outcry for change is justifiable, because the message this sends to perpetrators is clear.
Carson might never see her money again, and she might not see justice in her own case, but arrests are being made.
The charges and arrests in Los Angeles were the result of an ongoing joint investigation by multiple agencies in Canada and the United States that participate in Project Colt, one of the many binational task forces dedicated to combating cross border and mass marketing fraud.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the U.S. Secret Service, the FTC and the FBI provided significant resources to the investigation, as did the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles, which is prosecuting the case.
With this kind of cooperation, progress can be made. Criminals do go to prison. Potential victims are spared. Is it worth reporting? Is it worth Carson's time to even file a complaint?
The BBB encourages seniors to contact our BBB Senior Line at 877- 637-3334 if they suspect fraud or need assistance with any offer they are considering.
Seniors and their loved ones are also encouraged to visit our Scam Stopper website at www.bbb.org/scam-stopper.
And do tell your friends and neighbors. Carson's sharing of her experience might spare another person from being a victim.
Jim Hegarty is president of the Better Business Bureau representing Nebraska and southwest Iowa. To contact him, email email@example.com or call 402-898-8520.