Two area residents targeted by telephone scammers: one is lucky, the other is not
The first thing the man on the telephone said when Dot Strickland answered recently was, “Listen! Don’t tell anyone what I’m going to tell you.” Then he said, “This is your grandson Michael, and I’m in jail.”
To say Dot was shocked would be a vast understatement. “Michael is a pastor in Atchison, Kansas,” she said earlier this month, sharing why it was especially shocking to get the call. It would explain why Michael wouldn’t want anyone to know he was in jail.
The recent call was one of many telephone scams that have occurred in the last few years to Ozark Countians – and others nationwide. Nearly every week’s Ozark County Sheriff’s report in the Ozark County Times includes at least one report by a resident who had received one of these fraudulent or scamming calls.
Many times the scammer pretends to be a far-away grandchild in trouble, as happened to Dot. Other times, the caller claims to represent the IRS or the Social Security Administration or some other government agency, warning of some kind of legal threat if money isn’t sent. After or during catastrophes – like the current COVID-19 pandemic, for instance – the scammers may offer to sell some kind of in-home medical tests or call about unpaid (and unreal medical) bills. Or sometimes the scammer calls with “good news,” saying the recipient has won a prize but needs to pay something to collect it, usually by some kind of electronic means such as a money wire or a commercial gift card that can’t be refunded or traced. The scammers also use “spoofing” tools to disguise their phone numbers so they can’t be traced either – or they even make their numbers appear on Caller ID to be coming from someone the recipient knows.
According to the AARP website (aarp.org), the Federal Trade Commission received more than 1.1 million complaints about fraud in 2019. The website lists warning signs of what it calls the “epidemic” of scam calls.
Most recently, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, says on his website ago.mo.gov, his office is receiving daily calls about Medicaid fraud, in which scammers use personal information to fraudulently bill Medicaid.
To report fraud or deception, call the attorney general’s Consumer Protection Division, 800-392-8222.
‘Keep this a secret’
This story shares the experiences of two elderly women in this area who recently received “grandma scam” calls. Gainesville resident Dot Strickland, a widow after the 2018 death of her husband, Lawrence, now feels fortunate that her scammer didn’t get any money from her. The other victim in the story, a woman in Ava who asked not to be identified, lost $1,700. Although the calls came two years apart, the stories the scammers used were remarkably similar.
The young man who called Dot immediately warned her to “Keep this a secret.” Then he told Dot that his best friend was getting married, and he had gone to a party for him, where he drank one beer. On the way home he’d gotten into an car accident and hit a woman, he said, and when the police checked his blood alcohol level he’d been hauled away to jail.
Dot asked, “Is that you, Michael?” His voice sounded so far away, she was having trouble hearing him clearly. “He said yes and kept talking,” Dot told the Times last week.
“Michael” was calling because he needed money to get out of jail, and obviously, as a pastor, husband and father of three children, he didn’t want anyone to know.
“He said, ‘Grandma, go to the bank, and they will give you the money. You will get it back when I get out of jail.’”
Dot, thinking her grandson needed thousands of dollars, answered, “Michael, I can’t. I don’t have money like that in the bank to get out.” But the man kept saying, “‘The bank will give you the money,’” she said.
Then the call got quiet, and Dot, now really alarmed, said, “Michael! Michael!” But he had hung up.
Dot was totally rattled. “I about cried my eyes out,” she said, describing the grief she’d felt that she hadn’t had money to give her grandson to get out of jail.
She called her friend Dee Woodring, who came right away. “I’m a nervous wreck,” she told Dee.
“It’s a scam,” her friend told her.
Dot had never considered that possibility, and she couldn’t quite let go of her fear that her grandson really did need help.
“I decided I would call Michael’s wife to see what she said about it – to see if she had money to give him. I couldn’t find her number, but I found Michael’s and called it, thinking she would answer since he was in jail. I guess I just couldn’t believe it was a scam,” she said.
Michael himself answered the call. When she told him what had happened, he said, “Grandma, I’m not in jail. I’m out walking the dog.”
Relieved and stunned, Dot finally realized that it really was a scammer who had called her, trying to get money.
Later she called her sons Alan and Myron to tell them what had happened. “Mom, why didn’t you just hang up” Alan asked.
“I can’t hang up on my grandson!” Dot answered.
She still wonders how the caller knew her grandson’s name – and how he chose her number to call. Because her grandson Michael is well known in Gainesville, she said, she even wondered “if it might have been someone local,” although authorities say the scammers usually don’t target their local communities. Sometimes they’re even from foreign countries.
She didn’t get far enough along in the scam to learn how the scammers would direct her to send the money she was directed to get out of the bank, but it might have been something like a Visa gift card. She called Ozark County Sheriff Darrin Reed, who told her his office had received several calls about the phone scam.
‘I was so sure it was real’
While Dot dodged the potentially severe financial hit, another area couple wasn’t so lucky. In a letter to the Times in March 2018, and also in a follow-up phone interview, a Times reader who lives in Ava told the sad story of how she and her elderly husband had been cheated “of money we really couldn’t spare” by phone scammers.
The couple, both now in their 90s, asked that their names not be used, so in this story they’ll be identified as Josie and Robert and their grandson will be Chris. “I haven’t hardly told anyone here because I feel so dumb about it,” Josie wrote in the letter.
“I picked up the phone and the voice said, ‘Grandma?’ I have three grandsons. I knew it wasn’t the two oldest and must of been my 20-year-old one in Boise, Idaho. I said, ‘Chris?’ and he said yes. I said, ‘Well, it don’t sound like you,’ and he said, ‘I have a broken nose and busted mouth. I came to Georgia to go to a friend’s funeral, and I was in a rental car talking on my cell phone, and I hit a woman’s car, and she’s pregnant. Grandma, I am in trouble. Please help me, and I will pay you back – and please don’t tell anything about this. I will get things taken care of.’”
The scammer said he was handing the phone to his attorney. “And then this smooth-talking, foreign voice comes on,” said Dot. “He said, ‘Your grandson just got arrested because the woman’s car he hit is 7 months pregnant, but $700 will get him right out, and no record. I’m standing right here by him.’
“I told him I would send a check, but he said no, they had to have the money by closing time that day. The caller knew that Ava had a Walmart,” she wrote.
That day in January, she said, “We had ice and snow, and both my husband and I can barely walk with a cane. He was sitting there and heard what was said.”
The “attorney” gave them a phone number and instructed them to get cash from their bank and then go to Walmart and call him back and give him the receipt number to wire the money to. So her husband drove on the icy roads to the bank’s drive-thru window to get cash and then on to Walmart to send the money by wire.
“And then I called and gave the man the number of the receipt so he could cash it,” Josie said. “I had never wired money before, and you don’t even need the address. Just the state.”
The next day, the scammer called back. “He said the woman had a miscarriage, and he had to get $900 for her up front or a warrant would be put out for my grandson’s arrest,” she said.
Josie wrote that she was “so upset I couldn’t even think straight” – in part because her grandson held a special place in her heart after what he’d gone through as a boy.
Fifteen years earlier, when Chris was 5, his dad, Josie’s 30-year-old son Lawrence, had been murdered in the Utah golf store he had opened a little earlier. The case was never solved, Josie said. Chris had gone to trade school to become a diesel mechanic and then went right to work as soon as he graduated. “Of course I was more than willing to help him,” she said.
If she’d been thinking clearly, “I’d of known his mother wouldn’t of let him go to Georgia to a funeral, but these modern-day kids are in a whole new world, it seems,” she said.
Desperate to help their grandson, the couple went together to the bank this time. Josie’s husband drove their car up to the back door of their home to make it easier for her to get in since the weather was so bad. Again he drove to the bank’s drive-thru window and then again to Walmart to wire the money. “The girl even said, ‘Do you know this person? It could be a scam.’ But I was so sure it was real, I said I did,” she said.
That night, Josie called one of her granddaughters in Boise and asked if Chris had gone to Georgia. Chris’ sister answered, “My goodness no! He’s working every day.”
Josie realized then that she’d been scammed. “The man had asked for my name and address so he could send receipts for the money I sent. Ha!” she said. “Hard telling how many grandma scams they have done.”
Like Dot Strickland, Josie became “so nervous and upset, it’s a wonder I didn’t have a stroke or heart attack. I was up and down all night,” she said.