Canada: Scammers talked her out of $12,500. Then the race was on to get it back - PressFrom - Canada
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CanadaScammers talked her out of $12,500. Then the race was on to get it back

16:01  14 march  2019
16:01  14 march  2019 Source:   thestar.com

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Scammers talked her out of $12,500. Then the race was on to get it back© Andrew Francis Wallace When Elaine got a call on her landline, scam artists caught her at a vulnerable moment. The food industry chemist, who is in her 60s, is being identified by her middle name.

Elaine wondered what $12,500 in cash would look like. As she arrived at her Toronto bank to withdraw it, she worried that thick stacks of bills might be too bulky to ship safely in an envelope.

She requested the cash at a teller’s window, heart thumping. Funds were moved from her credit card to her personal account for the transaction. A wary bank supervisor asked what the cash was for. Elaine, as she’d been coached, said renovations.

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The money was actually for her nephew James.

An hour earlier, James had phoned Elaine’s east-end home. He was in custody. Crashed a friend’s car, was charged with drunk driving. He sounded scared. James then handed the phone to a lawyer who told Elaine he could likely get the DUI charge dismissed but needed $12,500 in cash to expedite matters; could she assist?

Stunned, Elaine agreed to help. Then embarked on a wild 24 hours that saw a sensible, food industry chemist in her 60s veering so far out of character to rescue her nephew, she became both dupe and detective, matching wits with scammers who alternately hustled, harassed and threatened her.

It’s a story that also drew in disparate groups as it unfurled: caring neighbours, a concerned boss, anxious family, alert UPS workers, hamstrung police and soulless cons preying on a trusting woman at a vulnerable time.

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There are so many more scammers out there that I didn’t get to talk to, and so many more scams that there aren’t time to write about. it and come back the next day. But there are dozens of scammers hanging out in Jita chat right now, waiting to scam anyone who’s too eager to make or save some ISK.

In the bank, Elaine felt anxious. She was supposed to be visiting her 94-year-old mother — alone in her Willowdale home, immobile with a recent back injury — at that very moment. Instead, she was carrying out a stranger’s odd instructions.

“You’re so caught up in the emotion of it, you just don’t think straight,” said Elaine, a single woman whom the Star is describing with one of her given names to protect her identity.

“So I’m panicking, thinking that my mum is sitting there, with very little to eat, waiting for me to show up.”

The bank teller signalled her cash was ready. Elaine, relieved, noticed the bills — nearly 200 — were crisp as they snapped from the teller’s fingers.

She returned home. The lawyer, as promised, phoned again with more commands: spread the cash throughout the pages of a magazine, tape the ends shut, slip everything into a manila envelope for a courier. FedEx or UPS were preferred, he said, as it was needed by 9 a.m. the next day.

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I think we liked him. He had travelled a good deal, and had stories which amused us on our school walks, so that there was some competition among Over time, she became my most cherished friend. It ’s not uncommon for us to have three-hour-long telephone conversations about everything or about

The lawyer repeatedly warned Elaine during each call that a judge had placed a “gag order” on proceedings and if breached, James (the Star is using his middle name) would remain locked up. She decided not to call James’s parents to keep his troubles secret.

Still, Elaine was suspicious.

She dialled James’s cellphone. He didn’t answer. Her voice mail asked if it was “really you” who’d phoned, and to please contact her. When James didn’t call that day, Elaine believed her nephew was, indeed, in custody.

“I kept thinking to myself that a lot of this didn’t make sense and I wonder if this is a scam,” she said. “But the only thing that convinced me was that it sounded like James, it really did. The way he spoke, that nervous laugh. Everything about that conversation really felt like it was James.”

Another comfort: the lawyer promised that her cash would be returned when the drunk-driving charge was dropped. He was confident it would be.

By the next morning, the money-filled magazine was on a UPS tractor-trailer, en route to an address in Saint-Laurent, Que., given to Elaine by the bogus lawyer.

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THE CALL

Elaine’s home phone number is unlisted. Has been for most of her adult life. Or so she thought.

So when it rang on Valentine’s Day, a Thursday — a double ring — she thought it was her daughter, travelling abroad. Her daughter always called on a Skype account, two quick rings on Elaine’s home phone.

The Skype number did not show up on her call display. Probably just a telemarketer, Elaine decided. Besides, she was eager to return to her mother’s house; she’d stayed over that week and only returned to her own home the night before to collect a few personal items. Then maternal instinct welled.

“There was no caller ID but because she’s travelling, I thought I better answer just in case,” Elaine said.

This is how she recalls the conversation:

A young man said hi and when she asked who it was, he replied, “Don’t you recognize my voice? It’s your nephew.”

In retrospect, Elaine is unsure if the young man called her by her name or a family nickname for her. She’s also unsure if he said his name first or if she asked if it was him, as Elaine has more than one nephew.

She thought the voice sounded like James, maybe a bit deeper; a huskiness she attributed to him being upset. The drunk-driving story unrolled.

Elaine says she may have unwittingly provided clues to make the story sound plausible. For instance, after she asked James if he was OK, she remembered her nephew had kidney stones. She asked if he’d passed them. He replied without hesitation: “Yes, that was the worst thing I ever had to go through, but thank God that’s over.”

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The scammers transfer stolen money into the new account, and then tell their victims to wire the money out of the country. If this happens to you, please report it at ftc.gov/complaint — click on Scams and Rip-Offs, then select Romance I am lost and don't know how to get out of this situation.

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James said his father’s friend (whose car he crashed) was a lawyer who was standing beside him.

Enter an older-sounding man who identified himself as a lawyer with the last name Mills. He provided hope for Elaine that James had been wrongly arrested.

Police who attended the crash scene smelled alcohol from a shattered bottle and officers assumed James had been drinking, Mills said. But because James had smashed his head on the dash, he’d been taken to hospital immediately and therefore, no Breathalyzer was conducted — grounds for getting the charges dismissed.

All that was needed until then: $12,500 to appease an insurance company because alcohol was involved. However, payment could not be by certified cheque, credit card or money order because “there’s always a delay with those types of transactions,” Mills told her. It had to be cash.

In the pit of her stomach, Elaine felt “none of this made sense” but was so certain she’d spoken to her nephew, she was compelled to act.

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Elaine recalled thinking out loud while on the phone about how to get $12,500 that she didn’t possess. When she pondered using her credit card, Mills encouraged her. He advised that if anyone at her branch questioned the withdrawal, say the cash is for something like renovation work. He wanted to know how long it would take to get the money; Elaine guessed about an hour.

The lawyer refused to give Elaine his phone number when she asked. He said he’d be in court and unreachable, but would call back with mailing details during a break.

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She said she had no money, that she was about to go to a food bank to get her son something to eat. “The best part about these places,” said Vikas Tanwar, an ex- scammer , “ is that you can easily get a Then she transferred the call to a closer, who would offer a suite of career-boosting services

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Elaine, most certainly, made mistakes during the phone calls.

But so did the man on the other end of the line.

THE BANK AND THE COURIER

One way to conjure up cash that one doesn’t have is borrow from a credit card.

Elaine discovered at her TD Bank branch that she needed to transfer the $12,500 from her credit card to her chequing account. Anxiety rising, Elaine needed some assistance to complete the transaction.

“Because I was kind of panicking, worrying about my mum and also the time,” she said, the bank staffers loaned her an iPad. “I could log onto the iPad and transfer the money, like online banking.”

There was, however, that question from a bank supervisor.

“This is a lot of money to be taking out in cash, can I ask what it’s for?” Elaine recalled being asked.

Her renovation excuse was ready.

The cash was released: $7,000 in $100 bills; $5,000 in $50s and the final $500 in $20s. In total, 195 bills.

She rushed home. Mills called, confirmed she had the cash and told her to grab a magazine. The spring edition of CAA magazine had just arrived; that would do, Elaine thought. The issue, loaded with bills, slid easily into a manila envelope.

Mills gave her a name and address near Montreal: Robert DeCosta, 2300 Boulevard Thimens, Saint-Laurent, Que.

Elaine was aware of the absurdity.

“I’m on the phone with him while I’m doing all of this and I said to him, ‘This seems very archaic … to be stuffing cash into a magazine, then into an envelope,’ ” she said, but he was firm that she proceed.

And she did.

Elaine set off to a UPS store on Queen St. E. She paid $63.64 for express shipping, without disclosing the true contents to UPS sales associate Donna Scott, who processed the order. Nor did Elaine ask for insurance or that a signature be required upon delivery — again, at the lawyer’s direction.

The story might have ended at the delivery counter, had Elaine mentioned there was cash in the envelope, said UPS store owner Farah Shirazi.

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“We didn’t know it was money, otherwise we wouldn’t have accepted it,” said Shirazi, noting UPS does not permit cash shipments.

Elaine said she would have acted much differently if not so distracted. Most likely, she would have phoned her nephew more often. Contacted James’s parents and spilled the story. Demanded the lawyer’s cell number. Asked what holding tank James was in. Immediately checked the address in Saint-Laurent to confirm it was legit.

She did none of that.

“I was really concerned about my mum,” said Elaine, who’d taken a week’s vacation on short notice to care for her. “What if she fell?”

Mills rang again when she returned home from the UPS store; she gave him the parcel’s tracking number. She’d also given him her cell number.

The thieves’ plan was working to perfection. Until Mother Nature became a player.

THE REAL NEPHEW

Elaine answered her cellphone around 7:30 Thursday night. It was Mills with good news: he’d gotten James released from the holding cell.

Elaine was at her mother’s house by then. She took the call privately.

Mills assured her that “as soon as the insurance people get the money, then I’ll be able to go to court with James and I’m confident I can get the case dismissed because the blood alcohol was under the limit. He should not have been charged with DUI.”

Elaine paused. No Breathalyzer had been done, he’d told her earlier. How could anyone know that James was under or over the limit? The discrepancy niggled but she said nothing. Nor did she try James’s phone again.

“I felt happier, of course, that James was home, he’s OK,” Elaine said. But Mills “kept talking about the gag order because if we didn’t keep quiet, James would end up in jail.

“It was all these emotional threats.”

The next morning, a Friday, Elaine was on the phone for a work-related matter when James texted her.

The real James.

She quickly called his cell. Her nephew, an Ontario university student, said he hadn’t spoken to her on Valentine’s Day — he had an exam that day, taught guitar and was not feeling well because of kidney-stone pain. He said in an interview that he didn’t check his voice mail until that morning and right away knew “something was wrong.”

Dread coursed through Elaine. She told James the story. He said it was a scam and to call the police immediately.

But the police could wait. Elaine rushed to a computer in her mum’s house and pulled up the UPS website to track her package’s progress.

It was to have been delivered by 9 a.m. It was now 11 a.m. The tracking map showed it was maybe too late to intercept it but frantically, Elaine tried.

The tangle of online customer service links and phone numbers redirecting was taking too long. She couldn’t reach a live agent. Then she remembered she had the UPS store receipts.

Donna Scott’s phone number was on the bill. Elaine called: could the delivery be stopped? She told Scott she’d been a victim of fraud but still did not disclose there was cash in the parcel. Scott pledged to do her best.

With a sinking heart, Elaine looked again at the tracking number details on the computer screen. A little diagram indicated her package was on its way from a UPS depot in Lachine, Que., to the address in Saint-Laurent. About an 11-kilometre trip.

THE INTERCEPTION

The magazine stuffed with cash was trucked from a UPS store in the Beach neighbourhood to Concord, north of Toronto. Then a tractor-trailer, loaded with UPS shipments including Elaine’s, drove to a large depot in Lachine. From there, her money was destined for 2300 Thimens.

The address, however, was not for an insurance company. It was an apartment building.

Donna Scott, the UPS clerk, didn’t know the backstory when she dialled her store’s hotline to a regional office in Montreal. She thought it might be too late to help Elaine because delivery was for 9 a.m. Friday — she said in an interview it’s unusual for an express shipment to be late — and it was now about 11:30.

Scott explained the intercept request to her contact at the UPS regional office, who then called a local dispatcher, who in turn located enough people in the Lachine depot to search for Elaine’s parcel.

Turns out there’d been “a weather delay” between Concord and the Montreal area that held up the shipment. The parcel was identified for a “delivery change” in Lachine — return to sender, according to UPS records. Her cash had never left the depot for Saint-Laurent, as Elaine feared.

Scott phoned Elaine about 12:30 p.m. She was elated.

“I’m so grateful to those two ladies,” she said of Scott triggering the UPS team’s quick response, and Farah Shirazi, who later provided reassurances to Elaine by phone.

The parcel would be trucked back to Concord, then to the UPS store in the Beach, though unavailable for pickup until Tuesday. Ontario was heading into the long Family Day weekend with UPS offices closed Sunday and Monday.

But Elaine’s nightmare was not over.

The fake lawyer, Mills, was tracking the package, too.

He phoned Elaine around 2 p.m. on Friday, demanding to know “what happened” to the cash. She said she’d spoken to her real nephew and knew this was a scam. Mills tried again to trick her by saying James was abiding by “gag order” rules not to discuss the case but Elaine was unmoved — she’d also realized by then that “Mills” had given her two different Breathalyzer lies.

“They try to throw little doubts in there,” Elaine said. “They try to throw you off.”

The real James said in an interview these crooks pushed the right buttons with his aunt who “is very kind-hearted, always willing to help, always willing to listen.”

“And that is part of the reason why, I guess, she was sucked into it,” he said. But with “all the other things going on with her mum … it made her more vulnerable at that moment.”

Det. Const. Francis Yung was one of the 55 Division officers who handled Elaine’s complaint. He said this phoney story is “typical of scams out there,” and fraudsters are clever at reacting to clues from worried relatives.

So when a UPS agent named Barbara called her Friday night, Elaine — still shaken — was fooled again.

Barbara claimed UPS could not return her package and insisted it be delivered to Robert DeCosta. Otherwise, it had to be opened and if it contained lots of cash, police would be contacted about “money laundering.” Barbara also talked about forwarding the package to UPS “investigators” in Calgary.

Elaine got “riled up.” She told Barbara her package of “documents” was not to be opened and must be returned to the UPS store on Queen.

Barbara also fished about Elaine’s complaint with Toronto police, then gave her a fake phone number and hung up. A light bulb went off: the UPS staff on Queen St, didn’t have her cell number — only her landline, and her mother’s. Barbara was a phoney, too.

On Saturday morning, Elaine called Shirazi, the UPS store owner, several times, looking for assurance that her parcel was indeed coming home. It was, Shirazi would tell her each time, and no, nobody else can override the return.

Another thing upsetting Elaine was that she’d told the fake UPS agent that the shipment would go to the Queen St. location.

“I kept thinking, ‘Oh my God, they’re going to be waiting for me’ ” at the UPS store.

By Tuesday morning, Elaine had told family, friends and her employers the tale. Her boss offered to accompany her into the UPS store. So did neighbours, including a woman with a “guard dog” — a tiny, frisky Jack Russell. When Shirazi phoned to say the package had arrived, a neighbourhood couple made the trip with Elaine.

The husband, wearing a backpack, went into the store with her. His wife stayed in the car. Shirazi asked Elaine for ID, then handed her the parcel. Elaine did not open it. The man tucked it in the backpack. She and the couple drove to her TD branch.

They decided to open it in the bank. Elaine spotted the same female supervisor who’d helped her on Valentine’s Day. She asked: “Do you remember me? I’m the lady who came in last week and took out a large amount of cash.”

Oh yes, said the supervisor. Elaine confessed she’d been scammed and “I’m hoping that this package contains the money.”

The supervisor took them to a quiet nook. The fraud tale unfolded. The supervisor opened the package, turned over the magazine pages and counted the bills: the $12,500 was all there.

“I said ‘Whew, oh my God,’ when we first saw the money,” Elaine said, laughing, recalling that the man’s wife kissed her head. “Everyone was so happy.”

Elaine said “all the tension left” her. She recalled the bank supervisor remained “serious” during the cash recovery but expressed that she, too, “was glad it all worked out.”

The cash went back into Elaine’s account, then transferred to her credit card.

Back to her pragmatic self, Elaine made sure she left the bank with a receipt for the $12,500.

THE WARNING

Elaine is sharing her story to expose scammers’ tricks — scare tactics, emotional extortion and threats among them — in hopes of increasing community awareness and family discussions about predators.

“I’m not a stupid person but I got caught in this,” she said of believing con artists. “I’m sure they learn from experience of what to say and what not to say, and how to manipulate the whole thing.”

What about banks letting people walk out with large sums of cash?

When asked about its policy regarding customers like Elaine and her $12,500 withdrawal, TD spokesperson Carla Hindman said in an email that “we take fraud prevention very seriously.”

“It’s troubling for anyone to be a victim of fraud, and we are glad to hear our customer was able to identify, stop and report this fraud to the police,” Hindman said.

“It’s critical that customers, financial institutions and the police work together vigilantly to fight fraud. As part of the process for large cash withdrawals, our colleagues are trained to ask questions about the purpose of the withdrawal, suggest alternative options (such as wire transfers or money orders) and caution customers about the risks of carrying large sums of cash.”

March is fraud prevention month. In a “Fraud-ucation” statement from the TD Bank Group, Tammy McKinnon, head of the Financial Crimes and Fraud Management Group, says fraud “doesn’t discriminate.”

“As scams continue to evolve, it’s important that we encourage conversations that increase Canadians’ knowledge and understanding of financial fraud,” McKinnon said.

The Canadian government offers a “Little Black Book of Scams” with scenarios from romance to phishing to door-to-door sales to hitting up grandparents to rescue a fake grandchild. The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre is another government resource for tracking, recognizing and reporting frauds.

Elaine said one of the 55 Division police officers she dealt with related a particularly vile fraud scenario: a caller, with sirens wailing and sounds of commotion in the background, tells the person on the other end that a family member has been involved in a serious crash and — wait for it — money is needed right away.

In Elaine’s case, she was told a police report would not be followed up because, ultimately, she didn’t lose her cash. Det. Const. Yung said the happy ending was “all through her” actions. “She realized it was a fraud and got her money back.”

Elaine and her extended family aren’t sure how the scammers knew she had nephews. Neither she nor James has a Facebook account, for instance, or regularly use social media. The family thinks perhaps all the information needed was in Elaine’s father’s online obituary from several years ago; surviving family members are named, as is common, and figuring out aunts and uncles would not be difficult.

Though Elaine blew the whistle on the con, it took a quick-acting UPS team from the Beach to the Montreal area to foil it. Donna Scott and Farah Shirazi received orchid plants from a thankful Elaine. The women said they were only doing their jobs and deflected credit to the UPS crew in Montreal, but Shirazi understood her customer’s gesture.

“I’m putting myself in her shoes,” Shirazi said. “I would be so happy to get my $12,500 back.”

Mary Ormsby is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Reach her via email: [email protected]

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