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ALERT: Bergen elderly losing thousands to phone scammers

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot File Photo
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

PUBLIC SAFETY ALERT: Phone scammers are victimizing more elderly residents every day, prompting a growing number of law enforcement agencies to urge people to warn susceptible loved ones.

In one case last week, a Ridgewood resident was called by someone claiming to be his grandson who said he was in jail in Mexico and needed bail money — the most common of the scams.

The man sent $1,500 via Western Union, then and was called soon after and asked for another $1,400, Detective Chris McDowell said.

This time, though, the Western Union agent stopped the victim, he said.

Be sure to tell loved ones

A day later, a second Ridgewood resident reported being called by a man claiming to be his grandson who said he’d been arrested for DWI in Reno, Nevada, after a car crash, McDowell said.

The caller convinced the man to wire $1,390 to the Dominican Republic — money he’ll never see again.

These weren’t the worse of it, though.

On Sept. 13, another Ridgewood resident got the “need bail” call, again from a man purporting to be her grandson.

It cost her $3,000.

McDowell joined the growing voices of local police urging citizens to beware of such schemes — and to make it a point to warn elderly loved ones.

Think of it this way: An 83-year-old Wyckoff woman who was conned out of $4,000 by a caller could have been your mother, your grandmother, or a friend. After being told she’d won a lottery, the woman went to the Walgreens on Wyckoff Avenue and bought nearly $4,000 in gift cards. When the lottery scammer called back, she read off the serial numbers on the cards.

The list of similar victims is mounting:

There was the terrified man who prompted a Fair Lawn bank teller to trip a holdup alarm last fall, bringing an army of tactical police officers who closed off area streets.

There was a couple in their 70s, also from Wyckoff, who lost $15,000 after being tricked into believing their son had been in car crash in New York City and needed bail money.

Police in Oradell saw a different twist when an 80-year-old woman told them she was called by an Atlanta company that offered her an 80% Medicare discount — if she only provided the routing number on her personal checks.

After hanging up, the woman realized what she’d done and called police. The bank was notified before any of her money was touched.

The FBI has joined local police in investigating the various cons, through which calls are usually made from other states.

The Senior Fraud Education & Protection Program (FedUp) also provides an instructional video aimed at keeping unwitting victims from being separated from what may be their life savings:

Despite warnings about the scammers’ methods — including regularly on CLIFFVIEW PILOT — “they always seem to find another victim,” Wyckoff Police Chief Benjamin Fox said.

Several months ago, a series of scams was reported in Ridgewood, Saddle Brook, Midland Park, Glen Rock and Wyckoff – all in one week.

Seniors are the usual targets. The lies the scammer tell vary, but they frequently involve a family member who needs help, or some type of lottery jackpot.   The con artists play on emotion, stressing urgency, without giving the victim much time to think.

Some scammers will tell their stories using specific details, such as the names of the grandchild’s relatives or friends. Victims make the information easy to find by posting it all over Facebook and other social networking sites without using the necessary controls to keep such data private.

The con artists typically try to prevent any verification. “Don’t tell mom,” they’ll say – or something that urges the intended victim to act immediately.

They then ask the victims to send them money, often via Western Union.

Once that’s done, the money is gone for good — along with the scammers.

“ANY requests to transfer money should be viewed with heightened skepticism and scrutiny,” Fox said after another attempted scam.

This one involved a resident earlier this month who said he got a call from a man claiming to be a DEA agent who was “headed to his home with the warrant.”

A caller fooled another couple in Fox’s town by claiming to be their son and saying that his voice sounded different because he’d just had his nose broken in the accident. He then told them he’d landed in jail and needed bail money. Then he handed the phone to a man he said was his lawyer.

The ‘lawyer’ “told the couple that their son had been charged with DWI and various other charges,” the chief said. He told them his bail was set at $150,000, and that 10% of the amount would get him released.

He then gave them information for wiring the money to a location in Georgia.

“After the $15,000 was wired, the ‘lawyer’ called the couple again to advise that the money was received — and even pretended to discuss the legal strategy for their son,” Fox told CLIFFVIEW PILOT .

They eventually got in touch with their son and discovered that they’d been duped.

“They are often professional con artists. “They’re good at what they do,” Fox said. “They have the ability to pull you in and get you to believe what they are saying.”

One phone scam that’s turned up more frequently involves claims that the caller was involved in a car accident with someone the victim is related to in or around New York City.

He then says that the loved one couldn’t afford to pay for the damage, so he’s “holding the person captive, with weapons, until the family member can go to the bank, withdraw money and head to the nearest Western Union,” Bogota Police Chief John C. Burke told CLIFFVIEW PILOT .

The purported kidnapper demands that the cash – ordinarily in the low thousands — be wired to Puerto Rico or somewhere else outside the U.S.

“They’ll usually say that the victim was on the way to work,” Burke said. “Most of them actually do work, so the family members aren’t about to contact them immediately to confirm or deny what happened.”

The Fair Lawn bank incident involved one of at least three similar calls made to borough residents, police said.

The alarm was tripped after the man “passed several notes” to a teller about a hostage/ransom demand and suggesting he possibly was being watched.

A strange caller had told the man he had to come up with $800 to free his brother-in-law, then remained on the man’s cellphone with him during the transaction.

When security at the Chase branch on Saddle River Road couldn’t contact the teller who triggered the alarm, officers from Fair Lawn, Glen Rock, Ridgewood, Paramus, Bergen County Police, the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office and New Jersey State Police quickly moved in.

Local police urge that people take the time NOW for a family discussion about phone scams. Consider creating a code word or phrase – one that only you all would know – in case you get or have to make an emergency call.

“Never, never, never, ever wire money someplace when you get an unsolicited phone call from someone, no matter what the story is,” Fox said. “There is rarely anything that is so urgent that you can’t take the time to look into it further.”

“If you’re unsure whether something like this is true or not, contact your local police department immediately,” added Burke of Bogota. “Whatever you do, don’t give your money away. We don’t want to see anybody get ripped off.”

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