Police warn seniors to beware scam artists

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published February 1, 2017

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ST. CLAIR SHORES — When Cece Giles got a call from a Meals on Wheels volunteer Jan. 18, she immediately got into the car and drove to her 90-year-old mother’s home in St. Clair Shores.

“Meals on Wheels called me and said, ‘Your mother didn’t answer the phone; she isn’t answering the door; something isn’t right,’” said Giles, who also lives in St. Clair Shores.

She said she had begun looking for her mother in different rooms of the home when the phone rang. She answered it, and a man immediately began speaking to her like she was her mother, stating that he was at Wal-Mart waiting to pick up money her mother was supposed to be sending.

“He was very belligerent,” Giles said. “From this conversation I had with this guy, I said, ‘She must be at the bank,’ and (her husband) ran there and she was there sitting.”

Giles said she figured out that her mother had been called by phone Jan. 17 by this man, who told her that she had won $1 million, but that she needed to be able to put a down payment on the taxes. The man allegedly instructed her mother to go to the post office and send a check, and then, the next day, he told her to take more money out of her bank account. 

After that, Giles said, “He told her how to take it out of her charge card as a cash advance, and that’s when the bank stopped her.” 

But unfortunately, Giles said, the bank can’t refuse to process a withdrawal because they believe the client may be being manipulated.

“The bank told me that my mother has rights just like anyone else, and they can ask questions — and they did ask — and my mom was scared and she said she was taking it out for her sister.”

Though they have now called the police and the matter is being investigated, Giles said she wants other senior citizens — and their caregivers — to be aware of what kinds of scams are going around. 

“People have to be aware. It doesn’t matter how old you are. He said ... ‘Don’t tell your children because they want, your money, so don’t tell anybody,” she said. “This last jaunt, my mom said, ‘I don’t drive,’ and he started to get mean to her and he said, ‘I’m going to give you a cab number and you better call them.’”

To help combat crimes like this and others, St. Clair Shores Community Resource Officer Kevin Kimm will hold a free informational talk and question-and-answer session at 9:30 a.m. Feb. 27 at the Senior Activity Center, 20000 Stephens St. Registration is requested by calling (586) 498-2413.

Kimm said that they talk about scams like these every few months through SCS-TV and other channels, but criminals continue to “get creative,” so it is worth revisiting various phone and “gypsy” scams with residents so they know to be on the lookout. 

He said the “average criminal element” makes 200 cold calls an hour. In St. Clair Shores, Kimm said, the thieves will just begin calling numbers that begin with 293, 294 or 777, which are typically attached to landlines in the area.

“In today’s world, anyone who has a landline is usually over 50 years of age, (and the) criminal element knows that,” he said. 

Because of that, Kimm said, it’s important for residents and caregivers to know that anyone who is a sweepstakes winner will never have to pay taxes on the winnings up front and that the Internal Revenue Service never contacts residents by phone.

He said residents can also be targeted by thieves watching their usual trips to banks. 

In one case, Kimm said, “The individual knew that the woman was a frequent client of the one bank, contacted her and told her, ‘We’re having a problem with one teller passing phony ... bills.’ The typical senior wants to help. They’re very patient and they give the criminal ample time to gain their trust.”

This woman was instructed to go to the bank and take out $2,000-$3,000 of her own money, then to meet the criminal at another location, where he inspected the bills and told her that, indeed, they were all fake.

He thanked the woman for her help and said he would go to the bank to take care of the teller and return soon with real cash to reimburse the woman, but, of course, he never returned.

“It’s creative. We hear these every month or so,” Kimm said. “It’s scary.”

“It’s almost always elderly victims because they don’t have their guard up,” said St. Clair Shores Detective Sgt. Gary Titus. “These people prey on people like that.

“They may make hundreds of calls until they find somebody to comply. They will continue to call back and demand more because they found a mark. They try to get as much as they can get out until somebody catches on.”

Titus said that police are hoping to spread the word that any legitimate sweepstakes or prize will never require the winner to send money to claim it.

“The people are all excited. They think, I’m going to get a car; I’m going to (get $1 million),” he said. “They say, ‘You only need to send $500 or $5,000.’ (The victims) think, if I’m getting $1 million, sending them $5,000 is not that much.”

He also cautioned residents against giving out bank account numbers, driver’s license numbers, Social Security numbers or other personal information over the phone because thieves will use that information to steal a person’s identity.

Another common scam is a senior citizen will get called by a person claiming to be the friend of a grandchild who has gotten into trouble in another country and needs the grandparent to wire money for bail.

“They want to come to the rescue,” Kimm said. 

And for many senior citizens, “The last bastion of independence these seniors have is their money.

“If they get scammed, the adult child now takes away their checkbook (and) they’re embarrassed.”

That’s why, he said, he wants to continue to spread the message so that fewer people fall victim to the scams.