Trusting Tisbury grandmother falls victim to telephone scam

— File photo by Ralph Stewart

The Tisbury Police warn Islanders to beware of telephone scams. Police issued the alert after investigating a report of a 75-year-old Island grandmother defrauded of $4,600.

Although there are many variations, the basic scenario is this: the scammers tell the intended victim that someone he or she knows, a relative or a friend, is in trouble or sick, and needs money. They may say the person is in a hospital, trapped at an airport without a ticket, or in jail.

The scammers prey on people who are upset by news intended to disturb. Often, after the fact, victims wonder how they could have been so gullible, and they may not report the scam to police.

In this case, the elderly victim (who asked not to be identified) said she reacted emotionally and was not thinking of anything but how to help her grandson. Law enforcement officials said scammers count on an emotional reaction by their victims to succeed.

Tisbury police said that the woman received a phone call on February 27 from a man pretending to be her grandson . He told her an elaborate story about being arrested and held in a local jail in New Hampshire. He ended with a request that she send a money order so he could get released.

According to the police report, the woman said the imposter sounded just like her grandson, who does live in New Hampshire, so she did not question the validity of the phone call. Another man came on the line and identified himself as her grandson’s attorney, Kevin Ross. He said police had arrested her grandson for operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, and striking a Mercedes Benz operated by Wei Sei Huang, a Chinese businessman, stopped at a red light.

Mr. Ross told the trusting grandmother that since the accident was her grandson’s first offense, he could be released from jail without any charges if he paid an insurance deductible for the Mercedes Benz his vehicle struck. Mr. Ross said the required deductible was ten percent, or $4,600, based on a vehicle value of $46,000.

Mr. Ross provided no contact information for himself or for the jail.

The grandmother’s only concern was to spare her grandson police charges. She sent $4,600 by Western Union to Mr. Huang at an address Mr. Ross provided in Beijing, China. She later received several phone calls informing her that Mr. Huang had received the money and her grandson had been released from jail, his license reinstated, and that all charges would be dropped.

Later that week, the grandmother spoke to her grandson and discovered the call was a hoax. She reported it to Tisbury Police who began an investigation.

Officer Ryan Natichioni followed up with a phone call to the grandson who said he had never been in an accident, arrested or requested money, and that he was at work on the dates that his grandmother received the phone calls.

Officer Natichioni requested a detailed report from Western Union’s security department and forwarded a copy of the police report to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office. The case remains under investigation.

Tisbury police chief Dan Hanavan said scammers will often try to take advantage of specific time periods, for example spring college break, to contact family members. He advised Island residents to always ask for contact information from anyone claiming to be a public official.

Chief Hanavan said any request to send money using Western Union should raise red flags because it cannot be traced by police. He said residents may contact Tisbury police if they have any doubts about the validity of a call.

Wednesday, Tisbury police sent a press release to local banks and businesses, including wire transfer agents, asking for help to identify possible scams, and alert potential victims when the circumstances appear suspicious. “The Tisbury Police department asks that suspicious circumstances be questioned,” police said. “Under no circumstances should anyone ever wire transfer large sums of money to an unknown party.”

Tisbury Police are not alone in responding to reports of possible scams. Chilmark police detective Jeff Day told The Times that police recently received reports of emails sent to elderly residents that purported to be from relatives in trouble and in need of cash.

In yet another twist, caterer Jan Buhrman received a telephone call from a man who arranged a 100-seat event. The telephone call was followed by emails to set up a payment plan.

As the exchange proceeded, Ms. Buhrman suspected a deposit-refund scam in the making. She confirmed it in a search of the web, officer Day said.

FBI caution

In a recent press release, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) warned of an increase in the number of “Relative in Distress (RID)” telephone scams, identical to the one experienced by the grandmother in Vineyard Haven.

As the press release describes, the basic scam is the same. One or more individuals claiming to be a relative in distress that needs cash contacts a victim who is asked to wire money to an address, many times overseas.

Law enforcement experts theorize that many of the telephone scammers mine websites and personal social networking sites to obtain personal details about their target victims, according to the FBI.

In some cases the victims send money more than once, in response to phone calls that describe the fictitious circumstances worsening. Many say they were distracted by emotion and their desire to help their loved ones. In order to avoid detection by law enforcement officials or other family members, telephone scammers often advise their victims not to tell anyone about their relative’s plight, to avoid embarrassment, the FBI release said.

Three victims of a RID scam in Los Angeles collectively wired over $30,000 to foreign countries, including Lebanon, Spain, Italy, Canada, Dominican Republic, and Peru. “Law enforcement has seen reports of this scam which involve nearly every part of the world, including from within the United States,” the FBI said.

FBI tips for avoiding telephone scams are available at