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Scammed: Grandfather's story is a warning to others

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Frank Cervi looks down at a photo of his grandson with his wife and child while talking about his $13,500 loss when recently falling victim to a telephone scam Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017.


By Beth Velliquette
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, December 3, 2017

“Hi grandpa!”

Those are welcome words for most grandfathers. A grandchild is calling to say hello.

For Frank Cervi of Winterville, those words were the beginning of trouble for him and his wife.

Cervi, 86, was about to get scammed out of $13,500, not from his grandson, but from a stranger pretending to be him.

“This happened Tuesday morning around 8:30 when I got a a so-called call from my grandson,” Cervi said. “I have caller ID, and the caller ID showed his cellphone number.”

“I could swear that was my grandson’s voice,” Cervi said. “It was a young guy, not foreign.”

His “grandson” told him that he had been in a car wreck and had left the scene to go get help and ended up being arrested on charges of hit-and-run. He was in jail.

Cervi would later learn that his real grandson, a sergeant in the Marines, was out on maneuvers that day, had not been in a wreck and was not in jail.

But the scammer on the phone told Cervi he needed bond money.

“He gave me the name of an attorney and said to call this attorney to help get him out of jail,” Cervi said. “He wanted me to post his bond.

“I said, ‘OK, I’ll take care of it,’” Cervi said. “I called this attorney.”

The person he talked to, not a real attorney but another scammer, sounded official and said he was a bail bondsman. 

“They even gave me a fictitious file number,” Cervi said. “They wanted us to get some gift cards from Sam’s Club.”

Cervi said he and his wife were so naive that they drove over to Sam’s Club and purchased $4,500 in gift cards.

He brought them home,called the scammer back and read off the numbers on the back of each card to the so-called attorney.

“So that’s the first $4,500,” he said.

The scammer called back and said because someone had gotten hurt in the wreck, the bail had increased from $5,000 to $14,000.

This time, Cervi withdrew $5,000 from the bank and headed back to Sam’s Club , where he purchased five gift cards for $1,000 each.

Once again, he called the scammer up and read off the numbers from the back of the card.

“So far it’s $9,500,” Cervi said.

The fake attorney called back and said he needed more, and again Cervi withdrew more money and purchased $4,000 in gift cards from Sam’s Club.

“So now we’re up to $13,500,” he said. 

The scammer called later and said, “Good news, the charges have been dismissed.”

But guess what.

Now, according to the fake attorney, the injured party was suing.

“He says that I have to come up with another $5,000,” Cervi said. 

Cervi was worried about his grandson, thinking of what he must be going through, so he went back to the bank and got another $5,000 and then went to Sam’s Club and was starting to buy more gift cards when the Sam’s Club employee called the company’s asset security specialist who came to the desk and talked to Cervi and his wife.

“She was quite honest with us,” he said. “You’re the second person in two weeks that’s come in for gift cards in such big denominations.”

She told him that they would have to report any amount over $10,000 to the IRS.

That made Cervi stop and think. 

They stopped the transaction.

Throughout the conversations with the fake attorney, he had been sworn to secrecy. The scammer told the couple not to talk to anyone about it, including his grandson, saying if anyone found out, he would go straight to jail, Cervi said.

When Cervi got home, he called his grandson, who said, “Hi grandpa.”

“I said, “Oh good, you’re out of jail. He said, ‘What are you talking about?’”

“I said, ‘You weren’t arrested and put in jail?’”

“He said, “’Grandpa, what in the hell are you talking about?’”

Cervi told his grandson the story, and his grandson said he had been out on maneuvers, not in jail.

“I said, ‘Oh my god. We’ve been taken big time.’”

Cervi’s not the first one taken by the “grandparents scam.”

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein has several web pages devoted to educating people about the scam. 

In September, his office received six calls about the swindle, and in three instances, three grandparents fell victim, losing a total $44,900. 

As of September, the Attorney General’s office reported 32 victims in the state had lost more than $184,000 to the grandparent scam.

After he realized he’d been scammed, Cervi called the Winterville Police Department to report it. It was too late to get any of his money back. The scammers had quickly cashed in the numbers from the gift cards and the money was gone.

Cpl. M. Hobbs, a detective with the department, said Cervi’s was not the only case he had heard about lately.

About two months ago, a woman and her family came to the police department and were upset becuase someone called saying a family member was in trouble. The woman was so upset she was crying, Hobbs said.

The officers were able to calm her down and track down the family member and found out he was not in jail and was just fine.

When scammers call, they use a lot of tricks of their trade, Hobbs said.

One of the first, as in Cervi’s case, is that they use a phone app that can indicate the call is coming from a different number. That’s why when Cervi saw the caller ID on his phone with his grandson’s number, he was tricked into thinking it was his grandson calling.

In Cervi’s case, it sounded as though the scammers knew something about his family, which they may have gotten from internet reasearch or social media pages such as Facebook or a data breach, Hobbs said.

If a scammer doesn’t know much about the family, he or she may use generic names, such as saying, “Hi Grandpa. This is your granddaughter.”

Then the victim might respond by saying, “Oh hi Sara.” Then the scammer knows the name of the granddaughter and will use that to build trust with the potential victim, Hobbs said.

If a person receives a call claiming a loved one is in jail and has any doubt, call the local police department, Hobbs said.

Another option is to call the jail where the person is supposedly being held to check to see if the person really is there.

If someone asks to buy gift cards for iTunes, Sam’s Club, Walmart or a Green Dot prepaid credit card, and give them the cards or the numbers from the card, that’s a sign it’s a scam, Hobbs said.

Court systems and detention centers don’t accept gift cards as payment, he said.

Hobbs also warned about a different scam that is popular these days. That is the IRS scam, when someone calls and says that if a payment isn’t made on an outstanding tax debt, the person will be arrested and taken to jail.

Like the grandparent scam, the caller will ask the person to purchase gift cards or a Green Dot card to transfer the money that is supposedly owed.

That is not how the IRS operates, Hobbs said. It sends letters through the mail if someone owes money, and the agency does not take gift cards, he said.

“Don’t hesitate to call your local law enforcement if you have any questions at all,” Hobbs said. “Don’t give anybody your credit card number or personal information. If you have any doubt, please call us.” 

For information about the IRS scam, go to: https://www.treasury.gov/tigta/contact.shtml.

For information about the grandparent, scam go to: http://www.ncdoj.gov/Consumer/Tips-for-Seniors/Grandparent-Scams.aspx

Contact Beth Velliquette at bvelliquette@reflector.com or at 252-329-9566.



Avoid being scammed

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein has these tips to help people recognize and avoid the grandparent scam:

• Con artists will try to take advantage of the fact that grandparents will do anything to help their grandchildren. These frauds are also called family emergency scams or travel scams.

• The grandparent scam usually begins with a call from a person who claims to be a grandchild in trouble who needs money right away. The grandparent often responds with his or her grandchild’s name, giving the scammer the information needed to sound authentic and complete the con. In other cases, the criminal already knows the grandchild’s name through social media or other websites. The victim is asked to send thousands of dollars by wiring money or loading funds onto gift cards from the Apple Store or other businesses. Victims rarely know they’ve been scammed before the funds are lost.

To avoid grandparent scams:

• Don’t answer calls from phone numbers you don’t recognize or emails from addresses that aren’t familiar to you.

• Beware of anyone who asks you to send money immediately, no matter the reason.

• Don’t share information about you or your family with anyone you don’t know who calls, emails, or contacts you through other means.

• If you get a call or a message asking for help, hang up or log off and contact the person directly at a number you know is theirs to make sure the request is legitimate.

• If someone claims to be a loved one, ask the person questions that only your real family member would be able to answer.

• Share carefully on social media. Make sure your privacy settings prevent strangers from accessing information about you or your family.

• Never wire or send money in response to a phone call, email or online message. Once the money has been received by a fraudster, it’s almost impossible to get it back.





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