W5 investigation: Conmen who target seniors
Producing documentaries for W5 you get to know all kinds of people. Some are nice. Some are not so nice.
The Grandson Scam was one of those stories with both types, where the best in human nature came face to face with the worst.
On one side were the scammers -- heartless people who call the elderly and pretend to be a grandson in trouble. Most scams involve greed, but this fraud plays on the love every grandparent feels for a grandchild. The fraudulent callers are persuasive, hard to resist, and they've skimmed tens of millions of dollars from thousands of victims in Canada and the U.S. Where such people find the cold-blooded nerve to rip off the elderly is beyond me.
One official involved in the investigation of these crimes, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission's Steve Baker, described these fraudsters as people who have no conscience.
"They sleep just fine at night," he said. "They do not feel the least bit guilty, they tell themselves that anybody that gives them their money, that it's their fault because they're stupid, which is often not true, but they justify it to themselves."
On the other side of the story were the victims, the kind-hearted who would do anything for a grandson in trouble. People like Scott and Joan Snell who baked the Pennsylvania Dutch speciality, Shoofly Pie, to welcome our W5 crew when we visited their farmhouse in Manheim, Pennsylvania. Before we set up our equipment, they insisted we take time out, sit at their kitchen table and sample the delicious concoction of molasses baked in soft pastry. It was a delightful way to start our taping and served to underline just how kind these people were. They went out of their way to make strangers feel comfortable.
Imagine what they do for a relative, especially a grandson who says he's in trouble. Small wonder the scammers were able to take advantage of their generous spirit and persuade them to send almost $3,000 -- a lot of money for a couple on a fixed pension -- to Canada, supposedly to pay for an impaired driving fine for their grandson.
And then there was Gretchen Geary. If you were making a movie and went to Central Casting to find someone to play a sweet-natured grandmother, Gretchen would be your choice. She lives alone in Erie, Pennsylvania, surrounded by memorabilia from her family who are scattered across the United States.
She too fell for a call from a man posing as her grandson, Zachary, who had supposedly been arrested in Canada for drunk driving. By the time she realized what was going on, she had sent almost $6,000, money she could ill-afford to lose, to pay for what she thought were her grandson's fines and car rental bill.
"I felt like an idiot for falling for that," she said. "But I still couldn't understand how this voice could have sounded identical to Zachary. I never questioned it for a minute."
Scott Snell was also convinced it was his grandson calling for help from Toronto. But after sending his payment to Canada via a money transfer service, he started thinking about what had happened and got suspicious. He tracked down his real grandson and discovered, of course, he hadn't been in Canada at all. When the phony grandson called back for more money, this time to supposedly pay for a rented car, Scott was ready for him. "You scam artist," he told him. "I wish I had my hands on you."
That's also the wish of law enforcement all across Canada and the United States, but the Snells and Gretchen Geary are among only 10 per cent of victims who actually report the crime to police.
"I think a lot of people are ashamed," said Steve Baker. "They're embarrassed. It's a really bad experience."
If 90 per cent of victims don't report the crime, it makes the job of tracking down suspects even harder. But in 2009, Durham Regional Police got a lucky break after they got a call from a Cash Money outlet in Oshawa. A man, later identified as Anthony Ojo, was there to pick up a transfer from Pennsylvania. Police believed it was a fraud in progress.
"The employees at the Cash Money place, they were sharp," said Durham Regional Police Detective Jeff Caplan. "They were on the ball and they picked out Mister Ojo as being a repeat customer with different names."
Different names and different IDs. Ojo was carrying a sheaf of fake identity, all with the same picture. Phony ID that would fool anyone.
"They've gone to a lot of hard work," said Detective Caplan. "And a lot of research to get the security features that are on a driver's license and reproduced them on a fake driver's license. It just screams organized crime."
Police believed Ojo, a Nigerian who had lived in Canada since 1998, was part of a network of criminals, spread across Canada, targeting the elderly on both sides of the border. But where did Ojo fit in that vast machine of deceit?
"I would put Mister Ojo somewhere in the middle," said Detective Caplan. "We don't believe he was the person making the phone calls because he had an accent."
He may not have made the calls, but he'd been caught picking up a payment from a victim in the United States. Even so, Ojo wasn't willing to help police unravel the whole scheme.
He was charged with fraud over $5,000 and could have gone to trial in Canada where, being a first-time offender, he might have received a sentence of, at most, a year.
However, prosecutors in the United States believed he had received more than $600,000 from 120 victims in Pennsylvania, so they wasted no time in asking for extradition.
Ojo is now being held at a federal detention centre in Philadelphia. If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison.
If that happened, it would give some measure of satisfaction to one of his victims, Gretchen Geary.
"It makes me feel happy," she said. "He should be facing something terrible for all the things he's done to other people."
It also turned out that Gretchen was luckier than some victims. The day she sent her second payment of almost $3,000 to Canada was the same day Ojo got arrested.
And she got that money back.
"I couldn't believe the good fortune of that happening," she said with a smile in her living room in Erie.
Gretchen was certainly lucky, but the main reason she got that money back was that she had reported the crime to police. Authorities on both sides of the border were aware of her situation, so when her name popped up on one of the payments destined for Ojo, they were able to get her money back.
And that's rare. Most victims never see a cent of their money.
Police say the best way to avoid being ripped off is for seniors to be aware that imposters, posing as a grandson, are out there and they'll squeeze as much money as they can from their victims.
It's hard for a loving grandparent to do, but if they think with their heads instead of their hearts, they're less likely to fall for the tale of misery they'll hear on the telephone.
Here are some tips for seniors who get calls from a would-be grandchild:
- Try to verify the caller's identity by asking personal questions a stranger couldn't answer.
- Resist the pressure to act immediately. Call your grandson on a number you know. If you don't have the number, or there's no answer, get in touch with another family member to check out the story, even if you've been told to keep everything secret.
- If you can't reach a family member and still aren't sure what to do, call your local police on the non-emergency line. They can help sort things out.
- No matter how dramatic the story, don't wire money. Don't send a check or money order by overnight delivery or courier, either. Con artists recommend these services so they can get your money before you realize you've been cheated.
- Report possible fraud to The Canadian Anti-Fraud Call Centre at www.antifraudcentre.ca or call 1-888-495-8501.