“The Hoax” – Many Telephone Con Artists Are Untouchable

HARTSELLE, Ala. (WHNT) – Sheriffs investigators in Morgan County tell us they’re seeing a huge increase in the number of telephone scams perpetrated on people. The scams range from callers saying you’ve won a big prize to someone posing as a law enforcement officer asking for bail money for one of your children or grandchildren. Most people don’t fall for the hoax, but the ones who do make it a profitable enterprise for these telephone thieves. WHNT News 19’s Al Whitaker met one such scam victim recently and while he was shooting the interview, the thieves called back asking for more. We’re taking action to help end the calls this one couple keeps receiving, but there’s useful information here everyone should know.

Jeremy and Bobbie Smallwood say at first the callers didn’t ask for money, they told them they had won a huge cash prize and a car.  But after the third or fourth call, they wanted them to send money.

“They started out asking us for the taxes on the money, the taxes on the car, the storage for the car and shipping and handling fees,” Jeremy explained.

It wasn’t easy on their fixed income but over the course of about 90 days the Smallwoods managed to send the con-artists roughly $3,500.  When Jeremy finally told them he didn’t have any more to send, they said they could help him.

“Well, they said they would send me money for me to pay for the prize.  I was getting mail out of the Hartselle Post Office and they was sending me checks to cash to send to them and come to find out the checks bounced,” Jeremy told us.

“These people that do this are experts.  They’re con men. That’s what they do for a living and they’ve found a way to do it where they really can’t be touched legally at least by anybody in the United States because they’re operating from outside the country.”

The calls to the Smallwoods originated from Kingston, Jamaica.

While we were shooting our interview with the Smallwoods, the thieves called wanting even more money. The caller identified herself as Mrs. James Brown.  Here’s the exchange:

Al Whitaker: “Mrs. Brown, my name is Al.  And, we’re recording your conversation. Tell me about your conscience, Mrs. Brown.”

Caller: “Who are you?”

Al Whitaker: “What kind of a conscience do you have scamming poor people like this?”

She hung up at that point but a few minutes later, another call.  Same number, different voice. Here’s that exchange:

Caller: “Do you remember how much money you have won, along with your car?”

Jeremy: “No ma’am.”

Caller: “Oh my God! Your $2.5 million dollars along with your beautiful new Mercedes-Benz.”

Al Whitaker: “Can you hear me? Do you understand English?”

Caller: “Yeah.”

Al Whitaker: “You’re a thief.”

Caller: “Beg your pardon?”

Al Whitaker: “You are a thief. You are the worst kind of thief. You are scum. You are stealing from these people.”

Caller: “Well, why are you saying that, sir?”

Jeremy: “Because you’ve been asking for money from day one.  Since November.”

Al Whitaker: “Where are you? Where are you?”

Caller: “Beg your pardon?”

Al Whitaker: “Where are you? Look around, what country are you in?”

Caller: “I’m not in any country.”

Al Whitaker: “You’re not in any country? You’re a thief.”

Caller: “I’m in the United States.”

Al Whitaker: “No, you’re not. You’re a liar, too. You’re a liar.”

“But they get the phone call and they do it.  And, it’s money out of their pockets that they’ll never see again.  There’s nothing we can do about it,” Lt. Kelly said after hearing of the scam.

“I don’t see how they can sit back and do people the way they do, take advantage of people, especially us poor folks. And it hurts.  It hurts bad,” Jeremy confided.

It cannot be said often enough. No legitimate company is going to call you on the telephone, out of the blue, and start asking for your personal information or ask you to send them money.  And if someone calls and says you’ve won a big prize but somewhere in the conversation they say you need to send us a little something, you should automatically know it is a scam, you are talking to a thief.  Hang up the phone. Just hang up the phone.  Don’t be a victim.

Jeremy Smallwood had to change his home telephone number but they still call his cell. They haven’t asked for more money yet, they just talk and offer explanations. Lt. Kelly says they’re trying to re-set the hook in an effort to exploit even more from him. Kelly says if you even answer the phone when these scammers call, your number automatically goes on a list that they will call again from time to time.  He strongly suggests using your Caller ID.  He says if you get a call from an unfamiliar number, especially if the caller’s area code is 876 (Kingston, Jamaica), just don’t answer.  Let the caller leave a message.

From the reporter’s notebook:

We spoke to a person in the U.S. State Department who asked not to be identified in this story.  She told us this is an old problem and big business in Jamaica and that the local authorities there would do nothing to shut it down. U.S. law enforcement agencies have no jurisdiction to investigate or make arrests in scams that originate there.

We also spoke to an FBI spokesperson who told us this scam is not new and that, “The subjects continue to develop new methods to further their fraudulent scheme.” He said they’ll send a taxi to a victim’s home offering to take them to a Western Union office to wire money.  He said some have been known to call local police to go to a potential victim’s house on a “welfare check” but the move is intended to intimidate the potential victim.

When I first met the Smallwoods, they were on their way home after buying a Western Union Moneygram for $50. They saw me parked in front of Hartselle City Hall and stopped to ask if there was anything WHNT News 19 could do to help them recover the money they had lost. After Jeremy told me what had happened and how, I had to tell him there was nothing anyone could do to recover that money.  I informed him that he had been scammed. He thought for a moment and then asked if I would tell his story in an effort to keep others from falling victim to this type of hoax and I agreed.  When he drove away, he and Bobbie went back to the store where they had purchased the Moneygram and got their $50 back.  However, they had already called the thieves and given them the order number to claim the money. The next day, while I was at their home to shoot the interview, these thieves called to tell him to go back to the Western Union office and resend the cash. I asked Jeremy to put the first caller on speakerphone so I could record it.

Jeremy told me over the past few months, he and Bobbie had talked to a number of people involved in the hoax. One said he was with the U.S. Treasury Department.  Others, including the second woman who called the Smallwoods the day I was there, said they represented a popular and well known sweepstakes.  Bobbie and Jeremy have been playing contests and entering sweepstakes for years.  So when the initial calls came in, they wanted to believe it was true.

The FBI tells us if you have to pay to collect your winnings, you’re not winning. It’s a scam! Legitimate sweepstakes don’t require you to pay insurance, taxes or shipping and handling fees to collect your prize.

If you or someone you know has been the victim of a telephone or internet scam, the FBI urges you to report it to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, or “IC3″ at www.ic3.gov. Here’s another FBI supported site that provides excellent information: LOOKS TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE.