Banks, law enforcement, raise red flag on phone scams

The shocking details just kept piling up: the woman’s grandson was in jail in New Jersey, he’d been charged with DWI and had hit a pregnant woman with his car.

The ensuing accident had been bad enough that he’d broken his jaw and that’s why he didn’t sound like himself. He told his grandmother that he needed help and he needed it fast, and that help was cash.

“It was just a cockeyed story” says Thom Jones, vice president and mortgage loan originator at Community Resource Bank in Roseville, recounting the scheme that defrauded a longtime bank customer out of $12,000, which the recent widow wired away thinking she was helping a family member.

“[Scammers] do tend to play on older people,” says Jones, noting the bank has seen three or four instances of customers losing many thousands of dollars to fraud schemes over the last six months. “They instill the panic and play on people’s emotions.”

Local law enforcement officials agree — people seeking to steal your money, either over the phone or online, stoke fear, shame and embarrassment to back their victims into corners and to make them act without fully vetting the situation.

“A lot of these scammers will really stress, ‘Don’t talk to anybody about this,’ they really put a lot of fear in people,” says Roseville police Lt. Erika Scheider.

Rebecca Sherman, the public information officer with the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office, which polices communities including Arden Hills, Falcon Heights, Little Canada and Shoreview, said fraudsters play on people’s vulnerabilities.

“[They try] to appeal on people’s emotions and people’s cares and concerns, and that’s when people are vulnerable — when they’re thinking emotionally,” she says.


Knowing the schemes

Scheider says a similar situation to what Jones describes played out in September in Roseville. 

She says an 80-year-old woman received a call from a person claiming to be her grandson who said they were jailed in Green Bay following an accident. The woman wired more than $15,000 to a New York address before realizing she’d been scammed when her grandson finally called her back to say he was OK.

Scheider says after the woman wired an initial sum, scammers called her back two more times seeking additional money — “they tend to target people again,” once cash is sent.

“It’s almost like getting on a mailing list — once you’re on one of those lists you get a lot more correspondence,” she says.

The scheme in both cases is called a grandchild scam, and plays out with different details each time while following a familiar patten, a loved one in trouble.

Other phone scams are well-known to banks and police: IRS scams in which a caller demands money immediately for unpaid taxes, or court scams in which a caller says an individual has missed a court date and needs to pay a penalty. There are many variations of both, and in each scam the caller scares their intended victim with harsh consequences, like jail, for not paying up. Other scams come from callers claiming to be from the potential victim’s bank, in need of banking information.

While some fraud plays on fear, other incidents play on love. Dan Bighley, president of the Community Resource Bank branch in Roseville, says a former customer became romantically involved with a scammer she met on an online dating site and wired her purported lover more than $50,000 over a number of months.

Bighley says bank employees, himself included, tried to warn the woman, who eventually closed her account. “Listen to your bank, they’re out to protect you, not to hurt you,” he says.


If it’s too good to be true ...

Sherman says the sheriff’s office puts out a continuous flow of information on what schemes are targeting people in the area and how to avoid falling victim to them.

“Unfortunately, a lot of those things fall on deaf ears,” she says. “Unless something has happened [to them], people don’t really notice things like this.”

She says there are a couple rules of thumb that people can follow that offer a lot of protection against falling for a scam — don’t answer robocalls, don’t give out personal information over the phone and don’t wire money for payment to unknown parties or use gift cards as a form of payment. Both means of moving money are effectively untraceable, and both the bankers and law enforcement officials say money lost that way is nearly impossible to recover.

Scheider agrees with Jones that scammers tend to target older people and seniors, and there’s some logic behind it. Many seniors have landline telephones and are more apt to answer calls. She also says isolation plays a role — scammers will even mine obituaries for potential victims.

“You can get a lot of information from an obituary,” she says. “If you lose a loved one really be careful of some of these scams.”

If you do take an alarming call, Scheider, Sherman, Jones and Bighley all recommend seeking help from a third party — call the grandson or his parents to see if he needs help, look up the official IRS number and call it, talk to someone at your bank.

Jones says a good credo is that if something is too good to be true, it probably isn’t. The inverse, that if a tale involving a loved on is too shocking to be true, it probably isn’t, also works.

“If a person calls asking for money,” says Jones, “you have to take a step back to think.”

Those who fall victim to scams should call the police to report it — law enforcement officials note that scammers rely on people’s embarrassment to prevent them from reporting the crime.

You can call the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office at 651-767-0640 or the Roseville Police Department at 651-748-7008.


–Mike Munzenrider can be reached at or 651-748-7813. 

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