In a rarity, $1,600 that an elderly woman in The Dalles was scammed out of was recently returned to her by postal inspectors, who made a special trip here from Portland to do so.
But an alarming aspect of this case was that the scammers remotely changed the woman’s phone number, “not once, but twice,” in an effort to isolate her, said Gwen Koski, postmaster in The Dalles.
Unfortunately, a money order the woman sent in January to the same scammers for the same amount of money was not recovered. By the time she’d been scammed a second time, she had “pennies” left in her bank account, Koski said, and was eating canned food.
A postal clerk in The Dalles was skeptical when the woman came to buy the second money order, and asked if she was sure she wanted to do it.
The woman insisted, saying it was for her nephew. But when it arrived in Florida, another alert postal clerk noticed “a stack” of money orders being sent from all over the country to the same person, Koski said.
The money orders were confiscated, and criminal proceedings begun, which have led to arrests, she said.
When the second money order was confiscated in Florida, the woman came in to ask why it wasn’t delivered to her “nephew,” Koski said.
“We can’t not sell a money order, but we can try to raise awareness when something seems fishy. But we can’t know everything, and every day there’s a new scam,” Koski said.
Koski found herself drawn to the matter, and she spoke to the elderly woman at length to try to understand what happened. “I don’t think that lady was going to tell me. Eventually, I had to say, ‘I’m really sorry they took that money from you, but they’re not going to get it this time.’”
She learned that scammers called the woman to say she’d won a large sum of money from Publisher’s Clearinghouse.
But, the scammers asked if she had paid her taxes. She hadn’t for a few years. She was told she had to settle up on her tax debt before she could receive her winnings, Koski said.
“I explained that Publisher’s Clearinghouse will show up on your step if you win a lottery with them. That is a fact. They drive all over the country.” She said, “They’re going to give it to you whether you have tax problems or not.”
The scammers “calculated” her taxes for her, and instructed her to send them a money order for that amount so they could pay her back taxes and release her winnings.
The scammers worked diligently, being “very adamant and demanding” that she not tell family members about her winnings until she had the money, and cautioning her to “lock her doors and everything, because people are gonna know your name” as a winner, Koski said.
They told her to use a cover story if anyone asked about the money she was sending, and they insisted she say it was for her nephew.
The woman told Koski that when her first money order was sent, she was told by the scammer that a man at the company “got greedy” and had stolen it, and was fired. She would have to send the same amount again to settle her taxes.
“And that’s when I said, ‘Wait a minute, are you sure this is your nephew?’” recounted Koski.
The woman told her it wasn’t her own nephew, but a nephew of her husband’s, who had passed away decades ago.
Koski thought, “Oh my God.”
She said, “I was so affected by this little lady because she was so sweet.”
She said the elderly woman is not senile or slow. “She can very well take care of herself,” Koski said. “They’re playing on the vulnerability and naivete of” victims.
She said when something like this happens, “You feel robbed of security, privacy and dignity.”
Koski said the victims of scams are very embarrassed about it and don’t want to tell anyone, especially their families.
Family reaction might be, “’Oh my God, you did what? Are you kidding me? Are you stupid?’ No, they’re not stupid, they just got conned,” Koski said.
Koski said the Portland-based postal inspector, who is a federal law enforcement officer, asked the woman to have a trustworthy family member there so he could explain it to them as well when he came to return her money order.
As for the phone number change, Koski said the woman’s neighbor once tried to call her, but the number didn’t work. The neighbor asked if she changed her number. The woman said she hadn’t.
When the woman called the phone company, Koski recounted, “they said, ‘You changed it. We can’t change it without you doing it.’”
The postal inspector suggested she change her number again, and get it password protected so it couldn’t be changed without her knowledge. But she was reluctant and Koski doesn’t know if the woman ever did change her number.
She said the scammers ask multiple questions, things like the name of your first pet, or the color of your first car, since those might be passwords.
Koski hates that scammers use the postal service to conduct their crimes. She said postal staff are trained regularly on being vigilant for scams.
“There’s only so much we can do to protect people from scams.” And yes, she said, it is a crime to use the postal service to perpetuate a scam. She said there are reportable cash levels for money orders, and scammers stay just below them.
Scammers also use Western Union and other services, like UPS, FedEx and DHL, to deliver money orders.
She said, “This breaks our elderly down, they get so sad about it and they start questioning whether they’re able to take care of themselves because they don’t trust anybody.”
She encouraged people in stay in touch with family. “If you have elderly family members, visit them often, you know? Visit them.”