Officer helps recover money: Elderly woman was scammed out of $8,000

The Franklin police officer wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

He had come to an elderly woman’s house one afternoon last week when she discovered that she had fallen victim to a scam. Thieves pretending to be an attorney and her granddaughter called and said her granddaughter was in jail and they needed $8,000 to bond her out and pay court fines.

The scammers knew her granddaughter’s name. The resident had recognized scams and frauds before, but this time it seemed real. She grew suspicious the next day, called her granddaughter and realized she had been scammed.

Enter Ryan Mears of the Franklin Police Department. Where sometimes police reports end with victims having no option but to file a report and plead their case with credit card companies or banks, Mears saw an opportunity to at least try to get some of the 84-year-old’s money back.

He spent four hours on Thursday afternoon gathering information about what had happened and then calling the national helplines for Best Buy, the store where the woman had purchased $8,000 in gift cards, and even a retail store in California.

He kept calling until he found employees who would help, stayed on the phone even while responding to another call and by Tuesday, the woman had $4,000 back, with the remaining $4,000 on its way, he said.

Mears wants to use the case as a learning moment for the public: Do not be ashamed or embarrassed if you are a victim of a scam; report the crime immediately; ask questions when customers or family members plan to purchase large amounts of gift cards or send huge money orders or checks; don’t trust information from strangers who seem to know details about your life or family; and question whether they could have learned it by your or others’ social media pages and be using it to fool you.

Here’s what happened: A woman who identified herself as the resident’s granddaughter called her on Wednesday and said she had been in a traffic accident in Ohio, where she lives, had been arrested and would need $4,000 to bond out and pay court fines. She said her attorney would call back with more details, Mears’ report on the incident said.

Next, a man called from a supposed law firm, and told the Franklin resident to go to Best Buy and buy $4,000 worth of gift cards, explaining that the gift cards were necessary to keep the victim in the car accident from finding her and suing her for more damages, the report said.

The woman bought four $1,000 gift cards at the store in Greenwood, called the supposed law firm back and read them the gift card and pin numbers.

The scammer called back later and said he needed another $4,000, and the woman went back and bought more gift cards. She called the number they had provided, and they answered the phone as though it was a legitimate law firm, Mears said. She gave them the card information on the additional gift cards. She had put the purchases on her credit card, Mears said.

By noon the next day, the woman had become suspicious and called her granddaughter, who told her she had not been in a car accident and was not in jail, and told her grandmother to call police.

Mears took down the woman’s report, then called the Best Buy gift card helpline, he said. He kept calling until he got a company representative who was going to help him. He told them who he was, had a case number, and had the woman’s receipts and the physical gift cards.

The company found that four of the gift cards had not been used, and locked the cards so they couldn’t be spent. They told Mears what the victim would need to do to get the $4,000 refunded, and he gave her the information and she left for the Greenwood store to begin the refund process.

“Usually it is spent and gone,” Mears said of most other scam cases. “We got half back. That’s a huge deal.”

But Mears wasn’t finished. The scammers used the other four gift cards to purchase eight $500 gift cards, and Mears would have to call the Best Buy store in Burbank, Calif., to get more information.

Mears describes his actions as being assertive, not taking no for an answer and being willing to stay on the phone for hours on end, even while monitoring other calls for police in the city and even going to replace a manhole cover that was off while he was on the phone with Best Buy.

If the victim had waited one more day, or if Mears had not called the company and store immediately, the woman might not have gotten her money back. Instead, she is getting the money back that she can put towards her granddaughter’s college tuition, she told the officer.

“If I would have waited, they could have spent those other gift cards and she would have lost that other $4,000,” Mears said.

He got the information he needed from a manager of the California store and called back the national line to have the remaining gift cards frozen so the scammers couldn’t use them. The Franklin woman expects her second refund of $4,000 to arrive this week, Mears said.

He credits Best Buy with being cooperative and providing information about how to trace the gift cards.

“We were able to get it done,” Mears said.

Author photo
Michele Holtkamp is editor of the Daily Journal. She can be reached at mholtkamp@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2774.