Tables turned on would-be scammer

Vancouver detective poses as 89-year-old man to learn how schemer operated

By John Branton, Columbian Staff Reporter

Published:

 

Anyone remember Johnny Cash singing, “I’ve been everywhere, man”?

I’ve been to: Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota,

Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota,

Wichita, Tulsa, Ottawa, Oklahoma,

Tampa, Panama, Mattawa, La Paloma …

This story is about scams targeting Clark County residents -- not music -- but after 26 years, we at The Columbian could offer our own modest version of that great old song written by Australian country singer Geoff Mack in 1959:

I’ve covered sweepstakes, bad checks, secret shoppers, death threats,

Phishing, smishing, “Grandpa I been in a wreck,”

IRS, FBI, PUD, U.S. grants,

Nigerian, Canadian, Craigslist work-at-home tricks …

One case came to light last week when Sgt. Troy Price, a Vancouver police detective, called The Columbian. He’s worked with the FBI on this area’s Joint Terrorism Task Force and now does recruiting and background checks on folks who want to get hired as officers.

Price also worked with former VPD detective Ed Hewitt, whose passion about fighting scammers was contagious. The high-profile Hewitt loved to warn the community through public speaking and giving news interviews.

‘89 and very sharp’

Late last month, a Vancouver man named Gyle Halverson dropped by police headquarters near Officers Row to give them some mail that scammers sent him.

“They didn’t realize they were coming up against a guy who was 89 and very sharp,” Price said. “He recognized the scam right away. He said he didn’t want anyone to be fooled by it.”

It was a classic sweepstakes scam, one of the longest-running ploys ever, but it had some odd twists.

The scammer’s somewhat official-looking letter said Halverson had won $250,000 in a lottery. Enclosed was a “check” for $3,984 to pay the tax, shipping and handling. The letter asked Halverson to call a phone number to speak with a “claims agent” whose name was “Dave Wesley” to collect his cash.

The worthless check indicated it was drawn on a major insurance company and had a valid routing number. Price said he learned that the company is aware of such bogus checks being forged with its name.

In fact, just about every well-known business is enduring the same problem, and government agencies, as well.

If Halverson had deposited the real-looking check in his bank account, and spent or wired off part of the cash, the bank soon would learn it was worthless. And Halverson would have owed what he spent to his bank.

Halverson didn’t call the phone number, but Price did, to learn what the scammer would say and how the scheme operated. Price lied to the scammer and said he got the mail himself, saying he won big. To prove it, Price gave a PIN number that was in the envelope.

Convinced, “Dave Wesley” said, “I just activated the check to pay the taxes on your winnings,” Price said.

Wesley told Price to deposit the check. Price waited a couple of hours and said he’d done so.

Wesley then told Price to wire off some cash by Western Union, and explicitly ordered him not to tell the agent why he was wiring the money.

Western Union and MoneyGram employees know people who say they won big money in a sweepstakes are likely being manipulated by a scammer.

A few years ago, a wire agent in Hazel Dell intervened when an elderly woman came in, the second time in the same day, to wire off more cash. The agent realized what was happening and notified the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.

Instead of telling the truth, Price said, the scammer said, “Tell them you are sending money to a family member who needs it for school fees.”

That instruction by the scammer indicated that he knew what he was doing.

“He’s done it before,” Price added. “He had a lot of confidence when he was speaking,” in a pronounced accent that sounded African.

Price then tested the scammer, who showed his sophistication again.

“I asked him, ‘How is it I won in a lottery I never entered?’”

The scammer’s answer would be plausible only to the gullible. He told Price that major retailers including Sears, Target, J.C. Penney and Home Depot enter such lotteries on their customers’ behalf, without telling them.

If any of that were true, you’d think the retailers would use it as a selling point: “Yes! One day only! Shop here and we’ll enter you in a sleazy Nigerian sweepstakes so scammers can go after your personal information and drain your bank account!”

Scammers often target elderly folks, Price said, because many of them grew up in a time when they could trust others.

Trust? What’s that?

Price said he pretended to be confused to keep the caller on the phone and learn as much as possible.

With the scammer becoming increasingly anxious about getting the cash, Price stalled him, saying “I’m getting old and I forget things sometimes” and “I left my notes at home.” Price also put the man on hold, saying, “My cat ran out.”

“I had to give it to him,” Price said. “He didn’t lose his patience with me.”

But, finally, the conversation ended. The scammer got no money for his efforts, and Price learned his methods.

Price said he knows there’s little chance of the scammer’s being arrested, but he will notify the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Toronto, where the scammer may have been calling from.

Price said the scammer seemed confident that police couldn’t trace him.

A member of the RCMP once told The Columbian that such scammers typically are drug addicts who rent rooms in squalid motels and use phony names and disposable cellphones that they toss in the garbage to avoid being traced.

As for Halverson, a retired business executive who lives with his wife, Harriet, in the Hudson’s Bay neighborhood, he said he’s well aware of “rubber checks” and “the old song and dance.”

He said he got another scam pitch late last week, claiming he won $1 million from Publishers Clearing House, another favorite of scammers.

“They try to make it so authentic,” he said. “If they get the ring in your nose, they get you to follow them along.”

He offered some advice for folks targeted by pitches too good to be true:

“The best way to double your money is to fold it once and put it back in your wallet.”

John Branton: 360-735-4513 or john.branton@columbian.com.