Cassandra Hotaling Hahn / Staff photo
Attorney General William Sorrell speaks during a news conference Thursday at the Rutland City Police Department about overseas scam artists targeting senior citizens.
RUTLAND — The phone call sounds heart-wrenching: As an elderly woman sobs into the phone, a man with a vaguely Jamaican accent continues to hit her up for money even though she’s already sent him so much that she can’t afford to heat her home anymore.
“These are simply ruthless, heartless criminals intent on destroying lives,” Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell said before he played the recording described as an elderly Massachusetts woman on the phone with an overseas scammer. “They are unmerciful in the way they attack seniors.”
Sorrell went to the Rutland City Police Department on Thursday along with the state president of FairPoint Communications, the state director for AARP and a victims’ representative to warn older residents and their loved ones about scams that Sorrell said bilked Vermont seniors out of an estimated $300 million during the past year.
Phone scams come in all shapes and sizes, but the majority come from international numbers. Recently Vermont residents have been plagued by scammers calling from area code 876 — the Commonwealth of Jamaica.
Calls from that area code have become so numerous that FairPoint and the others represented in the room have launched a campaign and website warning people not to be taken in by anyone calling from Jamaica with promises of easy money or threats of action against them or their loved ones — situations that victims are told they must send money to address.
“These scammers are well-trained professionals who typically target seniors,” said FairPoint state President Mike Smith. “We quickly realized that we needed to work hand-in-hand to prevent more seniors from becoming victims.”
Sorrell added that the Consumer Assistance Program at his office had received numerous calls, mostly from relatives of victims and expressing concerns about their parents, grandparents, uncles or aunts.
The location of the news conference was chosen in part because of a recent case involving a Rutland area senior who received nearly 30 phone calls in a month from an 876 phone number, officials said.
Jean Britt wasn’t victimized that long.
But the Castleton senior said the week she spent receiving threatening calls from two men professing to be lawyers representing her grandson in a major criminal case felt like an eternity, she said.
“You don’t sleep at night,” she said after the news conference. “You just wait for the next phone call.”
The scam that Britt, a retired college professor, said she was subjected to is called a grandparent scam and operates on the basis of a grandchild facing a serious criminal charge — complete with background sounds of a hysterical young man crying as he’s being handcuffed, she said.
The get-out-of-jail-free card offered by the scammer comes in the form of an “out-of-court” settlement that a phony defense attorney offers the grandparent. All the senior citizen has to do is wire money for court fees and the grandchild goes free — oh, and if they tell anyone about the settlement, the deal is off.
“They isolate you,” Britt said. “They control your coming and going, and they answer your questions before you can ask them.”
She added: “I want to do anything I can to make people know how they work. They are so good at what they do, they could sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.”
In many of the scams, that’s exactly what they offer — or at least the equivalent weight in gold.
Most of the cons use the carrot, not the rod. The con men often pose as representatives of national lotteries. They tell seniors that they’ve won millions of dollars, which they will receive once all duties, transaction fees, taxes and other expenses have been paid.
Many seniors eventually catch on, officials say, but some keep paying because the thieves begin threatening them using tools such as Google Earth to zoom in on satellite images of the victim’s home so they can say that not only do they know where a senior lives but what color their house is and the dimensions of their picket fence.
Other victims keep quiet out of embarrassment, said Rutland interim Police Chief James Baker, who estimated that 90 percent of fraud victims don’t report what happened to them.
“We need to encourage people to come forward,” he said. “Open communication is one of the few ways we can stop scammers in their tracks.”
One thing that Baker and Sorrell said won’t bring an end to the scams is criminal prosecution of the offenders, who are conducting their illegal activities far beyond the reach of law enforcement in Vermont or even at the federal level.
Of greater value, they said, is education and proactive arrangements with phone companies like FairPoint, which has the ability to install services such as Caller ID and can block international numbers altogether.
As part of the education campaign, FairPoint has launched an informational website at www.bewareof876.com. For more information and services, or to report a scam, Vermonters can call the attorney general’s Consumer Assistance Program at (800) 649-2424 or visit the site at www.uvm.edu/consumer. Consumers can also receive protection alerts on Twitter: @vtconsumers.
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