(Photo by Gabe Licht)
When law enforcement officials in Michigan contacted Spencer Police Chief Mark Lawson on Oct. 12 about potential fraud in the area, it did not take long for the local department to determine a Spencer woman was the victim, not the suspect.
"They sent us the information and we tracked it," Lawson said. "We obtained a search warrant and paid a visit to this person, looking for electronic equipment, tablets and laptops that had been fraudulently purchased. We realized fairly quickly the person here was the victim, not the suspect."
Nearly all purchased items had been shipped away, leaving only two small items - which the woman was told were gifts - to be seized by police.
Lawson explained that the woman, in her late 60s, was befriended online, received flowers and candy and agreed to send $300 "for a medical bill for his son at college in Malaysia, saying she'll be repaid when he gets his next paycheck."
Following that request, she was asked to purchase iPods, iPads, digital cameras and laptops.
"He says he will send a credit card to her with her name on it and tells her, 'Don't worry about the bill,'" Lawson said.
Purchases were made until the credit card was maxed out at $20,000, and the purchases were shipped using mailing labels that showed up at her house. Her work was rewarded with two small item purchases for herself.
"She then gets an email contact allegedly from the FBI asking for her assistance in catching the same person she's doing the credit card thing with," Lawson said. "During the course of a few days, she's convinced to send thousands of dollars to the FBI agent with the promise she will be reimbursed once they apprehend the suspects."
As if these scams weren't enough, the woman was defrauded twice more.
"Again, she is contacted by someone using a different name asking for her to sponsor people out of a developing country to come to America," Lawson said. "This tugs on her heartstrings more, so she ponies up several thousands of dollars and sends it through Western Union. The final hit is to pay for a soldier's military leave, which does not happen. But, she receives colorful, official-looking mail, believes it and sends money."
At one point, an individual who handled a Western Union transfer refused to send the money, but caved after some deliberation.
"A family member also caught wind of this and confronted her, saying, 'You're being victimized,' but just stopped at that," Lawson said.
Now, the individual is on the hook for $20,000 in credit card charges, plus $18,000 she borrowed from her life insurance policy and 401k fund, which she wired for the various "causes."
When the victim was contacted by law enforcement about the scam, "her whole world came crashing down," Lawson said.
Since then, the department has had open communication with the victim and her bank.
Her cell phone number has been changed, her land line phone is being disconnected, her email has been removed from the dating website that connected her to the scammer and her address has been flagged with the credit card company, though fraudulent cards continue to appear in the mail. The department has also sent a subpoena to officials at the website involved, but chances of recovering any of the funds are nearly nonexistent because Malaysia is a non-extradition country.
"She's informed some of her family about this mess, but it's too little too late," Lawson said. " ... Her nightmares are just beginning. We're hoping we've limited collateral damage."
It's not too late for others to learn from the situation, though, he insisted.
"People were seeing red flags, but the victim refused to take heed," Lawson said. "We need to reiterate you need to look out for each other."
"I don't want to embarrass this person," he continued. "This just needs to be a teaching experience."