11/30/12 — Prison scammers threatening local families to steal money

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Prison scammers threatening local families to steal money

By John Joyce
Published in News on November 30, 2012 1:46 PM

A telephone scam used by prison inmates in Puerto Rico and South Florida in the late 1990s has reached North Carolina.

The scam operators use stolen or smuggled pre-paid cell phones to dial numbers at random and to tell whoever answers that their child or sibling has been kidnapped, is injured and owes money.

If the amount, usually less than $2,000, is not wired immediately via Western Union, the loved one will be killed, the caller warns.

At least one victim in Goldsboro has sent money to Puerto Rico and was defrauded.

A police report filed Monday by the Goldsboro Police Department showed that Brenda Barnes, of 706 N. Madison Ave., sent $300 after a caller who gave the name Jorge L. Miguel said her son had been injured in an accident and she had better pay.

More reports of the frightening phone calls have come up recently throughout the county, including a case Monday in Mount Olive.

"We had one this morning that started in Duplin County," said Brian Rhodes, chief of police in Mount Olive.

A resident who lives near the Wayne and Duplin County line reported to Mount Olive police that she had received a call saying that her son was injured and she should send $2,000.

When she replied that she only had about $200, Rhodes said, the caller told her to wire the money.

She went to the police instead.

Her son was located by the Mount Olive police unharmed and unaware of the incident.

In another case, which authorities believe is likely connected, John Williams, 62, of Goldsboro, was called and told that his wife had hit the caller's BMW at a gas station in town.

The con man, according to the police report, called from an area code assigned to Puerto Rico and said that he had taken the wife hostage and threatened to kill her unless a ransom of $1,000 was paid.

Williams' wife was standing next to him at the time. Thinking the man might have been referring to his sister-in-law, Williams passed the phone to her husband, Arthur James, 62. James called his wife, who said she was fine.

No money was sent and the police were notified.

An FBI official said such scams are not uncommon, and that they seem more prevalent this time of year.

Shelley Lynch, public affairs specialist for the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Charlotte office, said another well-known scam targets grandparents.

"Grandparents Scam, this one they call and say, 'Hey, Grandma" or 'Hey, Grandpa,' and then just play off of the responses they get," Ms. Lynch said.

The calls often take place late at night or early in the morning. The con artist, pretending to be a grandchild, might say that they have been traveling overseas and gotten into trouble, or that there has been a medical emergency or a car needs repairs, Ms. Lynch said. Then they ask for money to be wired.

The Goldsboro Police Department issued a press release cautioning people about the scams and providing tips on how to avoid being swindled.

If a call comes saying that a loved one is hurt or has been kidnapped, hang up, the police said. Then, call that person immediately and check on them. Then, call authorities.

The case in Mount Olive has been referred back to Duplin County, where the victim lives, and deputies with the Wayne County Sheriff's Office are investigating two cases of their own.

All of the local law enforcement agencies, and the FBI, strongly advise against sending money to any unknown recipients, no matter how persistent the callers might become.

Some of the intended victims reported as many as 10 phone calls and texts from the scam artists.