MISSOULA, Montana (Missoulian) – In February in Billings, an elderly woman was scammed by a late phone call from an impostor into believing that a young relative needed money to be released from prison.
The woman and her husband got into their car to go to the bank, according to Billings Police Det. Brett Lapham.
“It was right after a heavy snowstorm and the roads were very slippery,” Lapham said on a conference call organized by the Federal Trade Commission on pandemic-related scams.
The car lost control on a hill, cut into a parked car and drove away. The two occupants were trapped and had to be extracted by firefighters. The woman’s husband lost his life from his injuries.
“All because they were going to the bank to withdraw money to pay for a scam on grandparents,” Lapham recalled. “We cannot bring this gentleman back to life. It was an incredibly tragic end.”
The Federal Trade Commission and Ethnic Media Services hosted the virtual press conference on Wednesday, titled “Spot and Prevent Scams and Other Pandemic-Related Fraud in Montana.”
Due to the social isolation caused by the pandemic, people are often more anxious and vulnerable to con artists who target their emotions during this time, as the Billings story illustrates. There has also been an influx of federal funds in the form of stimulus checks, while at the same time, many people are falling into debt due to unemployment, lack of affordable housing or illness-related health expenses.
“Crooks thrive on disasters and hardship,” explained Anthony Advincula with Ethnic Media Services. “Across Montana and the Mountain West, con artists are preying on people struggling to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout.”
Fraudsters are particularly drawn to tribal, rural, low-income, immigrant and refugee communities, he said.
“Information is an effective antidote to scams that promote bogus medicine, bogus test sites, get-rich-quick schemes, business and government impostors, bogus romance and more,” he said. .
Hanna Tester, housing network manager at NeighbourWorks Montana, said high house prices had caused scams to spike.
“The lack of affordable housing options in cities has created urban refugees,” she said. “These are people who are moving from cities to rural areas because they cannot find housing. There is a housing shortage during the crisis in Montana.”
This, in turn, created an opportunity for crooks to post cheap bogus housing on Craigslist and other sites. People who are desperate for affordable housing often click on the link. Many times the crooks will ask for money up front, and the alleged accommodation never existed.
“This is the biggest housing scam we see,” she said.
Chuck Munson, assistant attorney general at the Montana Department of Justice in its Office of Consumer Protection and Victim Services, said 2019 was the busiest year on record for calls to his office. About half of the 6,100 calls this year were about scams and fraud. Next, 2020 was still the third busiest year on record, with an increase in calls for help with identity theft.
Many scams involve puppies or other pets, he said, as people are in isolation right now and are looking for companions. Some scams target the elderly or those who have recently lost a spouse.
He recounted how a retired U.S. Army veteran in Montana was tricked into believing he had made a large sum of money after his wife’s death. A Southeast Asian con artist managed to convince him, over time, to send a total of about $ 1.5 million in cash in envelopes, telling him he had to cover the upfront costs to get the reward.
“The losses were catastrophic and the money could never be recovered,” Munson said. “It was a Montana senior’s savings.”
Munson told another story of how a retired Montana widow met someone through an online dating site.
“Her perception was that they were developing an intimate romantic relationship,” Munson said. “Although they had never met in person, plans were made to meet one day and move in together.”
The scammer on the other end convinced the woman that he needed $ 500,000 for licensing issues. She went to her bank to withdraw the money, but the scam was discovered when the bank became suspicious and called a local adult protection services agency.
“It was a sad situation,” Munson said. “The woman was initially heartbroken, but also very grateful to have been told about the scam.”
Shawn Spruce, a financial education consultant at the First Nations Development Institute, said tribal nations in Montana have been hit by an increase in scams.
“What is it about native communities in Montana, why are there so many more cases of fraud?” He asked. “There are three interesting dynamics that have taken place in the Indian country over the past three years.”
The first, he said, is that the rise of social media and smartphones has allowed once-isolated tribal communities to become more accessible to the outside world.
“For many years Indian Country was isolated and if anyone wanted to defraud us they had to physically go to the reserve or do it by mail,” he said. “Now reservations that were once remote are within reach, and that has only really happened in the last 10 years.”
There has been an influx of cash to tribal communities, in the form of the Cobell class action lawsuit against Salazar settlement of $ 3.4 billion in 2009 and more recent federal stimulus bills, Spruce said.
“Fraudsters have come to this,” he said. “There has also been an increase in economic development in the Indian country. And when crooks offer personal protective equipment or a potential vaccine or cure for COVID, people can be particularly vulnerable. In native Montana communities, we have a lot of this going on. “
The third factor is that people are vulnerable to con artists who claim to be relatives of other deceased relatives or to lawyers who claim to have access to estate funds.
“Loneliness and isolation have an impact on people’s financial decisions,” he said.
Heather Molloy of Soft Landing Missoula, an organization that works to help resettle refugees, said some scams target this population. The crooks will tell the refugees that they are part of the United States Customs and Immigration Service and that there will be some kind of financial fraud.
“These are scary messages to get across,” Molloy said.
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