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Susan Tompor: Pennsylvania widow drained of $39K in gift card scam by a man she fell for

Susan Tompor, Detroit Free Press on

Published in Home and Consumer News

One quarter of U.S. adults are unaware that gift cards are used as a form of payment in scams, according to an AARP survey.

Stokes said scammers want payment via gift cards because the money ends up being virtually untraceable.

"They're digitally able to drain that card's value right then and there," Stokes said.

Con artists can use the gift card numbers and codes to buy expensive merchandise to later resell or they could trade the card value for cash or cryptocurrency, according to an online alert from Kroger.

"In the case of Google Play and other online platforms, it is easy for the scammers to sell the gift card code in an online marketplace and disguise their stolen product among standard discounted gift cards," according to the Kroger alert.

The BBB notes: "Providing the numbers from the back of a gift card is just like sending cash. Whether victims give the numbers over the phone or text a photo of the back of the card, they are essentially handing money to scammers, who may quickly drop the funds into foreign bank accounts. It’s nearly impossible to get the money back because gift cards do not have the same protections as credit or debit cards."

Gift cards are the among the most common ways that scammers get their money from consumers. Gift cards have topped the list of reported fraud payment methods every year since 2018, according to an analysis by the Federal Trade Commission.

The Better Business Bureau has proposed more education and consumer protection relating to gift card sales. One recommendation includes imposing a waiting period between when cards are purchased and when they can be used, at least for online purchases.

"Once the immediate pressure from the scammer is relieved, victims often recognize it is a scam and thus, with a bit more time, could try to stop the transaction," the BBB stated.

About one in four people who told the FTC that they lost money to fraud said they paid with a gift card. That's based reports from January 2018 through September 2020.

How a Troy, Mich. woman lost nearly $10,000

Many times, the scammers are pretending to be someone in authority. Nearly half of people who reported handing over money to someone posing as a government agency or official said they paid with a gift card, according to the FTC.

In March, a Troy woman got caught up in buying gift cards over a five hour period after receiving a call from a scammer who identified himself as Drug Enforcement Agency Officer “Watson.”

The con artist claimed that the woman's Social Security number was compromised and used in Texas. And somehow she was a suspect in a drug transfer from Mexico and she was being charged with a felony.

She needed to take money out of the bank and buy gift cards to fix her legal problems. As scammers played into her fears, she withdrew thousands of dollars from her bank account and used that money to buy numerous gift cards and Green Dot prepaid cards from several businesses.

The caller stayed on the line with her the entire time she was buying the gift cards.

Troy Sgt. Jason Clark said the victim was instructed to travel to various stores to buy the gift cards, including 7-Eleven, Kroger, CVS and Meijer.

"Criminals have learned that if the gift card purchase from one location is too high, the cashier might question the sale," Clark said.

She lost $9,047.60 to the scam on March 17, according to the Troy Police Department.

Clark said most of these calls originate outside of the United States, and two of the numbers in this case were from Canada.

"This makes it very difficult for local law enforcement agencies to complete any international follow up," he said.

"Unfortunately we were unable to get any money back or charge anyone criminally," he said, noting that Troy police contacted the woman four times after her initial report.

"The criminals attempted to contact our victim for about a week after the initial crime, but then the calls completely stopped after we were able to assist her with identity theft controls," Clark said.

"The scammers are very good and very convincing."

Increasingly, consumer watchdogs warn, scammers are demanding that victims stay on the phone as long as possible while consumers head to the bank or the grocery store to buy those gift cards.

Scammers are telling their victims that that if they hang up, they're likely to be arrested immediately or have their accounts seized.

Even skeptical consumers can become victims because scammers seem to have an answer for everything.

Gift card payment requests must be treated as a huge red flag for a scam.

 

Stokes said if anyone contacts you and demands money on a gift card, you should immediately hang up or stop communicating with that person.

How one woman lost $39,000

"God help me and anybody else I meet later who asks me for a quarter," says Kleinert.

Kleinert — who plans to share her story in public speeches to senior groups and others — ended up losing $39,000 after about six months of conversations with Tony.

Tony mostly asked her to put money on American Express gift cards, which she bought at several stores. She remembers seeing a warning at a cash register about gift cards being used in scams but she thought that Tony was a friend, not a stranger.

She then often took photos of the numbers on the back of the gift cards and sent a picture to Tony.

Once he asked her to send him $15,000 via Bitcoin for legal maneuvers needed to bring him back to the United States. She took the money out of her 401(k) and Tony walked her through how to send the money via Bitcoin.

"He was going to pay me back the minute he got to Philadelphia," she said.

The plan was for him to arrive in time for Christmas. She had a bottle of champagne ready. They had even talked about buying a house together.

She never got the call to pick him up at the airport. She only got a call supposedly from his lawyer who said that Tony needed another $20,000 for bail money after the FBI picked him up on his way back into the United States. It was all some sort of mistake, according to the man who claimed to be an attorney.

She didn't send a dime.

"He had cleaned me out by then. I didn't have two cents," Kleinert said.

She had also used her credit cards to the max, ringing up $22,000 in credit card debt, to cover her own bills as her savings dwindled.

Sure, she talked to Tony while he was supposedly in jail in the United States. He tried to talk her into borrowing money from family members or friends. He called five or six times a day. She didn't understand how he could call that often while incarcerated.

She offered to come visit him in jail in Pennsylvania. But soon she was told he was transferred to Oklahoma. Oklahoma?

"That made no sense either," she said. "The stories started to unravel."

"If anyone asked me if I would fall for this, I would say absolutely not," she said.

But Tony was quite good at his day job. So good that now Tony appears to have sent a friend request to one of Kleinert's friends after Kleinert ended the relationship and stopped buying gift cards.

"Who knows who the pictures are really of," she told me in a phone interview.

The man in the photo looks more like a dream date than anything else. So I asked SocialCatfish.com to take a look at the photos that Kleinert sent me.

The photos that Tony Richard shared with Kleinert appear to be stolen from an Instagram account of a plastic surgeon in Columbia, according to SocialCatfish.com, which helps verify information like images, email addresses, phone numbers and online profiles.

If Tony isn't the plastic surgeon SocialCatfish.com found, he sure could be his body double.

Things never stop at a nice picture, of course. The gift cards can only start flowing after serious work at building trust and a relationship.

"He just immersed himself in my life until I was comfortable enough to send him this money," Kleinert said.

He knew just how much she longed for family and a chance to build a new life. He'd ask about her dog. His children started writing her and wanted to call her Mom.

"I never realized how much I missed being loved."

©2021 Detroit Free Press. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.