PORTLAND, Ore. — Special agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) returned $5,400 to an 84-year-old Portland-area woman victimized by Quebec-based telemarketing con artists, who called impersonating her grandson pretending to be in desperate need of cash.
The bank check returned to the victim last week by ICE HSI was recovered by investigators as part of Project COLT (Center of Operations Linked to Telemarketing), a binational effort involving numerous agencies, including ICE HSI, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the Security and Investigation Services for Canada Post, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
ICE HSI agents say the ploy used on the octogenarian is a common one employed by telemarketing fraudsters that plays on people's concerns for their children's welfare. In this case, the victim was contacted by a man from Montreal, Canada, claiming to be her grandson. He told her he was in trouble and needed cash quickly get out of jail. When she asked, "which grandson," the imposter replied, "your number one grandson." The victim asked, "Jimmy?," and the caller replied, "Yes."
Knowing her grandson had been travelling out of the county, the unsuspecting victim believed the ruse and agreed to send the money - in cash. When the victim told the scam artist she did not drive, he arranged for a taxi to take her to her to the bank so she could obtain the cash, and then on to the post office so she could mail it.
According to ICE, the fraudulent telemarketers not only pose as relatives, but as lawyers, government officials, police officers, accountants, or lottery company officials. The victims are typically told they will receive a sum of money varying from thousands to millions of dollars in lottery winnings. Investigators emphasize the con artists are very savvy, have no worries about playing on the emotions of good people, and will persist until they bilk as much money as possible from their victims.
"I'm sure people are dubious that anyone would fall for something as far-fetched as this, but these scam artists are incredibly persistent and convincing," said the victim's son, who asked that his name not be used to protect his mother's privacy. "My mother was hesitant and had a bad feeling from the beginning. I just want to do what I can to spare other families from having to go through a similar ordeal."
Since its inception in 1998, Project COLT has recovered about $27 million from fraudsters and initiated numerous complex criminal investigations, resulting in 94 indictments and 74 convictions. There have been 175 U.S.- and Canada-based arrests. In addition, Canadian law enforcement authorities have executed more than 75 search warrants and shut down 50 Western Union and Money Gram offices involved in telemarketing fraud conspiracies. Canada-based organizations that track these types of telemarketing scams report that consumers have lost more than $280 million to fraudsters. Law enforcement officials believe that represents only about five percent of consumers' actual total loss.
As part of Project COLT, law enforcement officers strive to intercept funds - often cash and cashier's checks - so they can ultimately be returned to victims. Project COLT investigators also work to prevent further victimization, both through public education and the prosecution of those who commit the fraud.
In support of the effort, Project COLT members have formed partnerships with the Canada Border Services Agency, Canada Post Corporation, Federal Express, Purolator, United Parcel Service, DHL and other companies to facilitate fund interception and return.
Before sending any money to telemarketers, ICE HSI urges the public to contact PHONEBUSTERS, Canada's Anti-fraud Call Center at 1-888-495-8501. The staff at PHONEBUSTERS work closely with Project COLT investigators and other law enforcement agencies. More information on the initiative is also available through the PHONEBUSTERS website at www.phonebusters.com.