March 1, 2012

Latest Phone Scam, "Relative in Distress', Hits Memphis

One of the latest in a long-line of techniques devised by the unscrupulous to bilk the unsuspecting out of their money has begun making it rounds in Scotland County.

The new technique made national news back in December when law enforcement agencies in Los Angeles began warning the public of an increase in the number of reports by victims of telephone scams where the caller impersonates a family member of the victim and concocts a phony scenario suggesting the relative is in distress.

Steven Martinez, the FBI's Assistant Director in Charge of the Los Angeles Field Office advised the public about the emergence of the "relative in distress" scam, or RID scam. Law enforcement agencies have seen a dramatic increase in the number of complaints by victims of RID scams according to the FBI.

That was the case last week when a local woman answered her phone around 10 a.m. and found a caller, claiming to be her grandson. While the voice didn't sound right, he used a correct first name, and told "grandma" that he had a cold, so he didn't sound normal. He asked for strict confidence, noting he was only being allowed one phone call, so he was going to turn the phone over to a public defender, who promised to get him out in a couple of hours and insure that the incident would not be on his permanent record, if I could help him out.

The caller claimed to have been in an auto accident after leaving a reception at which he had been drinking alcohol. He apologized for his mistake, but went on to ask grandma to wire him $3,600 that could be used as restitution for the accident victims, who promised not to press charges if the bill was paid to the rental car company.

Check, credit card nor insurance couldn't be used, because the accident victims were from out of the country, and they had to have cash to pay the rental car company.

If the money was not sent immediately, the grandson would be held in jail several days and would be facing serious legal charges and the court process. At this time, he turned the call over to his public defender, Mr. Stern.

She questioned Mr. Stern's first name and he replied, Richard.

Without giving any information out, the grandmother noted $3,600 wasn't going to be easy to come by. Mr. Stern then lowered the amount to $1,800, and requested she retrieve pencil and paper to write down instructions.

"Mr. Stern" told her to go to her bank and get cash and then go to Western Union where she would request a sender form and send it and the money to Wassim Barchan in Beruit Lebanon. He gave a street address, but specific instructions not to use it.

When grandma pressed for information about where the call was being made from, the public defender stated Lebanon, Missouri. The grandma replied that she was nowhere near Lebanon and that her grandson did not reside there. He must have realized he was in trouble at the point, because the phone went click.

While senior citizens are typically targets for these types of scams, these criminals got more than they could handle with this grandma.

Their prospective victim immediately called the local FBI office to report the incident. She then called her grandson and informed him of the incident.

"I have to admit this was very clever," said the grandmother, who asked to remain anonymous. "I knew it was a scam, but I followed along trying to get more information. I hope by sharing it with the media, that people will be aware of the problem and won't fall victim to the crime."

According to the FBI, RID scams can vary in terms of the details supplied by the scammer, the target demographic and the location from which the scam is perpetrated, however, the general fraud is carried out as follows:

Victims are contacted by one or more individuals claiming to be a relative of the victim in a situation causing them some form of distress. The scammer advises the victim of the circumstances of their situation and invariably concludes with a plea for help in the form of cash. Victims are asked to wire money to an address, many times overseas, and in some cases will be asked to send money more than one time as the purported circumstances evolve and become more harrowing. In some cases, the caller will introduce a third party, such as a purported embassy official, police officer, or lawyer, to the phone conversation in order to lend legitimacy to the scheme. In most cases, the caller impersonating the relative will claim to be in the hospital, in a foreign jail or in an otherwise compromising situation where cash is required immediately. In these cases, victims have claimed to be distracted by their emotion and influenced by an intense desire to assist their loved ones. In an effort to avoid detection by law enforcement or circumspect family members, victims have reported that the fraudulent caller advised them to refrain from telling other family members about their purported plight so that they would not be embarrassed. Law enforcement theorizes that many of the perpetrators mine websites or personal social networking sites to obtain personal details about their target victims.

Law enforcement has been successful to a degree in identifying victims and prosecuting offenders operating in the United States and from overseas, but stresses that prevention in the form of education is the key to preventing the continuous problem.

Victims who are contacted under circumstances that resemble a RID scam are advised to investigate requests for financial assistance from those claiming to be family members or others before sending money.

The FBI and its partners encourage the public to report any fraudulent activity to the Internet Crime Complaint Center, a joint project of the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center, at

Tips for Citizens Who May be Targeted for Fraud:

Be suspicious of any offer that sounds too good to be true.

Take time to research any offers you receive over the Internet or telephone.

Fraudulent telemarketers may pretend to be government officials, banking representatives, or attorneys, or may send phony documents in attempts to make offers appear legitimate.

If you have legitimately won a lottery or sweepstakes prize, you will never have to pay money in advance of your winnings.

Hang up on anyone who solicits money in advance of awarding a prize.

Do not respond to mailed solicitations for money in advance of winning a prize; instead, report the fraud to law enforcement.

Never provide personal information over the telephone, online or through the mail in response to a solicitation. This includes date of birth, Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, banking, or other personal information.

Never deposit checks sent by companies whose representatives claim the check is being sent to pay fees or taxes on lottery winnings. Fraudulent checks may appear to look legitimate. Some checks may even be drawn on legitimate accounts and may include actual routing numbers so they appear authentic when presented for deposit at banks.

Do not give in to high-pressure sales techniques.

Consult family, friends and/or trusted advisors before making major financial decisions.

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