Fraud Awareness Week: Phone scam causes Fairhope woman three-hour ordeal

Updated: Nov. 12, 2019 at 5:15 PM CST
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FAIRHOPE, Ala. (WALA) – A phone call caught a local woman off guard earlier this year.

It was just before 10 a.m., when her son would be headed to work in the Dallas area, and the area code was from Tarrant County where he lived.

The married mother of adult children, who asked not to be identified, said the distressed voice on the other end even sounded like her son.

“I heard scuffling on the other end of the line,” she said. “And then I suddenly heard a crying voice that sounded exactly like my son. And he was crying for help. He said, ‘Mom, I’m in trouble. I need your help.’”

The woman said another voice told her that her son was “collateral damage” because a friend of his owed a gang $5,000. He said her son was being held in a warehouse and had been beaten. The woman says the caller ordered her to stay on the phone, and she added she didn’t want to take a risk if her son was being held captive.

“Since I believed the voice on the other end of the line to be my son, I did what he asked me to do,” she said.

That touched off an ordeal that the woman says lasted three hours – travelling back and forth among three different retail stores, buying prepaid gift cards or sending money through wire transfers at each stop.

It was one of several fraud stories FOX10 News is highlighting this week, head of International Fraud Awareness Week. The station from Monday through Wednesday next week from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. will host a telethon, manned by law enforcement officials and District Attorney’s Office employees seeking tips about white-collar crimes.

Prosecutors who focus on white-collar crime say phone scams have become more common. Mobile County Assistant District Attorney Clay Rossi urged people to be careful.

“Use as much caution as you can, if you are leery about who you’re talking to on the phone,” he said. “Tell them that you’re gonna hang up and re-call them at a number that you know is the real number for who you’re supposed to be dealing with.”

The woman said she did suspect it might be a scam. But she added that she did not realize she could “minimize” the call on her phone and send a text to her son.

“It was so scary. It was very frightening – shocking, really,” she said.

The caller barked out specific instructions, the victim said. At one store, she said, he told her to wire cash to Puerto Rico and tell the clerk it was a baby gift for her son-in-law. She said the process took longer than expected because the man at the other end had to go to a second store because the computers were down.

The victim said she bought four $500 “vanilla” visa gift cards and read off the numbers.

At one store, the woman said, an employee even warned here that gift cards figured into a common scam.

“But because I thought they had my son – I was convinced it was my son’s voice I heard – I went ahead and did the transaction,” she said.

When it was finally over, the con man had a harsh message for the woman.

“Congratulations, you have been scammed,” she said.

The woman said after she confirmed that her son was OK, he scolded her. As a retail employee, he knows all too well about scams, she said.

The woman said believes she will get back about $500 from a gift card that Apple rejected when the con artist tried to spend it at iTunes. She said she filed a report with the Fairhope Police Department but holds out little hope she’ll recover the rest of the cash or see any arrests.

Rossi said phone scams are difficult to solve, hard to prosecute – and probably not going away anytime soon.

“As long as people fall for them, they’ll be out there,” she said.