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Hernando authorities warn about phone scam aimed at fleecing grandparents

 Kenneth and Patricia Bastien, in their home in the Heather in Weeki Wachee, hope to help others. “We got caught and we’re out the money,” Kenneth said. “Let’s not let anybody else get caught.”

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

 Kenneth and Patricia Bastien, in their home in the Heather in Weeki Wachee, hope to help others. “We got caught and we’re out the money,” Kenneth said. “Let’s not let anybody else get caught.”

SPRING HILL — At least two Hernando couples say they have been the targets of financial scams in recent days by phone callers claiming to be their in-trouble grandchildren.

Patricia and Kenneth Bastien of the Heather recalled the slick way the scam played out.

"Hello, grandma,'' the caller said to Patricia Bastien. "Guess who this is?"

"Tony?" she replied, using the name of a grandson with whom they are very close. The voice on the other end of the line said, "Yes. Grandma, I'm in the Dominican Republic … at a friend's wedding."

Something didn't sound right, so Patricia said, "You sound different."

"I've been in an accident,'' the caller explained. "We were drinking at the wedding and I rear-ended a woman's car. I broke my nose and have stitches in my mouth."

Then came the scam's pitch: "I'm in jail. If I don't get $2,500, I'll have to spend another night in jail."

A caller to Dorothy and Kenneth Connolly's Spring Hill home began the same way

"Grandma?'' the voice said.

"Shawn, is that you?" Dorothy responded, noting later, "I immediately gave him the name."

The imposter grandson said he was in trouble in Mexico, in jail, and needed $2,500 for bail, plus costs of incidentals. The total was $3,453.

In both cases, they were asked to wire the money via Western Union. Both callers also begged, "Please, don't tell my mom."

Sgt. Jeff Kraft, who handles such incidents for the sheriff, said this is the latest in a cyclic round of such rip-offs.

"It's getting disgusting how they are taking advantage of our senior citizens," he said, noting that Florida is known as a retirement state. "Sixty percent of the time, they're going to hit grandparents."

Patricia Bastien, 73, was suspicious when she fielded the call from her supposed grandson. Her husband, Kenneth, 74, was even more so, and suggested that his wife ask the caller the names of his brothers.

"Of course I know the names of my brothers," the caller said, but he skirted the question. He did know Kenneth Bastien's name.

Later, Patricia Bastien would say the scammer seemed to have some identifying information on them.

Patricia Bastien went to the bank and pulled out all of the couple's savings, then on to the Western Union counter at Winn-Dixie in Weeki Wachee. Following the caller's instructions as to where to send the money in the Dominican Republic, she wired the cash over the protests of the supermarket manager.

"This sounds like a scam," he told her.

The scammer called Patricia Bastien again, saying he was out of jail but now in court. The woman in the accident, he said, was demanding $1,500 for medical expenses.

At the bank again for another withdrawal, a teller told her it sounded like a scam and urged Patricia Bastien to call her daughter in Virginia. She declined, saying she'd given her word to Tony. The teller said, "Then I'll call her."

When the daughter answered the phone, she said her son — the real Tony — was upstairs in his room. He came to the phone to assure his grandmother he was at home and not in the Dominican Republic. Patricia Bastien burst out crying in the bank.

The teller called the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, but she said she was told the crime was out of their jurisdiction. Kenneth Bastien called Western Union, but was told the money had been sent and received. The pickup couldn't be traced.

Recounting the episode recently, he said, "We got caught and we're out the money. Let's not let anybody else get caught."

The Connollys missed becoming victims by moments.

In their response to the call from the bogus "Shawn," Dorothy Connolly, 68, said, "We couldn't wait to get over there (to Western Union) with our money."

Three clerks at the filing desk at Publix on Commercial Way in Spring Hill tried to talk the couple out of the transfer, suspecting a scam. John Connolly, 71, even got a little testy with them. A clerk called the fraud unit at Western Union, who likewise waved a red flag.

The couple telephoned their daughter, who said Shawn was in class at Stetson University. He was summoned from the classroom, and told his grandparents he had not been to Mexico.

"We were 30 seconds from popping that money," John Connolly said.

En route home, the couple received another call: "Did you do the transaction?"

Dorothy Connolly told the caller, "Western Union wouldn't transfer the money," adding, "We're still working on it.''

The Connollys haven't heard anything else from the scammer since then.

A Hernando Sheriff's Office official told the Bastiens their case was being turned over to the FBI. But Kraft wasn't hopeful.

"Unless there is an extremely high dollar loss," he said, "the feds don't have the manpower to investigate the tens of thousands of minor complaints."

Jean Hayes contributed to this story. Beth Gray can be contacted at graybethn@earthlink.net.

>>Fast facts

What to do if you get one of these calls

The Hernando County Sheriff's Office offers these tips on how to avoid being taken by a scam:

• Don't believe a telephone caller ID. Scammers can program false incoming numbers so as not to be traced. If the ID reads "Out of Area," it usually means outside the United States, where local and federal law enforcement are out of jurisdiction.

• If you do answer the phone, never give any information. Tell the caller you will have to call them back. Research the number on your caller ID by looking up the business that called. A legitimate number will enable you to call back.

• If you suspect you have been the victim of a scam, call the Sheriff's Office at (352) 754-6830.

Hernando authorities warn about phone scam aimed at fleecing grandparents 09/30/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 30, 2011 8:45pm]
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