89-year-old scammed out of life savings

An 89-year-old woman is out $245,000 after a summer-long scam from a caller thousands of miles away.

HOUSTON - Outside on the porch is where Erma Phillips feels happiest.

The 89-year-old is especially close to her great grandson Richard Bryant, who spent this past summer on a ship in the Gulf working towards his maritime degree.

"You know, whenever I got to a port town, I would call her when I was there,” Bryant said.

When the phone rang one night, a distressed voiced on the other end had Phillips worried.

"I said, ‘What? Richard?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘I can't talk good. I was in an accident last night.’”

It wasn’t Bryant, though. It was someone looking to scam her out of money, and he had her convinced that Bryant was not only hurt in an accident but somehow ended up in jail and needed money for an attorney.

"It sounded just like him. Every bit of it sounded just like him,” Phillips said.

The calls continued all summer. The imposter asked Phillips to wire money to an address in Florida and all the way to a bank in Peru.

"She has a big heart, so she was able to connect with the caller thinking it was me and basically give away whatever information they were asking as well as her life savings,” Bryant said.

Before she knew it Phillips was out $245,000. But the caller kept asking for more, and it wasn’t until she was about to take out a loan on her house did Bryant realize something  fishy was going on.

"That loan is for you and your lawyers, and I said, ‘Grandma, I don't have any lawyers. I don't know what you were talking about.’ And she said, ‘Why did I send all that money?’”

Bryant realized his grandmother was tricked and immediately went to her bank to try and figure it all out.

"I just have a big knot in my stomach because I don't know what to think, I don't know what to do,” Phillips said.

Bryant and Phillips say the bank hasn’t tried to help them, and claims there is nothing they can do.

"I just pray to God that's all I can do,” Phillips said.

A GoFundMe account has been set up for Phillips here.

Tips from the Better Business Bureau of Greater Houston & South Texas:

Always be wary of offers that sound "too good to be true."  If a deal is significantly better, a price lower, or an offer greater than you can find elsewhere, be cautious. Keep in mind that businesses need to turn a profit. If a company's offer is so amazing that it's not sustainable, it could be  a ploy. 

Pay with a credit card and refuse unusual forms of payment. Protect yourself by paying with a credit card, which gives you additional protections such as the opportunity to dispute charges if the business doesn't come through. Be wary of anyone who requests alternative forms of payment, such as wire transfers, pre-paid debit cards, or gift cards.

Watch out for a change in routine in contacts from a business or government agency. If an organization normally reaches you one way, be suspicious if you suddenly start receiving a different type of communication. For example, government agencies generally communicate through mail, but scammers impersonating them often call or send email. 

Don't believe what you see. Con artists can spoof phone numbers, email templates, websites, letterhead, and social media accounts. Just because something looks real, doesn't mean it is. Instead of relying on your eyes, look for other warning signs. 

Always keep your guard up. If your personal information is being requested, ask yourself why. Remember that phishing comes in multiple forms – phone calls, text messages, and online via emails, websites and social media messages. It is important to always be aware to avoid possible scams and don’t give personal or financial information on the spot.

Don’t be pressured.  Many scammers use high pressure tactics or may threaten individuals to fork over money.  Always take the time to do your research and verify before providing any information.

Don't underestimate the power of a quick online search. An online search can go a long way in uncovering a con. Chances are that the scam has already fooled other people, and they have posted about it online. Be sure to check out www.BBBHouston.org for the latest information, too.

(© 2016 KHOU)


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