Sondra Keith, a self-described organizer, “likes to run the show.”
The 78-year old Oak Harbor resident was a supervisor for most of her professional life, which is why she can’t believe she fell for a phone scam.
“Because I love my grandson,” she explained.
Thursday morning, Keith awoke to a troubling phone call on her land line at the retirement facility where she lives. It was her grandson, or at least someone who sounded like him. He said he was in trouble with the law and needed her help.
“I just couldn’t help but think it was my grandson,” she said, visibly irritated as she recalled the conversation.
She spoke to at least three more men, the last of whom said he was with the Drug Enforcement Agency. He instructed her to buy thousands of dollars worth of gift cards from Home Depot to help pay her “grandson’s” bail. They told her she was under a “gag order” and could hurt her grandson’s chances of getting out on bail if she told anybody about what was going on.
“They were just as nice as can be,” she said. “… But assertive when it came to the gag order.”
Keith bought six gift cards for $1,000 each and then was told to go to the bank and withdraw more cash. A manager at Banner Bank recognized the suspicious activity and called Keith’s daughter, Dawn Keith-Madeiros. She told the bank to freeze her mother’s account until she could get there.
At first, Keith said she didn’t believe her daughter when she told her she’d been scammed.
“She was scared,” said Keith-Madeiros.
Keith-Madeiros canceled the transactions with Home Depot and the bank stopped Keith’s large withdrawal. Had all of the transactions gone through, Keith would have lost nearly all of her money, Keith-Madeiros said.
After sharing the story with friends and family, both said they’ve since heard of others who weren’t as fortunate.
Phone calls that present similar circumstances are common, especially among senior citizens, according to Detective Sgt. Carl Seim, of the Oak Harbor Police Department.
“If they try and convince you to provide personal information, I would just hang up,” said Seim.
Other common tactics used are calls that claim the person answering won a prize or that there’s a limited-time offer on a product, he said. With tax season coming up, he said it’s also likely calls will come in from people claiming to be with the IRS.
The IRS does not call to ask for personal information and no government organization will ask for gift cards as payment.
It seems obvious, but Keith thought so too until it happened to her.
“All of these things that I should have picked up on,” she said, shaking her head as she told her story.
Seim said if there’s anything questionable about a phone call, hang up and call the police. He said officers will usually be able to determine if it is or isn’t a scam.
• Common scams can be found on the state attorney general’s website, www.atg.wa.gov/scam-alerts