She was lonely and he made her feel good.
A stranger, he had called out of the blue, his kind words soothing her aching heart. His promises of a couple of million dollars, jewelry and a brand new Mercedes-Benz didn’t hurt, either.
She had grown up a Kansas farm girl. Nothing like this had ever happened to any of her friends in their small town.
All she had to do was send him a little money to make it happen. He called often after that first day, sometimes before she got out bed. She didn’t mind. He was nice. And a good Christian man, he told her.
“I know now I should have told him to go to hell,” she said this week.
She’s 86. Her husband of more than 60 years had recently died and the smooth-talking stranger had gotten away with nearly $15,000 of her retirement nest egg.
If he’d robbed her at gunpoint, she’d probably feel better.
“I’m so embarrassed and ashamed,” she said, her eyes falling to the floor in the dining room of her apartment at the Villa Ventura senior living community in south Kansas City.
Then she raised those eyes and looked across the table.
“He was a lady’s man and he was sure spreading the bull-(manure).”
Lot of that being spread around these days, says Sgt. Robert Rickett of the Kansas City Police Department’s fraud unit.
The scams are nothing new, but they’re still claiming victims. Police say reports are up so they’re out counseling people on how to avoid being taken.
The offers come in the mail, by phone, online. Even the old “pigeon drop” — the Redford hustle at the beginning of “The Sting” — is out there.
Beware the stranger with a story and a smile, bunko detectives warn. Beware any offer with a foreign phone number. And as the saying goes, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Maybe the 86-year-old woman is lucky. Kansas City detectives are currently investigating a sting of $350,000. In another case, a woman got taken for nearly a quarter-million dollars from a man who’d played her 20 years.
On Thursday, Rickett talked to Villa Ventura residents about Internet and email scams, waiters and store clerks who sell credit card information, phony PayPal accounts and even rigged ATMs.
For this crowd, Rickett stressed exploitation of the elderly. He started with the “grandparent scam.”
The phone rings in the middle of the night. Caller says a grandson has been in an accident in Canada or thrown in jail while on spring break in Mexico.
“Can you please send a thousand dollars?” the person on the phone asks.
What’s a grandparent to do? They get out of bed, rub their eyes, get dressed, drive to Walmart and send the money.
“The caller had done enough research to know this person had a grandson and they play to emotions,” Rickett told the group. “If that grandparent had just called the grandson, they’d found they were safe in bed right where they’re supposed to be.”
Another popular flimflam now is the counterfeit check that comes in the mail. It might be for several thousand dollars.
When the recipient calls and says it must be a mistake, the sender tells them to deposit the check and electronically send back the amount. By the time the bank tells the person the check was bad, the good money they sent back is long gone.
Rickett knows that one. He recently received a check for $2,300. It was sent to him at 1125 Locust St. — the downtown address for police headquarters.
When he reported it to authorities, they asked, “You work where?”
Thieves will go through people’s trash in search of a credit application. They’ll use a cell phone camera to get personal identification numbers from customers at ATMs. Clerks and waiters will also return a different credit or debit card to a person, same color but probably expired.
“And Social Security numbers get passed around like candy,” Rickett said.
Don’t give out personal information, he warned his audience.
But getting scammed can happen to anyone. The elderly victim at the top of this story is the mother of the Villa Ventura executive director Marsha Rufener.
“Thank God for small towns,” Rufener said this week.
After her mother, who then lived alone in Abilene, Kan., had written several checks to the stranger, bank employees contacted Rufener.
“We think she lost about $15,000,” Rufener said. “It could have been 50 (thousand).”
The woman’s husband died in November. Theirs had been a traditional marriage for the generation. She did few things without running them past her husband.
And because of growing up in the Great Depression, Rufener said, “Mom always feared there wouldn’t be enough. She had this strong work ethic and worked until she was 75.”
The stranger called in early summer. He was following up on an email he’d sent informing the woman she’d won $2.5 million and a new Mercedes.
The first check she sent to cover some administrative fees was for $200 or so. Over several weeks, they got bigger.
The jewelry? Not part of the prize, but the man said he’d gotten a set for his wife and would send her one just like it. He even sent a picture, supposedly of himself, a handsome man standing in front of a shiny Mercedes.
Rufener slowly shook her head: “He really worked her.”
When Rufener finally heard from the bank, she called her brother, drove to Abilene and asked her mother about the payments.
Mom didn’t take it well.
“She was so convinced it was real,” Rufener said. “She was angry I was there.”
“Everything is fine,” she told Rufener. “I won a contest.”
Just happened that the man was to show up the next morning with the new car. Rufener said she wanted to meet him; this was a big day for her mother and she wanted to share it.
Her mother said, no, he didn’t want anybody else there.
“I’ll park down the street and hide in a back room,” Rufener told her.
Truth instead showed up the next day. The bank was able to stop payment on a couple of the last checks. Police think the scammer operated out of Jamaica, probably still stringing victims along.
The woman asked that her name not be used in the article. But she wanted others to know of her story, so the same thing wouldn’t happen to them.
“No telling how much I’d lost if the kids hadn’t stepped in,” she said. “I don’t think this would have happened if my husband was still alive. I think this man was preying on older women who don’t have husbands and he sure got me.
“You’re just in before you know it.”
She’s since moved along with her little dog to Villa Ventura, leaving the only town she’d ever called home. More than a hundred people attended an open house in Abilene to tell her goodbye.
She stays in touch with friends. The mail comes every day. This week she received a couple of notices about sweepstakes winnings.
“Do something with these,” she told her daughter.