Scammers talked her out of $12,500. Then the race was on to get it back

A Toronto woman fell for a fraud. With help from workers at a UPS store, she tried to get the money back. But the scammers didn’t stop there.

Elaine wondered what $12,500 in cash would look like. As she arrived at her Toronto bank to withdraw it, she worried that thick stacks of bills might be too bulky to ship safely in an envelope.

She requested the cash at a teller’s window, heart thumping. Funds were moved from her credit card to her personal account for the transaction. A wary bank supervisor asked what the cash was for. Elaine, as she’d been coached, said renovations.

The money was actually for her nephew James.

An hour earlier, James had phoned Elaine’s east-end home. He was in custody. Crashed a friend’s car, was charged with drunk driving. He sounded scared. James then handed the phone to a lawyer who told Elaine he could likely get the DUI charge dismissed but needed $12,500 in cash to expedite matters; could she assist?

Stunned, Elaine agreed to help. Then embarked on a wild 24 hours that saw a sensible, food industry chemist in her 60s veering so far out of character to rescue her nephew, she became both dupe and detective, matching wits with scammers who alternately hustled, harassed and threatened her.

It’s a story that also drew in disparate groups as it unfurled: caring neighbours, a concerned boss, anxious family, alert UPS workers, hamstrung police and soulless cons preying on a trusting woman at a vulnerable time.

In the bank, Elaine felt anxious. She was supposed to be visiting her 94-year-old mother — alone in her Willowdale home, immobile with a recent back injury — at that very moment. Instead, she was carrying out a stranger’s odd instructions.

"You’re so caught up in the emotion of it, you just don’t think straight," said Elaine, a single woman whom the Star is describing with one of her given names to protect her identity.

"So I’m panicking, thinking that my mum is sitting there, with very little to eat, waiting for me to show up."

The bank teller signalled her cash was ready. Elaine, relieved, noticed the bills — nearly 200 — were crisp as they snapped from the teller’s fingers. YOU MIGHT BE INTERESTED IN…

She returned home. The lawyer, as promised, phoned again with more commands: spread the cash throughout the pages of a magazine, tape the ends shut, slip everything into a manila envelope for a courier. FedEx or UPS were preferred, he said, as it was needed by 9 a.m. the next day.

The lawyer repeatedly warned Elaine during each call that a judge had placed a "gag order" on proceedings and if breached, James (the Star is using his middle name) would remain locked up. She decided not to call James’s parents to keep his troubles secret.

Still, Elaine was suspicious.

She dialled James’s cellphone. He didn’t answer. Her voice mail asked if it was "really you" who’d phoned, and to please contact her. When James didn’t call that day, Elaine believed her nephew was, indeed, in custody.

"I kept thinking to myself that a lot of this didn’t make sense and I wonder if this is a scam," she said. "But the only thing that convinced me was that it sounded like James, it really did. The way he spoke, that nervous laugh. Everything about that conversation really felt like it was James."

Another comfort: the lawyer promised that her cash would be returned when the drunk-driving charge was dropped. He was confident it would be.

By the next morning, the money-filled magazine was on a UPS tractor-trailer, en route to an address in Saint-Laurent, Que., given to Elaine by the bogus lawyer.

THE CALL

Elaine’s home phone number is unlisted. Has been for most of her adult life. Or so she thought.

So when it rang on Valentine’s Day, a Thursday — a double ring — she thought it was her daughter, travelling abroad. Her daughter always called on a Skype account, two quick rings on Elaine’s home phone.

The Skype number did not show up on her call display. Probably just a telemarketer, Elaine decided. Besides, she was eager to return to her mother’s house; she’d stayed over that week and only returned to her own home the night before to collect a few personal items. Then maternal instinct welled.

"There was no caller ID but because she’s travelling, I thought I better answer just in case," Elaine said.

This is how she recalls the conversation:

A young man said hi and when she asked who it was, he replied, "Don’t you recognize my voice? It’s your nephew."

In retrospect, Elaine is unsure if the young man called her by her name or a family nickname for her. She’s also unsure if he said his name first or if she asked if it was him, as Elaine has more than one nephew.

She thought the voice sounded like James, maybe a bit deeper; a huskiness she attributed to him being upset. The drunk-driving story unrolled.

Elaine says she may have unwittingly provided clues to make the story sound plausible. For instance, after she asked James if he was OK, she remembered her nephew had kidney stones. She asked if he’d passed them. He replied without hesitation: "Yes, that was the worst thing I ever had to go through, but thank God that’s over."

James said his father’s friend (whose car he crashed) was a lawyer who was standing beside him.

Enter an older-sounding man who identified himself as a lawyer with the last name Mills. He provided hope for Elaine that James had been wrongly arrested.

Police who attended the crash scene smelled alcohol from a shattered bottle and officers assumed James had been drinking, Mills said. But because James had smashed his head on the dash, he’d been taken to hospital immediately and therefore, no Breathalyzer was conducted — grounds for getting the charges dismissed.

All that was needed until then: $12,500 to appease an insurance company because alcohol was involved. However, payment could not be by certified cheque, credit card or money order because "there’s always a delay with those types of transactions," Mills told her. It had to be cash.

In the pit of her stomach, Elaine felt "none of this made sense" but was so certain she’d spoken to her nephew, she was compelled to act.

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I’m not going to stop, and you will never catch me

Elaine recalled thinking out loud while on the phone about how to get $12,500 that she didn’t possess. When she pondered using her credit card, Mills encouraged her. He advised that if anyone at her branch questioned the withdrawal, say the cash is for something like renovation work. He wanted to know how long it would take to get the money; Elaine guessed about an hour.

The lawyer refused to give Elaine his phone number when she asked. He said he’d be in court and unreachable, but would call back with mailing details during a break.

Elaine, most certainly, made mistakes during the phone calls.But so did the man on the other end of the line. THE BANK AND THE COURIER One way to conjure up cash that one doesn’t have is borrow from a credit card.Elaine discovered at her TD Bank branch that she needed to transfer the $12,500 from her credit card to her chequing account. Anxiety rising, Elaine needed some assistance to complete the transaction."Because I was kind of panicking, worrying about my mum and also the time," she said, the bank staffers loaned her an iPad. "I could log onto the iPad and transfer the money, like online banking."There was, however, that question from a bank supervisor."This is a lot of money to be taking out in cash, can I ask what it’s for?" Elaine recalled being asked.Her renovation excuse was ready.The cash was released: $7,000 in $100 bills; $5,000 in $50s and the final $500 in $20s. In total, 195 bills.She rushed home. Mills called, confirmed she had the cash and told her to grab a magazine. The spring edition of CAA magazine had just arrived; that would do, Elaine thought. The issue, loaded with bills, slid easily into a manila envelope.Mills gave her a name and address near Montreal: Robert DeCosta, 2300 Boulevard Thimens, Saint-Laurent, Que.Elaine was aware of the absurdity."I’m on the phone with him while I’m doing all of this and I said to him, ‘This seems very archaic … to be stuffing cash into a magazine, then into an envelope,’ " she said, but he was firm that she proceed.And she did.Elaine set off to a UPS store on Queen St. E. She paid $63.64 for express shipping, without disclosing the true contents to UPS sales associate Donna Scott, who processed the order. Nor did Elaine ask for insurance or that a signature be required upon delivery — again, at the lawyer’s direction.The story might have ended at the delivery counter, had Elaine mentioned there was cash in the envelope, said UPS store owner Farah Shirazi."We didn’t know it was money, otherwise we […]

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