CHATHAM — The grim story of a Chatham couple has a happy ending after they were scammed out of $1,300 seven years ago.
John and Judy Staber lost the money in a phone scam, but last week they received a check reimbursing them for the full amount that had been taken from them.
On Nov. 1, 2013, Judy Staber received a phone call from a man claiming to be her grandson. The voice on the other end of the call told her he was in jail in Westchester County and having trouble speaking because he had stitches in his mouth and a broken nose.
The man pretending to be Judy Staber’s grandson told her he had been rear ended in a car accident and he had been taken to jail after a breath test. The man said he needed $1,900 for bail but had $600 on him.
The man asked for the $1,300 to make bail, but asked Judy not to tell his mother. The caller gave her a case number and told her she would get a call from the public defender.
Judy Staber told her husband she was convinced it was her grandson on the phone because he was the only person who called her “Gramma.” The caller also mentioned Keene State, where her grandson was attending college.
When the Stabers’ phone rang again from a Westchester area code, John Staber answered and a man claimed he was a public defender and gave his name as Lewis Miller.
The man told the Stabers that their grandson, Dan, was due before a judge and needed bail money, and told them to send it to a woman named Sarah Reyes in the Dominican Republic. Miller told the Stabers many bail bond offices have offshore accounts.
The Stabers used Western Union to wire $1,300. A short time later, they received another call from a man claiming to be Miller’s assistant. He told the Stabers he needed an additional $1,100.
The Stabers said they were growing suspicious. John asked for the number of the Westchester County Court and Judy went to look it up on the computer.
As she browsed for the number, she received an email from their grandson Dan telling them he was over a cold and back at work, with no mention of an accident or jail or bail money.
The Stabers called Western Union but the transaction was completed 10 minutes earlier. They reported what happened to state police, who referred them to the FBI. The Stabers filed a report with the FBI and they were told to file a report with the Internet Crime Complaint Center.
“We were embarrassed and ashamed that we got taken by it,” John Staber said. “But if we got taken, somebody else can get taken, too. So we wanted to make sure we got the word out, that it can happen to anyone.”
The grandparent scam is so simple and so devious because it uses one of older adults’ most reliable assets — their hearts, according to the National Council on Aging website.
Scammers will place a call to an older person and when the mark picks up, they will say something along the lines of: “Hi Grandma, do you know who this is?”
When the unsuspecting grandparent guesses the name of the grandchild the scammer most sounds like, the scammer has established a fake identity without having done a lick of background research, according to the council’s website.
Once “in,” the fake grandchild will usually ask for money to solve some unexpected financial problem (overdue rent, payment for car repairs, etc.), to be paid via Western Union or MoneyGram, which don’t always require identification to collect. At the same time, the scam artist will beg the grandparent, “Please don’t tell my parents, they would kill me.”
The Stabers told the story of what happened to them as a cautionary tale to others who could potentially be scammed in a similar way. Two different people told the couple their story saved them from getting scammed.
The report filed by the Stabers was one of thousands brought to the attention of the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC eventually took Western Union to court in the case The United States v. Western Union, according to the Federal Trade Commission website.
In January 2017, Western Union admitted to money laundering and consumer fraud violations. Western Union settled with the FTC and the U.S. Department of Justice for $586 million.
“They claimed that Western Union was well aware of the scam, and they should not have let it go through. I had tried to wire the money across the street at CVS first, and it would not go through. They knew it was a scam,” John Staber said.
Through the reimbursement process for individuals who have been scammed, people who wired money as a part of a scam using Western Union between 2004 and 2017 could file a petition to receive money they lost. The Justice Department sent petitions for remission to more than 500,000 potential victims.
“There’s so much scamming going on.” Judy Staber said. “People need to be aware that this is going on.”
The Stabers saved all their documentation, the reports they filed and their receipts from Western Union. The couple filed a claim as part of the settlement in 2017. They were told to refile their claim in 2019 and sent all their documentation in again.
“The file has been on my desk, and I see it all the time,” John Staber said. “I just thought at the beginning of the week, I wonder if we’ll ever see anything of that. The check was in the mail that day.”
In March, Western Union sent out 109,000 checks totaling $153 million to people who had been a victim of the scheme. Another 33,000 checks worth $147 million were sent out Sept. 23. The Stabers received a check for $1,300, the amount a mysterious caller scammed them out of seven years ago.
“We’re very happy that we got the money back,” Judy Staber said. “After all these years, and we didn’t think we’d get the whole amount back.”
Western Union is making remission payments to people who had been scammed. The Stabers said they wish they knew if the people who had scammed them were ever caught.