Jim Patterson lost almost $3,000 in a scam before he realized he would never see the money again.
The 61-year-old Spokane man was trying to get a $30,000 personal loan to do home repairs. Instead, he got swindled.
He had responded to a newspaper advertisement placed by Penbrook Lending Institution, a company supposedly based in Chicago that processes personal loans. He applied for the loan and was approved a few days later, but the company said it needed collateral. Patterson offered up his home. The company wanted cash. So Patterson wired $1,300 to Jamaica, where the company claimed the wealthy financier of his loan was vacationing.
The $30,000 never appeared in his account. When he spoke with the lending company again, it said it needed more money, so he wired another $1,300. The loan he was promised never showed up, and when he called the company back, the number had been disconnected. Letters he wrote to the company came back as undeliverable. The Better Business Bureau contacted the company and asked for its credentials but never received them.
“At that point in time I basically had to kiss that money goodbye,” he said. “I’ll never see it. I just want the people prosecuted so they don’t take advantage of other people.”
Patterson believes the crooks were professionals with a well-thought-out plan. It didn’t occur to Patterson he was being scammed until it was too late.
“They’re always one step ahead of the law,” he said. “They put their line in the water to fish and wait for someone to bite.”
‘Under the ether’
Scammers often prey on victims’ emotions, said Doug Shadel, Washington’s AARP director, who has spoken with dozens of former con artists.
“When you’re in a heightened emotional state, you just don’t make good decisions,” he said. “Your thinking is clouded, and that’s what they’re banking on.”
The crook gets the victim “under the ether” so they don’t think things through before acting, he said.
The sweepstakes/lottery scam is a classic example. Blinded by the desire to get rich quick, victims will wire money to claim a large prize, often without considering whether they even entered a contest. People can be swindled by these scams more than once.
“What we found is people almost get addicted, almost like gambling,” said Jack Zurlini Jr., Washington’s assistant attorney general. “They want to believe it’s true, but of course it isn’t.”
Scammers also victimize people by gaining their trust and, in some cases, preying on their loneliness. If a victim is widowed, a con man might establish a relationship over the course of a year.
“It’s someone they’ve never met, but they’ve been groomed to think they can trust them,” he said. “I’ve seen it to the point where they take out a second mortgage just to send the perpetrators money. Just for love.”
Most theft, however, isn’t perpetrated by a stranger. About 80 to 90 percent of scams are perpetrated by a friend, family member or someone with power of attorney, said Detective Kirk Kimberly with the Spokane Police Department.
“The problem is, you trust your family members,” he said. “That can lead to some incredibly serious problems,” such as the loss of the victim’s home or entire life savings.
“The more trust the victim has in the perpetrator, the easier the hit is.”
Catching the crooks
Scam rates are cyclical – they tend to be more prevalent around the holidays – but lately there has been a rash of scams in the area, Kimberly said. And con men are advancing beyond amateur, quick-hit scams; they’re doing their research beforehand and often running 50 to 60 scams at the same time.
Because the crimes are becoming more sophisticated and often originate outside the country – and out of local law enforcement’s jurisdiction – they are rarely successfully investigated.
Many victims fail to report the crimes out of embarrassment, adding to the difficulty of investigations. The reporting rate is less than 25 percent, AARP’s Shadel said. Older victims are less likely to report than younger ones, he said.
“That means a lot of these people are suffering in silence,” he said. “They’re just taking it and not telling anyone.”