Keith Chipman, a detective with the Auburn Police Department, was flipping through case files on his desk one July evening when the call came in.
A dispatcher had a woman from North Carolina on the phone. She wanted to talk to a detective about a scam.
The veteran cop raised his eyebrows a little. Why would a woman from North Carolina be calling the Central Massachusetts police department?
But there was a reason for the call. The woman told Chipman her mother had been bilked in a romance scam to the tune of roughly $160,000.
While a lot of that money – through bitcoin and gift cards – went to parts unknown, $65,000 of it was actually sent to a bank in the Worcester County town, more than 700 miles from where the 78-year-old victim lived in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Months after that phone call, Chipman’s work will see that North Carolina woman get that last $65,000 back.
“I just felt, what if that was my grandmother or my mom? I think any officer would have done the same thing and acted the same way,” Chipman said. “You want to give them some encouraging news. It is very rare that we are able to recover that money.”
A Facebook friend request from a handsome man
The 78-year-old North Carolina woman, whose name is not being used by MassLive, saw a Facebook friend request this spring.
The image showed a good-looking man wearing an Army shirt. For three days, the friend request from “James Edmoston” sat idle. The woman was skeptical, but noticed the man listed that he graduated from a college in the U.S. and was in the military.
Eventually, the friend request was accepted. That click allowed a faceless person, a man presumably, to manipulate and cajole the woman into opening her heart with a promise of love and her wallet with a promise of riches.
“I looked at his picture, his profile,” the woman told MassLive. “He was in the military, in the Army. He had went to Washington State University and he was a sergeant in the Army and he was divorced.
“I was divorced at one time and I thought well, maybe with him being divorced, maybe I can talk to him and help him or something. I’m that kind of person,” she continued to say.
But it wasn’t just messages from the fictitious James. There was his daughter, Sarah, and his “general” in the Army who also messaged the woman. Chipman believes all three email addresses were used by the same suspect. Police in North Carolina tracked the IP addresses to Ghana.
The U.S. Embassy in Ghana warns people of these types of romance scams.
“U.S. citizens should be alert to attempts at fraud by persons who profess friendship or romantic interest over the internet, especially those claiming to be U.S. citizens living, traveling or serving in the U.S. military in Ghana,” the embassy writes online.
It was a playbook James followed to a tee.
“The victim had a sense of belief this person was going to come into her life, and they were going to have some sort of life together, some sort of relationship that he promised her,” Chipman said.
The call for help
As the July 2 phone conversation continued, Chipman heard an all too familiar tale for investigators. The woman from North Carolina’s daughter had hope in her voice.
Chipman knew what was ahead of him. These types of international scams are complex. Sometimes there are many people involved and the odds of finding the suspect – let alone the money – are more often than not low.
“Honestly, there is a very high chance we are not going to recover any money or find anyone to charge,” Chipman said. “It is discouraging for us and the victim. Not only do they want their money back, but they want to see someone charged.”
But the victim’s daughter gave the detective some information that helped spark his investigation in Massachusetts. A cashier’s check for $65,000 was sent by the victim to a bank in Auburn. It had been a few weeks since the check was cashed, but the detective went on the hunt.
Scams don’t stop, even during COVID
The Federal Trade Commission reported imposter scams were the number one fraud in 2019. The FTC reports people lost more the $667 million in those scams.
The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center received 467,361 complaints in 2019 – an average of nearly 1,300 every day – and recorded more than $3.5 billion in losses to individual and business victims. The FBI’s Recovery Asset Team, created to streamline communication with financial institutions and FBI field offices, successfully recovered more than $300 million for victims in 2019.
Scammers don’t stop during the coronavirus pandemic either.
The FBI has warned people that scams are on the rise. The variety of ruses are numerous: blackmail attempts, investment scams, COVID cure scams are just a few.
“They tend to target the elderly and single females. But it can happen to anyone,” Chipman said. “You hear about these scams every day, social media and the news, but these scammers are deceptive, very believable and anyone can be a victim.”
Locally, Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr.’s office reminded people to stay safe and offered help online.
“Scams have been on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic as scammers take advantage of these uncertain times,” Early’s office said. “As people are distanced from their friends and family and overwhelmed with news and information on a daily basis, it has made us all more vulnerable to scams and fraud. Now is the time to stay vigilant. Be skeptical of those pressuring you to send money, make payments or provide personal financial details. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.”
The pandemic that has left some people isolated from family and friends was a factor in the Auburn case, the victim’s daughter believes.
The 78-year-old woman lives alone – her second husband passed away more than a decade ago – and she hasn’t been able to see family or people close to her at church.
“The reason why this happened is because of COVID,” the daughter said. “She was lonely.”
Age is just a number
When the victim became Facebook friends with the fictitious James, the scam started. Chipman said these scammers are manipulative, deceptive, convincing and relentless.
This scammer found the perfect victim. She was lonely, had two husbands who both served in the military and had also been divorced.
The conversation morphed into James saying he was stationed in Syria and wanted to come back to the United States to be with his 15-year-old daughter. Emails and messages then came in from a general who said he needed money in the form of Bitcoin to replace James’ position. The victim ended up sending thousands of dollars in Bitcoin and spent more for processing the transaction.
“I questioned some of it at times. I questioned the ‘general’ at times,” the woman told MassLive. “I was just caught up in it.”
The wallet had been opened and the scammer kept at it.
Eventually, the 78-year-old woman began receiving emails from James’ daughter. She was sick, the scammer claimed, and the teen girl needed gifts to keep her spirits up.
“She seemed like such a sweet young lady,” the woman said. “She (the fake daughter) said that she would like to call me mom.”
During their conversations, the woman mentioned her age and James’ age.
“I’m way too old for you,” she said.
“Age is just a number,” James replied, stating he was 57.
During a phone call with MassLive, the victim’s daughter quickly chimed in.
“They were in love,” the daughter said.
“Yes, I reckon you could call it love or whatever,” the mother replied.
At one point, James even claimed there was a bounty out against him levied by the Taliban.
The victim’s first husband had served in Vietnam. James’ tale of being lonely and hunted by terrorists tugged at the woman’s heartstrings.
A promise of riches
As the victim continued to send money, the scams continued to morph. There were gift cards being sent via the codes on the back – a common way suspects bilk money from people – and eventually a promise was made by James.
During time in Yemen, James claimed he did a favor and work for high-ranking people and they paid him in cash. He also had gold. All of it was worth more than $4.5 million with the majority of it in cash.
But then there was the twist. James needed the woman he romanced online to send $8,700 to pay for the package to be delivered to the U.S. She sent the money by Bitcoin.
“He kept telling me that when I received this package that I could get the money out of it,” the victim said. “He always said, ‘You’ll get your money back’.”
The ruse continued, however. The package was stuck in Mexico and customs there. Someone sending an email to the victim demanded a total of $65,000 in order for the package to be shipped to her.
Using money from an existing home equity line of her house, the woman got a cashier’s check and tried to have a bank wire it to the phony Mexican customs location. The bank wouldn’t do it and even told the victim it was a scam, Chipman said.
James then instructed the woman, through email, to send it to a company account in Auburn. On June 1, the check was sent and cashed a few days later.
Chipman tracked the money down to the bank in Auburn. Authorities know the owners of the bank account as well, but some of it gets murky. In the end, prosecutors weren’t able to charge anyone in the case, but court records obtained by MassLive indicate there is an ongoing investigation.
It had been a few weeks between when the check was cashed. The chances were high that the money was gone. But in this case, Chipman was able to discover the cash was still in two bank accounts.
Between interviews and reviewing bank transactions, Chipman was able to file search warrant affidavits in Worcester District Court and have the $65,000 sent by the victim to Auburn frozen in two accounts.
Chipman went back to the woman with both good and bad news. No one has been criminally charged but the $65,000 was found.
“I know how these scams work and it is almost impossible for us to recover the money sometimes,” Chipman said.
The legal process then began. Motions by Greer Spatz, the chief prosecutor for the Worcester District Attorney’s Office Financial Crimes Unit, were filed last month. Stripping away all the legal terminology, the motions simply stated one thing, it was time to get the woman that $65,000 back.
During a Nov. 3 hearing in a Worcester courtroom a judge made a ruling. Handwritten on the side of one of the motions are the words, “Allowed, the $65,000 is to be returned.”
Chipman sent an email to the victim’s daughter a couple days later to tell her the news.
“To be able to get that money back to them and some relief, it is definitely a good feeling. I don’t feel like I went above and beyond though,” Chipman said. “We had the means to do something for the victim. I think we got lucky that the money was still in the account.”
Chipman still wishes someone ended up charged.
As the detective spoke to MassLive inside his office on Monday, he checked his email. The bank was already in the process of getting the money back to the victim. A little smile cracked on his face.
The pain caused to a family
While the victim and her family feel some relief and are awestruck by the work done by Chipman, the scam did more than take a woman’s money.
Left in the wake of this ordeal is embarrassment, disbelief, distrust and hard lessons.
“I don’t trust men anymore,” the 78-year-old scam victim told MassLive. “I’m upset with myself for falling for all the things that he had. It was like a military romance. I’m angry with myself. I’m angry with him.”
The victim’s daughter told MassLive that her mother called another daughter in early July asked for more money to send to James. That is how all three of the victim’s daughters learned about what was going on.
They discovered voluminous amounts of emails and chat messages. The daughters knew it was a scam. They knew James, the daughter and the general weren’t real.
They had to make their mother face the harsh reality of it all. For weeks, the mother denied it wasn’t real.
“All three of us girls knew it was a scam,” the victim’s daughter told MassLive. “We also knew that COVID had to come into play. My mom doesn’t have any companionship. My mom has had the love of her life already (her deceased second husband). My mom knows what love really is.”
The mother then spoke up on the phone call.
“He (James) really tore my heart apart. He really did. I let this man do this to me.”
Unfortunately, the victim still recently emailed back and forth with James. She told him he still owes her money, wants it back and claimed the FBI could find him.
The woman’s daughter wants her mother to just to stop contacting the nameless scammer.
“I just feel like she needs to let go of it and move on,” the daughter said, adding her mother could talk to senior centers or offer her story for police to use as a cautionary tale.
“If this can help someone else, to keep them from doing what I did, then it will be worth it,” the mother said.