Click here for updates on this story
MISSOULA, Montana (Missoulian) — In February in Billings, an elderly woman was scammed by a late-night phone call from an impostor into believing a young relative needed money to get bailed out of jail.
The woman and her husband got into their car to drive to the bank, according to Billings Police Det. Brett Lapham.
“This was right after a heavy snowstorm, and the roads were very slick,” Lapham explained in a conference call hosted by the Federal Trade Commission on pandemic-related scams.
The car lost control on a hill, clipped a parked car and rolled. Both occupants were trapped and had to be extracted by firefighters. The woman’s husband lost his life due to his injuries.
“All of this because they were going to the bank to withdraw money to pay a grandparent scam?,” Lapham recalled. “We can’t bring this gentleman back to life. This was an incredibly tragic ending.”
The Federal Trade Commission and Ethnic Media Services hosted the virtual press conference, called “Spotting and Preventing Pandemic-Related Scams and Other Fraud in Montana,” on Wednesday.
Because of social isolation due to the pandemic, people are often more anxious and more vulnerable to scammers targeting their emotions during this time, as the Billings story illustrated. There’s also been an influx in federal money in the form of stimulus checks, while at the same time many people are going into debt because of unemployment, a lack of affordable housing or sickness-related health care expenses.
“Scammers thrive on catastrophes and hardships,” explained Anthony Advincula with Ethnic Media Services. “Across Montana and the Mountain West, scammers prey on people struggling to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout.”
Scammers are particularly attracted to tribal, rural, low-income, immigrant and refugee communities, he said.
“Information is an effective antidote to scams that promote fake cures, bogus test sites, get-rich-quick schemes, business and government impostors, fake love affairs and more,” he said.
Hanna Tester, a housing network manager with NeighborWorks Montana, said high housing prices have caused a spike in scams.
“The lack of affordable housing options in cities has created urban refugees,” she said. “These are people that are leaving the cities for rural areas because they can’t find housing. There’s a crisis-level housing shortage in Montana.”
This, in turn, has created an opportunity for scammers to post fake cheap housing on Craigslist and other sites. People that are desperate for affordable housing often click the link. Many times, scammers will ask for money up front, and the purported housing never existed.
“This is the biggest housing scam we see,” she said.
Chuck Munson, an assistant attorney general at the Montana Department of Justice in its Office of Consumer Protection and Victim Services, said 2019 was the busiest year on record for calls to his office. About half of the 6,100 calls that year were about scams and fraud. Then 2020 was still the third-busiest year on record, with an increase in calls for help about identity theft.
Many scams involve puppies or other pets, he said, because people are isolated right now and seeking out companions. Some scams target the elderly, or those who’ve recently lost a spouse.
He told the story of how a retired U.S. Army veteran in Montana was tricked into believing he had won a large amount of money after his wife died. A scammer in Southeast Asia was able to convince him, over time, to send a total of about $1.5 million in cash in envelopes by telling him he needed to cover initial fees to get the reward.
“The losses were catastrophic, and the money was never able to be recovered,” Munson said. “This was a Montana senior citizen’s life savings.”
Munson told another story of how a retired widow in Montana met someone through an online dating website.
“Her perception was that they were developing an intimate dating relationship,” Munson said. “Although they never met in person, plans were made to meet one day and move in together.”
The scammer on the other end convinced the woman that he needed $500,000 for licensing issues. She went to her bank to withdraw the money, but the scam was caught when the bank became suspicious and called a local adult protective services agency.
“It was a sad situation,” Munson said. “The woman was initially heartbroken, but also very grateful to have been educated on the scam.”
Shawn Spruce, a financial education consultant at the First Nations Development Institute, said Montana’s tribal nations have been impacted by a rise in scams.
“What is it about Montana Native communities, why is it we’re seeing so much more instances of fraud?” he asked. “There are three interesting dynamics that have occurred in Indian Country over the last three years.”
The first, he said, is that the rise in social media and smartphones have allowed once-isolated tribal communities to become more accessible to the outside world.
“For many years, Indian Country was isolated and if somebody wanted to defraud us, they had to physically come on to the reservation or do it by mail,” he said. “Now reservations that were once remote are just a swipe away, and that’s really only happened in the last 10 years.”
There’s been an influx of cash to tribal communities, in the form of the $3.4 billion Cobell v. Salazar class-action lawsuit settlement of 2009 and the more recent federal stimulus bills, Spruce said.
“Fraudsters came to that,” he said. “There’s also been an increase in economic development happening in Indian Country. And when scammers are offering personal protective equipment or a potential vaccine or a cure for COVID, people can be especially vulnerable. In Montana’s Native communities, we’ve got a lot of that going on.”
The third factor is that people are vulnerable to scammers claiming to be relatives of other deceased relatives, or lawyers claiming they have access to estate funds.
“Loneliness and isolation are impacting people’s financial decisions,” he said.
Heather Molloy with Soft Landing Missoula, an organization that works to help resettle refugees, said some scams target that population. Scammers will tell refugees that they’re with the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services, and there’ll be some sort of financial fraud involved.
“Those are kind of a frightening message to get,” Molloy said.
The speakers all agreed that reporting scams is the best way to ensure they don’t spread. To report a scam visit online at reportfraud.ftc.gov? or call 877-382-4357?.
Please note: This content carries a strict local market embargo. If you share the same market as the contributor of this article, you may not use it on any platform.