As the old saying goes, "Fool me once, shame on you."
But a Shalersville woman refused to be fooled twice.
Earlier this year, the woman, who declined to give her name, said she lost more than $700 when a scammer convinced her to take out a prepaid credit card to pay fees related to winning the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes. After the scammer successfully took the money by getting her to give him the numbers off the card, he called her again, saying he needed more money to process her claim. That's when she called the Portage County Sheriff's Office.
She said a deputy warned her that a true prize winner never has to pay money to accept winnings. She learned that if she had called sooner, she might have been able to keep the thief from stealing her money.
"They said they're from out of the country and they use these disposable cell phones," she said.
About the same time, she learned that another woman in Cleveland had lost more than $5,000 in a similar scam.
The Shalersville woman, who is 83 and lives on Social Security, took the loss and moved on.
Then recently, the phone rang again. This time, the caller claimed she had won a Mercedes Benz and cash from the Reader's Digest Sweepstakes.
The caller sounded eerily similar to the person who had claimed to be from the Publishers Clearing House and this time, the woman was on to his game.
When he told her he needed $200 to pay the taxes to the IRS, the Shalersville woman knew that the taxes on such a car would be much higher than $200.
So since she didn't want him to know she was on to him, she told the caller that she wasn't able to get to the store to buy the prepaid card, and suggested that he take the money out of her winnings when he delivered the car and cash in person.
"He used all kinds of excuses," she said, adding that the man hasn't called her back.
Lt. Greg Johnson of the Portage County Sheriff's Office said the caller may have been the same person, or not. Often, he said, scammers trade phone numbers and information with one another.
"It's almost like you get on a mailing list when you get scammed," he said.
Johnson said he stresses to residents that they should never pay any money to claim a prize. A legitimate prize, he said, often involves notification in writing, not just a phone call.
"When you win anything, you're obligated to pay the taxes," he said. "But you pay them to the government, not the company you won it from."
He said he's surprised the caller didn't offer to come to her house. Most do, he said, but call hours later to say they were held up in traffic or had car trouble, and ask for the numbers on a prepaid card to save the trip. The cards, he said, are a more modern equivalent of asking for money to be wired to them. Once it's paid, he noted, the transactions can't be stopped.
The callers are usually in tropical islands or Europe, he said.
Some use technology to disguise their phone numbers or give a fictitious number to call back, similar to child pornographers who use technology to block their IP addresses.
"Some of the people we've dealt with have great fun with them, because they know what it is," Johnson said said of some residents who report the scam calls.
Others, he said, are sadly more trusting, like the Portage County woman in a fight with her family over control of her finances. That woman, he said, has given more than $50,000 to a man in Iran, who she claims loves her.
"I really feel bad for these elderly people," he said. "They're more trusting. They come from a different generation."
The Shalersville resident said she thinks it's terrible that so many con artists try to take advantage of the elderly.
"If I could keep someone from getting scammed, I'd sure like to do it," she said.
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