AUBURN, Maine — Betty Lugner, 76, was scammed out of $985, and wants to warn others about phone calls asking for money to rescue a grandchild.
Lugner, 76, is a widow, grandmother of six and great-grandmother of five. She has Parkinson’s disease, and lives on Social Security in an Auburn apartment.
On Friday afternoon her phone rang. “It was a man. He said, ‘We have your grandson at the embassy in Mexico.’ The man said if they didn’t have the money, he’d have to go in a cell.”
With all the drug violence in Mexico, Lugner was afraid for her grandson. “Just the thought of him being down there with the shooting on the streets down there. It was the worst feeling in the world.”
The caller told Lugner they picked up her grandson the night before, there was cocaine in his car, they tested him for drugs and he came out clean. But the implication was that her grandson was being set up and headed to jail.
“They kept saying, ‘Don’t say anything to anyone about this.’ They wanted me to talk to him. So I talked to him.”
Another male voice posing as her grandson spoke, starting with, “Hi Gram.” Her grandson calls her “gram,” not “grandma” or “nana.”
“He said, ‘What I’m going to tell you you can’t ever, ever, ever tell anyone.’ I thought that was strange,” Lugner said. Her grandson is 18 and lives in Poland. She had seen him a few days ago. She asked how he got to Mexico.
“He said, ‘A buddy of mine’s father owns a motel down here. We were going down here to see him.’”
Lugner told the men she didn’t have $985 but had a credit card. He told her to go to her credit union, get a cash advance, then go to Walmart and “Money Gram,” or wire, the cash to a number they gave her. “They kept telling me to do it as soon as possible because the embassy’s going to close.”
She did as they said.
At Walmart the clerk who handled the Money Gram, as well as the manager, questioned Lugner if she was being scammed. She insisted the money be sent.
“I wasn’t taking any chances,” Lugner said. “I kept saying, ‘What if it was Chris.’ If they put him in jail down there they’d beat him to a pulp.” While at Walmart “I was a wreck,” she said. “I was shaking all over. ”
Her friend, Marge Chaplin, was with her when she got the phone call, went to the credit union and Walmart. Chaplin suspected it was a scam and said so to Lugner.
But, Chaplin said, when the call came in the caller ID said “embassy,” the man didn’t have any accent sounding somewhat legitimate, and the callers had the grandson’s name and other personal information correct.
Afterward, Chaplin and Lugner went back to Lugner’s apartment. Upset and frightened, “I sat here in a fog all night,” Lugner said.
Then came a knock on the door. Her grandson came in looking for pants to wear to a ceremony.
The women called the Auburn Police Department and filed a complaint, but the money was gone.
They Googled the phone number the money was wired to, the number was from Quebec, Canada, “quite a ways from Mexico,” Chaplin said.
Lugner contacted her credit card company; because it was fraud she’ll be reimbursed, she said. But what happened has left her shaken.
She wants others aware and prevent someone else from being victimized. If it happened again she’d do things differently, she said.
What happened to Lugner is “a classic target-the-grandparents scam,” Auburn Deputy Chief Jason Moen said Monday. People call saying a grandchild is in jail.
“They know just enough about the grandchild and grandparents to make it seem real. Between Google and Facebook, it’s amazing what you can find out about anyone,” Moen said.
If anyone gets the kind of call Lugner did, “the best thing to do is contact family members to see where the person in question is, and always get a callback number,” Moen said.
One huge red flag is that the state department would never ask for money, he said.
“It’s not going to happen.”