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Family ties entangled in scams

Call from 'grandson' in jail costs W.V. woman $3,000

Love and family are at the heart of a scam that's once again making the rounds. And a West Valley woman who lost several thousand dollars says it's so plausible she didn't think twice about it before she was taken.

JoAnn Thompson believed she was helping a grandson who'd gotten in a pinch.

The scam hinges on some knowledge of family — the scammers use the right first names, for example. There's so much information available online, including on social networking sites, that it's not hard to find relatives' names, said Department of Commerce executive director Francine A. Giani. Obituaries are another great source of information.

On Tuesday, Thompson got a call from her "grandson," whom we'll call Axel. He was speaking fast because he "only had a minute." He said he'd gotten an unexpected chance to go to Vancouver to see some of the Olympics. There, he and his pal "Jack" had a couple of drinks, then got in an accident and damaged their rental car. When the police came, he failed a Breathalyzer and was jailed.

"I'm so embarrassed," he kept saying, apparently distraught. "I just don't want anyone to know how stupid I've been."

He could deal with the DUI later, but his court-appointed attorney was sure the car rental company would drop separate charges if he could pay for the $3,000 in repairs. He had the money, he said, but it would take a few days to arrange things and he really didn't want to stay in the jail. The attorney was pretty sure he could get the miscreant out if the car rental company backed off. He'd pay her back as soon as he got home.

Thompson promised she'd send the money and soon got the phone call from the make-believe attorney, who said his name was Jeff Waxman — in retrospect, very doubtful — with instructions to send the money to London, where, he said, the car rental agency was headquartered.

So Thompson, who with her husband is on a fixed income and had been "saving forever," wired the money in Axel's name to 240 OLB Kent's Road, London. And not long after, "Waxman" called back to tell her he'd picked it up. "It's too late here to get him out tonight," he told her. "But they'll release him early in the morning."

That last clever lie bought several hours before Thompson started wondering why her grandson was at the Olympics. She called a granddaughter and soon learned she'd sent her savings to a thief.

Local police say they've received a number of reports of the scam, with slight variations, although this one has been somewhat dormant recently. Some of the calls use non-jail emergencies, like a car that was towed or a medical problem while traveling, for example.

When she tried to find a way to get the money back, Thompson slammed into walls. Western Union said they couldn't do anything; the money had been claimed. The phone company said it could not help her find the phone number where the call originated. And the police, while sympathetic, could do no more than take her report.

Giani acknowledged it's unlikely the money will be recovered, although the Division of Consumer Protection investigates reported scams and tries to help. She said parents and grandparents should establish passwords with family members, just like you do with little kids: "I'll help, if you can give me our code word." And they should guard it so others can't get it. She also suggests calling the police station where someone is reportedly in jail to verify. People can call Consumer Protection at 801-530-5601 to see if a story sounds like a scam that's been reported, as well.

Thompson knows she's not likely to recover her money. But she hopes her story will thwart scammers when they call someone else.