The Star-Herald

St. John retiree victimized by scammers, warns others

ST. JOHN, Maine — A local man enjoying a cup of coffee while watching a television news broadcast on Nov. 11 was experiencing a day like any other, until he nearly lost $3,000 to an elaborate telephone scam. 

Lou Belanger, 75, of St. John said he wants to help others avoid being exploited by scam artists like those who called him on his telephone at around 11:30 a.m. that morning. The caller ID read “out of area,” and Belanger, who has some difficulty hearing, thought the voice on the other end sounded like his son.

“I was surprised to hear from him because he seldom calls,” Belanger recalled.

But the person who called Belanger was not his son. He claimed to be, and said he desperately needed his father’s help.

Belanger said he accepts responsibility for the estranged relationship he has had with his son, now in his 30’s, for most of the younger man’s life.

“I wasn’t there for him while he was growing up into a young man,” Belanger said. “I didn’t realize the consequence of it until I was well into middle age. Only then did I realize what it was for him to grow up without a father.”

So when he thought his son was on the phone asking for help, Belanger said he saw it as a chance to make up for some of the pain he had caused his son over the years.

“This to me was an opportunity to do something for him,” he said.

Belanger said the caller told him he had been involved in a car accident that morning. The imposter provided a detailed account of the accident, which he said occurred when he was distracted by a ringing cell phone and that he swerved as a result and crashed into a car driven by a female. That driver reportedly was taken by ambulance to a hospital.

The caller continued with his elaborate ruse, telling Belanger that he couldn’t immediately find a good spot to pull over, and that after the cars behind him kept honking their horns to get through, he drove on until he could find a safe place to turn around.

When he drove back to where the accident had happened, police already were at the scene and arrested him for leaving the scene of an accident, the caller told Belanger.

The man impersonating Belanger’s son claimed to be at the police station in Connecticut with his lawyer at the time of the phone call. The caller passed the phone to the “lawyer,” who Belanger said introduced himself as David Marcus.

“He went on to explain that my son was in a great deal of trouble,” Belanger said. “What made things worse was that they had him for leaving the scene. He was also charged with being at fault for the accident.”

Marcus informed Belanger that the prosecutor had agreed to request $3,000 bail to release Belanger’s son.

“I asked how I could get the money to them on such short notice so that he wouldn’t have to spend the night in jail,” Belanger said.

At the man’s request, Belanger agreed to purchase six Best Buy gift cards from a local drug store, each card in the amount of $500, for a total of $3,000, and to be back by the phone in one hour. When the man called back, Belanger provided the pin numbers of the cards and the scammer promised to call back later that afternoon following his son’s bail hearing.

“While they were in court, I was a nervous wreck. To kill time I decided to go online and look up this lawyer named David Marcus, only to find out there was no such lawyer in that town or in the state of Connecticut,” Belanger said. “Not only was I worried about my son, but I’m thinking was it possible I just got scammed.”

When the “David Marcus” called Belanger again that afternoon, he claimed that the $3,000 payment from Belanger would not be sufficient, as the woman driving the other vehicle had suffered a broken neck. They would need another $3,000 before Belanger’s son could make bail and be released.

Aware of the scam by this point, Belanger attempted to stall the caller by asking him to call back early that evening, under the guise that Belanger would make efforts to find the additional money in the meantime. Instead, Belanger contacted Best Buy to stop payment on the gift cards. Belanger also called the Fort Kent Police Department. A dispatcher heard Belanger’s complaint, and provided him with the phone number to a fraud hotline set up by the U.S. Senate Committee on Aging that is chaired by Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

When calling that number a recorded message prompts callers to leave contact information and a brief message, and states that someone will return the call.  

Belanger said he called the number but he hung up when a machine answered.

So he called the local police department again and asked for the phone number to the FBI, and shortly after received a call from the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Department.

“I hoped that maybe they could tap my phone and catch these scammers in the act, but I was told (by police) that it would be no use, that chances are they are located in another country and that they use many different phones and that it would be virtually impossible to trace and find them,” Belanger said.

So popular is the type of phone scam Belanger experienced, that the National Council on Aging has a name for it — the “fake accident ploy.”

“With no face-to-face interaction, and no paper trail, these scams are incredibly hard to trace,” according to the NCOA website. “Also, once a successful deal has been made, the buyer’s name is then shared with similar schemers looking for easy targets, sometimes defrauding the same person repeatedly.”

Belanger said he is thankful that Best Buy was able to put a stop payment on the gift cards before the scammers redeemed them, but he still feels bad about what happened, and wants to share his story to help prevent others being taken advantage of by such con artists.

“I was very disappointed in myself,” he said. “There are a lot of senior citizens up in northern Maine that have family out of state and it could so easily happen to any of these people. A lot of people are going to make fun of me and I don’t have to share my story with the public but if it helps any of these people it’s worth it.”

Belanger was able to contact his son by phone on the evening of Nov. 11 to find out that he was OK and had not been involved in any accident.

“For those of you who think that this could never happen to you, don’t be so sure……They make billions of dollars each year by scamming people just like me and just like you,” Belanger said.

To leave a message at the Senate Committee on Aging fraud hotline, call 1-855-303-9470.

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