It’s a scam that police have issued warnings about for years — an elderly person is called by a man or woman claiming to be their grandchild needing bail money.
Yet, some still fall prey and turn over a good chunk of their life savings, with little hope of ever catching the far-away thieves.
But there’s always a first, even for longtime Deputy Prosecutor Terry Bloor.
He has charged two Kennewick men with profiting from an 83-year-old Florida man who believed his grandson was locked up in a Panama jail.
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Kennewick police and Bloor allege Joshua L. Berry and Zhihua Lei pocketed $6,000 that had been loaded onto gift cards and later redeemed by the alleged scammers.
“I personally have not had one of these before,” Bloor said of the long-distance phone scams, which include the jail ruse or claims that a person has won money and needs to make payments in order to collect.
Berry, 32, and Lei, 40, appeared Tuesday in Benton County Superior Court on charges of first-degree trafficking in stolen property and money laundering. The charges include aggravating circumstances of victim vulnerability and that it was a major economic offense.
While court documents have Lei’s name one way, jail records show his name inverted as Lei Zhihua. He did not enter a plea and will return to court Wednesday because an interpreter is needed.
Berry’s arraignment was postponed to May 4.
Arrest warrants were issued for the men last Friday, and they were picked up Sunday after arriving at the Tri-Cities Airport. They reportedly had returned from a trip to Bangkok, Thailand.
They remain in the Benton County jail on $50,000 bail each.
Kennewick Detective Dan Todd wrote in court documents that he is familiar with “a fraud scheme prevalent throughout the nation” which focuses on the elderly with claims of being their grandchild. The targeted victim is asked to go to a store, buy prepaid gift cards and then read the card’s number to their grandchild on a later call so bail can be posted.
Scammers will play on the fact that there is very little law enforcement can do to track them down because it is so easy to fake phone numbers these days, so a person thinks the call originated in one location when it was made from somewhere else in the country or the world.
In this case, the victim told the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office that he initially was not suspicious about the call he got March 21 because his grandson had traveled recently to Panama.
The man reported that he followed orders to get a $2,000 gift card from a Target store, and later provided that number over the phone, court documents said. He then was instructed to get two more cards, this time at Best Buy, for $2,000 each, documents said.
A Florida detective, using the numbers on two of the cards, discovered they had been redeemed at the Best Buy in Kennewick on March 22. That detective contacted Kennewick police, who then got involved in the investigation and identified Berry and Lei as the local suspects.
Surveillance video from the West Canal Drive store shows Berry redeeming one card and Lei the other, court documents said. They both used store rewards memberships in their own names.
Detectives then searched their home on the 2600 block of West John Day Avenue.
They found receipts for the Best Buy gift cards with numbers matching the cards bought by the Florida man, court documents said. Also seized were receipts showing gift card purchases from Best Buy totaling $11,000 since March 22, documents said.
“Neither defendant seems able to purchase by their own means gift cards in those amounts,” Todd wrote.
Lei allegedly made two deposits totalling $7,500 into his personal bank account early March 30.
Detectives could not find any employment information for Berry, but note that he bought his plane ticket to Bangkok, court documents said. Lei’s documents were found showing he worked at various Chinese restaurants in Hermiston from 2014-16 and made $21,400 from those jobs, documents said.
Bloor said the investigators are still trying to identify other possible victims.
He said it is not clear if the Florida man called Berry or Lei with the card numbers, or if there was a middleman who then passed on the numbers. He also could not say if the cards were redeemed for cash or to make other purchases, but said the “allegation is it was their intent was to illegally launder that into cash.”