An unknown man posing as a federal agent with the U.S. Border Patrol and Customs Enforcement spent three days trying to get a Kennewick man to pay a $3,000 fine to help his wife avoid arrest.
The fake federal agent, however, didn't realize the man on the other end of the phone was a real police officer posing as the husband of the woman who had already been scammed out of more than $200 and was afraid she was headed for jail.
No arrests were made in the case -- Kennewick police investigators tracked the calls to Queens, N.Y., but that's where the trail ended -- but the scammer didn't get any more money out of his elaborate scheme.
And as a bonus, Detective Sgt. Jack Simington, who pretended to be the woman's husband, said he was able to waste a lot of the scammer's time, preventing them from bilking someone else out of their money.
"The best thing we can say is they're heartless," said Mike Blatman, Kennewick police's crime prevention specialist, about the scammers. "They're preying on other people trying to separate them from their money."
It's the second time this week that the police department has been called about a new, complicated way for criminals to get money from victims.
"If (criminals) took the amount of time and effort they put into being a bad guy and put that into something positive, just think about the creative things they could do," Blatman said.
A couple in their 70s almost fell victim to a scam involving the IRS and getting a federal stimulus check between $1,500 and $2,000. The couple, who haven't filed tax returns for the past 15 years, were told that they just had to provide their personal information to a friend of a friend and they would fill out all the paperwork and get them the rebate, Blatman said.
If the ruse had worked, the scammer would have built a rapport with the couple through e-mails, gotten their personal information and filed a fraudulent tax return in the victims' names to get a large refund, Blatman said.
The would-be scammer then takes the refund check, puts the money on a prepaid credit card and sends it to the victims to make the scam seem legitimate. The victims are told to e-mail the card number and security code to the scammer to activate the card, giving the scammer access to the money, Blatman said.
The scammer didn't get the money this time because the IRS contacted the couple and said they were being subjected to an IRS audit because of a change in their tax filing status, Blatman said. That's how the couple realized they'd almost been had.
The federal agent scam started Monday when the woman, who knows Sgt. Simington, was contacted by phone by a man who said his name was Anthony Williams about getting off-shore prescription refills, Blatman said. The woman agreed to pay $230 for a supply of her medication and wired money to Williams in the Dominican Republic.
Typically, that's where the scam ends. The money is collected by the scammers, but the "customer" doesn't receive the products they ordered and end up losing the money they sent.
But this scam took a bizarre twist that even had Blatman and Simington shocked.
About three hours after the woman sent her money, she received a call from a man claiming to be Agent Alex Davis, badge number N2229, from U.S. Customs, saying agents had arrested Williams and had a warrant to arrest her for illegally importing narcotics into the U.S., Blatman said.
Davis said officers would be arresting the woman later that day, but she could avoid being arrested by paying a $3,000 fine. That's when she got freaked out and contacted Simington.
Simington posed as a country farmer who didn't really understand what was happening but just wanted to keep his wife out of jail. Over the course of two days, Simington said he got 20 calls from the scammer. Nine were in a four-hour period on Monday, and 11 were on Tuesday.
Simington had gotten the scammer to agree to reduce the "fine" to $900 that he could pay in three installments, but the money was never sent and the scammer left a message saying his patience had run out and he was sending agents to arrest his wife.
On Wednesday, Simington called the scammer, using speaker phone, and pretended that he had sent the money but just needed assurance that this plan would get his wife out of trouble.
The scammer repeatedly promised Simington that everything would be OK and that his wife's record would be sealed so no one would ever know about the incident.
"If the number you give me now is good, she won't go to jail," the fake Agent Davis said. "I have not lied to you yet. I'm on the up and up. ... You have been honest with me and I have been honest with you."
When Simington mentioned that he tried to call the man his wife had ordered the prescriptions from, Davis said Williams had been arrested.
"He's going to do 15 years. He's been incarcerated for three days," Davis said. "This investigation didn't start overnight. We've been following these guys for 10 months."
The scammer could be heard getting agitated and losing his patience as Simington again asked repeated questions about the process, what would happen to his wife and whether his neighbors or the local police departments would find out what happened.
"Just go ahead and cooperate and this nightmare will be over," the scammer said. "Why are you delaying the process? Sir, just trust me. I'm just here doing my job trying to help you."
After Simington strung the scammer along by giving him a bad verification number for the money transfer, he called back to tell the scammer that the jig was up.
"It's a scam. I know it and you know it. It's unfortunate it's come to that," Simington told him. "We call that being a scum bag."
The scammer immediately hung up and the call went straight to voice mail when Simington tried back three times. On the final call, Simington's message said, "This is the real police department calling you," and turned the tables on the scammer by saying they've used the technology to trace his call and an arrest warrant has been issued for him.
The scammer likely won't worry too much about being caught, but "it'll cross the back of his mind," Simington said.
Blatman said he suspects "Agent Davis" has already moved on to trying to scam someone else, but it's still important to let the public know that this can really happen and people need to be cautious.
Kennewick police say people should never give out their person information and any activity that requires money to be wired someone should be a red flag.
-- Paula Horton: 509-582-1556; firstname.lastname@example.org