In 2014, former Kirkwood resident Glenda Seim met the man she called “her love” online.
He introduced himself as a U.S. citizen with business interests in Nigeria. Over the next few years, he asked her for money to pay fees and taxes, and despite having only communicated with him through text, Seim complied. She also pawned electronic equipment that was mailed to her and accepted transfers and checks from businesses and people she didn’t know.
Despite numerous warnings from banks and government institutions, Seim continued to do what he asked of her. Between June 2014 and February 2021, she attempted to conduct fraudulent transactions between $550,000 and $1.5 million, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. In February 2022, 81-year-old Seim was sentenced to five years of supervised probation and ordered to repay her victims. The judge was lenient given her willingness to film a public service announcement for the FBI, warning others against becoming a “money mule” victim of a scam artist.
Seim’s story is not an isolated incident. On Dec. 7, 2022, a Glendale man purchased $14,400 worth of gift cards for a scammer masquerading as a PayPal employee. On Oct. 10, 2022, a Kirkwood resident lost $2,210 after she was told to pay that amount to claim lottery winnings. On Sept. 22, 2022, a Glendale resident paid $5,000 to a scammer claiming to be a police officer.
Scams like these are designed to steal money or personal information to access more money later. While scams affect people of all ages, many of them target senior citizens who are more trusting or less knowledgeable about technology.
“These are organized efforts. It’s like a syndicate. Rarely is the caller somebody local,” said Kirkwood Police Officer Gary Baldridge. “The technology behind it is crazy. There’s so many different ways a caller can route an IP address and bounce it off of routers and satellites. Once that happens, there’s nothing we can do, and it’s so unfortunate because there’s no way we’re going to get that person’s money back.”
Though scammers operate from all over the world, today’s technology makes it possible to spoof phone numbers. Caller ID might show a call from the IRS, Medicare, the Social Security Administration or even local law enforcement.
In 2021, both the Webster Groves and Kirkwood police departments reported a phone scam using their phone numbers and the names of real police officers. In one case, a woman lost $6,500 to remedy a “warrant” out for her arrest.
According to Rebecca Phoenix of the St. Louis Better Business Bureau, the common thread in many scams is to catch victims off guard.
“The key with all of these is to get the person when they are mentally off their normal game,” Phoenix said. “They’ll often call in the middle of the night or try to create a sense of urgency through threats.”
The “grandparent scam” is one of the more common ones, according to Phoenix. Scammers will often call at night, during the time high school students would be on spring break, and claim they are in some sort of trouble and need money immediately. The goal is to get the money before the victim questions the feasibility of what the scammer is saying or tries to contact their grandchild themselves.
Another scam targeting older Americans involves the lottery. Victims receive a call, email or letter claiming they’ve won a sweepstakes or lottery. Victims are told they must first pay taxes or a fee to get their winnings.
In some cases, a check is delivered for the victim to cash. Once the check is cashed, the scammer will claim they’ve overpaid and need some of the money back. Victims will send money to the scammers, only to later find out that the original check was fake.
Another scam that preys on seniors is the vehicle vendor ploy. A vendor will list a vehicle on Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist or another online vendor claiming the vehicle is in pristine condition, but charging below market price. The victim bites on the deal and the scammer requests a payment to hold while the car is sent over for inspection. The victim pays, but the car never arrives.
Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and IRS schemes are also very common. In these frauds, a scammer will claim the victim needs to make a payment to reactivate government benefits, repay a debt or avoid arrest.
Tech support scams involve a phone call or email claiming there’s something wrong with the computer that needs to be fixed. The goal is to get the victim to give their username and password to websites or click a malicious link to gain access to personal information. Some scammers will ask for remote access to a victim’s computer and either steal personal information or install a virus and charge money to solve the problem.
There are also “long cons,” in which victims are swindled over long periods of time and sometimes become involved in them — as in Seim’s case. One example is the romance scam, in which someone on a dating or other social site attempts to cultivate a relationship with the victim. The scammer will often quickly ask to move off the internet platform to phone or email.
“They’ll never meet with you. COVID presents a great opportunity and reason for that,” said Phoenix. “Eventually, they start asking for money for various kinds of problems. Then it just keeps drawing out.”
Phoenix said seniors will often realize the relationship is fake, but are being treated so nicely that they’re reluctant to cut ties with the person.
“They might even be willing to receive money and send it to someone else for their friend. Then they’re no longer a victim and become part of the scam, and they can be held accountable by law enforcement,” said Phoenix. “Sometimes, people have gone to prison because they participated and they can’t prove they didn’t know.”
According to the Better Business Bureau, North Americans lost more than $2 million in 2022 to puppy scams. People are lured in with fake websites and pictures of cute puppies, and then asked for more money for shipping or special crates. Yorkies, Dachshunds and French Bulldogs make up nearly 30% of the dogs used in puppy ploys.
Housing rental scams lure victims with beautiful pictures, great amenities and suspiciously low rent, then advertise a sense of urgency to pressure would-be renters to send a security deposit right away. In reality, the apartment is already rented or doesn’t exist, leaving victims out the money or even a place to live.
Quick-fix credit repair and debt relief promises are often a front for schemes. Beware of those who charge upfront for the company’s “services,” then take the money and personal credit information and vanish.
Fred Bell of the Webster Groves Police Department said the easiest way to identify a scam is to use common sense.
“All the scenarios have a sense of urgency, whether there’s a warrant out for your arrest or a grandchild in trouble. Take a step back and go over that story again. If it doesn’t quite make sense, there’s probably a reason,” said Bell. “Hang up the phone and call your insurance agency or whoever. Ask if they actually made that call.”
Another red flag is if a caller asks to remain on the line while a gift card or other payment method is purchased in order to get the numbers right away. No police department, legitimate business or government agency will ask for payment over the phone by gift card.
Look out for anything that seems like too good of a deal. If it sounds too good to be true, it likely is — whether that be a cheap price, a limited-time offer or a financial miracle, authorities warn.
Reporting, Resources and Prevention
Those who have fallen victim to a scam, or believe they were targeted, should report their experience to the Better Business Bureau at 314-645-3300. Victims can also use the Scam Tracker tool at bbb.org/scamtracker to file a report online.
The Scam Tracker, a database of scam experiences, allows viewers to research scams reported in their areas via an interactive map. When reporting a scam, the form will collect contact information that will not be shared on the website — it allows the BBB and local authorities to follow up for more information.
“It’s always worth reporting it because with BBB, we work with law enforcement. We have our own investigators,” said Phoenix. “If we don’t know about it, it’s really hard for people to get their money back.”
The BBB also has a comprehensive list of scam studies at bbb.org/scamstudies. These studies break down in depth how these scams work and provide a list of tips for recognizing and avoiding them.
Phoenix also recommends calling the Federal Trade Commission and the Missouri Attorney General’s office to report the scam. And when in doubt, she said, use Google to verify information or check if similar incidents have been reported.
“Never wire money or send gift cards to someone you don’t know,” said Phoenix. “Make sure you know who you’re really talking to. Resist the urge to act immediately — and do your research.”
Both Bell and Baldridge suggest calling local police non-emergency numbers. Officers can help identify scams, verify information and take reports in the event of financial loss. Police are also available for fraud seminars.
“Word of mouth is key. Spread the word,” said Bell. “If you’ve been a victim, put it out on social media. That may prevent someone else from becoming a victim.”