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Elgin store helps save elderly woman from falling for costly scam

Jean Goff clerk Elgin's Super Walmart Matt Altom loss preventimanager. On Wednesday Goff helped stop an 86-year-old Elgwoman from being

Jean Goff, a clerk at Elgin's Super Walmart, and Matt Altom, the loss prevention manager. On Wednesday, Goff helped stop an 86-year-old Elgin woman from being scammed out of $1,500. She called Altom to the service counter to explain to the woman how the scam worked. | Photo by Janelle Walker

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Updated: January 22, 2013 6:28AM

ELGIN — An alert store clerk Wednesday morning prevented an 86-year-old Elgin resident from losing $1,500 — and potentially even more — from a scammer, officials said.

The woman had been convinced that she had won $1.7 million from Reader’s Digest and that she needed to go to Walmart and buy prepaid debit cards — three for a total of $1,500, said Cherie Aschenbrenner, The Elgin Police Department’s elderly service officer.

Clerk Jean Goff declined to sell the woman the cards and called the loss prevention manager, Matt Altom, to the register. Altom told her it was a scam and to call police.

The scammers — which the woman’s caller ID said were in Kingston, Jamaica — had worked on the woman for two days to get her to fall for the scam, Aschenbrenner said.

On Tuesday night, the woman got a call at home telling her she had won the prize. During a three-hour conversation, the scammers told the woman her neighbors had won in the past — and described the trees in her yard and used some of her neighbor’s names. All of that information was likely easily gleaned from the Internet, Aschenbrenner said.

Eventually, the woman declined the “winnings” and hung up, Aschenbrenner said. However, the scammers called the woman back on Wednesday morning and finally convinced the woman she had won the prize, to give them her bank account number, and to go purchase $1,500 in the prepaid debit cards to cover “insurance” for the money.

That is when the Goff stepped in.

Many of the national retailers such as Walmart have become aware of these “Greendot” scams, said Altom on Thursday. Greendot, he explained, is a prepaid debit card that can be loaded with up to $500 each. They look like any debit or credit card.

“From Cherie and previous experiences … they just take these people’s money and they think they won something,” Altom said. He and Walmart staff had become more aware of the scam just two weeks ago, when another area resident fell prey to a similar scam.

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All of the big-box stores are in communication with each other about these scams, he said. “We know it is happening, and we do what can we do to prevent it,” but that is little, he said. “Cherie has come here a couple of times. In Elgin, she can name 10 cases and $100,000 in the past couple of months. I believe in her cause.”

They were able to stop the scam in this case.

The woman told Altom and Goff that she needed the cards to collect the money. “Ma’am, I don’t want you to get anything stolen,” Altom replied.

Altom offered to call the police then and there. Instead of meeting her at the store, the victim met with police at her home. She called her bank and closed her account before any money could be transferred out.

While Aschenbrenner was there speaking with the victim, the scammers called again. Aschenbrenner got on the phone, told them they had been stopped, and advised them to stop calling because the woman would not fall for them again.

In January, Aschenbrenner plans to go back to Walmart and work with Altom to train more staff on what to be on the lookout for to prevent other residents from being scammed.

Big-box stores such as Walmart are popular with scammers because they are in almost every town, or close by, and have a large employee turnover — helping to protect the scammers from being stopped, she said.

Aschenbrenner also speaks an average of 95 times a year to different senior groups to warn them of the scams and what to watch out for. Although the almost-victim goes to a church Aschenbrenner has spoken at, she had not attended the meeting.

“I try to get to everyone, but people fall through the cracks,” Aschenbrenner said.

She reminds seniors to use their caller ID and answering machines. Don’t pick up unfamiliar or blocked numbers, she said, and don’t open the door to people who they don’t know.

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