GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Investigators say three out-of-state men posed as couriers to steal $40,000 from West Michigan grandmothers who thought their grandchildren were in jail.
The grandkids were never arrested — but the three men were.
The scam targeting grandparents isn’t new: Victims get a call from someone claiming to be their grandchild saying they’re behind bars and need money for bail. Often, the scammers tell the victims to send the money via wire transfer or gift cards. But in this case, West Michigan investigators say, the suspects showed up to get cash.
“This isn’t the first time. It’s out there and it’s happening, and it’s something everybody needs to be aware of,” said Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker, noting the March arrest of another Florida man who was allegedly scamming grandparents in Kent and Muskegon counties.
“You’ve got to be careful anywhere,” Becker cautioned. “Whether it’s on the phone, on the computer, somebody showing up at your door, you have to be careful and know for sure what you’re doing.”
A 78-year-old grandmother who asked not to be identified said seniors need to know anyone could fall victim, even those who are certain they’d know better.
The Kent County woman is an example of that: She and her husband owned and operated several businesses before retiring.
“It’s unbelievable that somebody could do that to me,” the woman told News 8. “(Victims) are normal people. Normal people who live normal lives and have an education.”
She said she received a phone call around 9 a.m. June 27 from a woman who sounded exactly like her granddaughter.
“‘Hi, Grandma, I’m in a bit of a pickle,'” she recalled the woman on the phone saying to her. “She got into this accident on the way to work. She slammed into the back of a lady and the lady got out and she was hugely pregnant, and the lady had already called the cops ’cause she was mad she got slammed into the back of.”
The woman and a man on the line posing as a lawyer told the grandmother that she was in the Kent County jail on a reckless endangerment charge.
“And to get her out they need a large amount of money,” the grandmother said. “Never in this two hours did (the fake lawyer) go more than eight minutes before getting me on the phone. That’s what it is. It’s two hours of him being on the phone.”
When the grandmother checked out the name the man gave her, she found a lawyer with a very similar name.
She called her granddaughter’s phone. No answer.
Her granddaughter could post bail, the stranger on the phone said, but the bondsmen wanted cash. The grandmother went to the bank to get it. The scammer said the teller would question a large withdrawal and gave her a suggestion for a lie to tell — she was going on a trip.
“I thought, ‘No, I can do better than that,'” the woman said. “You know, I’m thinking like him now.”
She told the bank she wanted the money to buy a used car.
“He had got it in my head that if anybody else did anything with this information, then we wouldn’t be able to help my granddaughter,” the grandmother said of the fake lawyer. “I’m already in that mindset: It’s just him and I and the granddaughter against the world.”
The fake lawyer told the grandmother that a courier would come get the cash so they could get her granddaughter out of jail before the end of the business day. She gave the man on the phone her credit card information to pay the courier company, which he said was based in Holland. Sure enough, the “courier” showed up at her house within two hours of the 9 a.m. call. He looked like a nice kid, she recalled.
“I give him my bank bag full of money and he leaves,” she said.
It was thousands of dollars. She was still on the phone with the man pretending to be the lawyer. As soon as she hung up, she realized what happened.
“Within two minutes, I know I’ve been scammed. It’s like the fog lifted,” she said.
She called immediately to cancel the credit card.
Her actual granddaughter called her at 11:30 a.m. She was fine. She’d been at work.
“Darn it. It’s like, no, I’m smart. I’m doing my due diligence. They’re smarter. No matter how smart you think you are, they’re smarter,” the grandmother said.
She is among three women in metro Grand Rapids that investigators say fell victim to the scam.
A multicounty investigation, aided by good timing and a little luck, led to the arrests. Kent County deputies took the three women’s reports and soon learned that the Ottawa County and Ionia County sheriff’s departments were looking into similar reports with similar suspect and vehicle descriptions.
Ionia County deputies pulled over two of the suspects, 22-year-old Pablo Balbuena and 23-year-old Anthony Rosario, both of Hollywood, Florida, which is near Miami, on June 27.
“Anthony said he knew they were scamming people when he left Florida,” a document written by an investigator filed with the court said. “Pablo said he had been hired by an unknown person to pick up packages of money. He was called by an unknown number and given address(es) to go to. Pablo admitted to picking up money at 3 houses.”
The third suspect, 26-year-old Matthew Luis Ramos-Soto of Wilmington, North Carolina, was pulled over in Ottawa County. In his car, deputies said, was a duffel bag that contained Balbuena’s passport and $18,000 in cash.
Ramos-Soto, a Kent County deputy wrote, didn’t tell investigators anything.
Balbuena and Rosario were charged in Kent County with conducting a criminal enterprise. Balbuena’s bail was set at $250,000.