Scammed of $20K, local couple tell their cautionary tale

“Grandma, it’s me” is one of several active phone scams in Yolo County and beyond. The callers pose as grandchildren in trouble and persuade older residents to wire them money.

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The stakes rise Shortly after that initial call came a second one, also from a private caller. The person on the other end identified himself as Jimmy Dale Lofton, Ryan’s public defender. “Lofton” steered the conversation towards bail, which he claimed the Romstads would get back after Ryan’s court date. He asked the couple where they lived, saying he needed to determine into which “ATM” they should deposit the money. He first suggested San Francisco, but when the Romstads said that was too far away, they settled on Fairfield. “Lofton” directed them to a liquor store on North Texas Street, where they would find the “special” ATM. “Lofton” gave a callback number with a 236 area code, which Connie Romstad’s computer search traced to British Columbia. That seemed strange, but a further search for “Jimmy Lofton” revealed an El Cerrito attorney listing that reassured her, she said. A Google search also shows an attorney of the same name licensed to practice law in Nevada. Doroshov said that person had no involvement in the scam. “Lofton” also emailed the couple a QR code, saying it contained the banking information needed for the ATM deposit in Fairfield. They called him once the transaction was complete. As it turned out, the con was just getting started. The Romstads made four payments in all, following repeated phone calls during which both “Ryan” and “Lofton” claimed the crash victim’s prognosis had worsened to include a “broken” spleen, then a coma. More money was needed for medical expenses, said “Lofton,” who again assured the funds would be reimbursed by the injured woman’s insurance company. The Romstads, meanwhile, feared a possible vehicular manslaughter charge for their grandson if she died. Meanwhile, the Romstads’ daughter — Ryan’s mother — lives out of state but includes her parents on her cell phone’s Find My Friends feature, and she began asking questions about why they were traveling to Fairfield. “I lied to her,” said Connie Romstad, who later shut off her phone so her daughter couldn’t detect their subsequent excursions. The final shakedown came that Wednesday afternoon, when “Lofton” demanded another $20,000 to get “Ryan” out of jail, given the crash victim’s serious condition. “I said I did not have any more to come up with and needed to call his parents,” Connie Romstad said. “Lofton” protested that idea, however, and asked how much she could spare. “I said $4,000,” Romstad said. “He called me back and said that was acceptable to the judge.” As the Romstads made their final trip to the Fairfield liquor store, the real Ryan had texted to say he was on their way to their house. Shortly thereafter, the fake Ryan called and made incoherent ramblings that Connie Romstad said made her fear her grandson might be suicidal. Know the signs When the real Ryan arrived on her doorstep, Connie Romstad greeted him with a hug, saying they would get through Thanksgiving, then have a serious talk on Friday about what had transpired. “Ryan went and called his mother and asked if something had happened, as Grandma was saying some strange things,” Romstad said. “She said to him that maybe I was stressed, with 18 people coming for dinner on Thanksgiving.” The blow came on Thanksgiving morning, when Karl Romstad asked his grandson about his nose. “My nose?” Ryan asked, confused. “Yes, you told me you broke it,” Connie Romstad replied. “When you were in jail.” “I wasn’t in jail,” Ryan said. “That is when we knew we had been scammed,” Connie Romstad said. The couple immediately filed a police report, and Doroshov said Detective Josh Helton “went to great lengths” to track the money’s path to Malta. He declined to elaborate in order to preserve the integrity of the investigation, should the case ever go to court. The Romstads, meanwhile, did get some of their money back — a $6,000 cash advance from Capital One. The rest, taken from their bank accounts, likely is lost for good. With hindsight as their guide, they’re warning others not to answer calls from blocked or unfamiliar phone numbers, and “don’t do anything without checking with somebody,” such as an uninvolved but trusted friend or relative, Connie Romstad said. Although she did consult her husband, she convinced him despite his doubts that “Ryan’s” call was real. “Communicate with somebody so that you have time to think,” she added. Doroshov agreed, saying phone scammers rely on putting their victims “in panic mode, getting them to pay as much as they can as fast as they can” before the fraud finally comes to light. In addition to “Grandma, it’s me,” there are several scams in which the caller claims to be from a government agency, threatening arrest for failure to pay bills or taxes or show up for jury duty, unless a “fine” is immediately paid. Doroshov said one local resident recently got such a call from what appeared to be the Davis Police Department’s main phone number — a practice known as “spoofing” that makes the call appear legitimate. “Luckily, they called us, and we were able to stop them from paying any money,” Doroshov said. A few more tips to avoid falling victim to telephone scams: Register your phone number with the national Do Not Call registry, either online at www.donotcall.gov or by calling 888-382-1222. If you still receive telemarketing calls after registering, there’s a good chance they are scams. * Don’t provide your credit-card number, bank account information or other personal information to a caller. * Don’t send money if the caller tells you to wire money or pay with a prepaid debit card or gift card. * Be wary of callers claiming that you’ve won a prize or vacation package, or that you owe money. * Hang up on suspicious phone calls. * Be cautious of caller ID. Scammers can change the phone number that shows up on your screen, a practice called “spoofing.” * Don’t say anything if a caller starts out by saying, “Can you hear me?” This is a common practice for scammers to record you saying “yes,” then use it as proof that you agreed to a purchase or credit-card charge. — Reach Lauren Keene at lkeene@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenkeene]]>

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