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Olson: Beware of phony phone calls

Published: Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

The call came on a Friday morning from a number listed on the caller ID as “unavailable.” The caller on the line sounded like he could have been one of James Kohnke’s grandsons.

That’s who he claimed to be, anyway, and Kohnke listened as he told a tale of woe.

The grandson told Kohnke, 78, of DeKalb, that he had been riding in a car with some friends the night before when they were stopped by the police. The police found some “dope” in the car, and nobody would admit it was theirs, so the innocent grandson had been hauled off to the pokey along with everyone else.

The caller insisted he was innocent, saying that he’d taken drug tests and passed them, but they were still holding him. Now he needed to get his hands on $4,000 in cash to bail out of jail.

Of course, the “grandson” promised to repay it the very next day, once he got out.

“I said ‘I’m broke, I just paid my property tax,’ ” Kohnke said. “Then he wanted the credit card and I said ‘I can’t do that either. I don’t give that out over the phone.’

“That ended the conversation.”

The caller might have just made a lucky guess about Kohnke’s family. He has four grandsons, three granddaughters, and 10 great-grandchildren.

An uneasy feeling crept over Kohnke after the man hung up. The more he thought about it, the less the person on the line had sounded like his grandson at all.

Kohnke called the grandson he thought it might have been, who told his grandfather that he was at work that morning, not in jail.

“He’s got a couple of little kids, and I don’t think he’d be riding around with friends at night in a car,” Kohnke said.

Kohnke called DeKalb police to report the scam, he said.

Turns out it’s pretty common. Sycamore police officer Ann Carlson recognized it right away.

It’s known as the “grandparent” scam, and the way that Kohnke described the call it follows the script pretty well.

“About a year ago we had four to five calls in about a two-month period about it,” said Carlson, who’s been with Sycamore police for about eight years. “Nobody had fallen for it, but one gentleman came in, the grandson, and he was irate because he thought someone had stolen his voice in order to try to defraud his grandfather.”

Usually the con’s not so sophisticated, Carlson said. More often, the con artist will ask leading questions to get the their target to divulge information. They’ll say something like ‘Do you know who this is? It’s your grandson,” hoping that the person will respond with something like “Billy?” From then on, they become Billy.

These types of calls usually result from con artists getting their hands on someone’s personal information through illicit means, Carlson said. It’s unlikely that the person who called Kohnke actually knew him.

Carlson has had some training on elder abuse and fraud issues, and takes a special interest in cases of fraud and exploitation of the elderly.

Tips she gives for those who suspect they might be a con artist’s mark: 

• You don’t have to be polite. “Don’t be afraid to hang up the phone,” Carlson said. “You don’t have to be polite and listen to their whole spiel.”

• Never use a phone number a stranger provides. “Look at the back of your credit card, your bank statement, whatever, and call them yourselves to verify what you’ve been told.”

• If necessary, take extreme measures. If the calls won’t stop coming, Carlson has a jarring method people can use. “I tell them to get one of those canned air horns, and if somebody just won’t leave you alone, blast ‘em one.”

Carlson has been working with officer Chad McNett of the DeKalb police to organize a series of education sessions for seniors in the area. The next should be coming up soon at the new police station in DeKalb, Carlson said.

Watch the Daily Chronicle and Daily-Chronicle.com for more details.

Helping wounded soldiers: DeKalb firefighters need your help as they seek to make life a little easier for a wounded veteran.

Patrick Eriksen with the DeKalb Firefighters Local 1236 union, which represents about 55 DeKalb firefighters, is helping coordinate the effort, in conjunction with the Association of Firefighters of Illinois. The firefighters are selling T-shirts for $15 each, with all proceeds going toward a fund to provide a new vehicle for a veteran wounded while serving our country.

The shirts feature a firefighters’ union insignia on the front, the Northern Illinois Huskies logo on the left sleeve courtesy of NIU, and a message of support for the troops on the back.

They are available online at www.IAFF1236.blogspot.com, at DeKalb Fire Station No. 1 at 700 Pine St., from any DeKalb firefighter, and outside all Northern Illinois home football games near the Village Commons Bookstore trailer, at the Fatty’s tailgating tent, and from golf carts at tailgate lots at games.

They’re also available until Sunday at Jersey Mike’s Subs, 103 N. Annie Glidden Road in DeKalb. The sub shop also is running a promotion through Sunday, handing out cards good for a free sandwich with a $1 donation to the Wounded Warrior program.

The goal is to raise $30,000 to purchase a vehicle for a veteran, have it customized for their disability, and present it to them during halftime of NIU’s Nov. 13 football game against Ball State.

The firefighters are working with the Veteran’s Administration, U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth’s office, and various military organizations in Illinois to find someone deserving of the vehicle.

“The criteria we’re looking for is someone local, either with ties to the local or NIU community,” Eriksen said. “We’ve got a few candidates we’re looking at right now.”

The vehicle will be a union-made, American car. The veteran will get to pick it, Eriksen said.

So far, the firefighters have raised about $15,000 through shirt sales and have received about $7,000 in donations from local businesses.

“We’ve still got a little ways to go, but we’re pretty confident,” Eriksen said. “We’ve just got some work to do, so that’s why we’re reaching out to the public.”

If you have the chance, please help out the cause.

• Eric Olson is editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841, email eolson@shawmedia.com, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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