Alleged phone scammers accidentally call investigative reporter's number

HOUSTON -- Every reporter knows that the next great story is just sometimes a phone call away. And this story is about a couple of guys who called me the other day.

A pretty easy day of reporting for me, right?

These fellows said they were from the government; specifically, the U.S. Department of Grants. The address they gave was 200 Independence Ave., SW in Washington DC. They said I was up for a $7,000 grant and -- get this -- all I had to do was first send them $99.

They kept pushing me to simply get myself to a MoneyGram store, which can easily wire money from place to place.

Here is some of that verbatim conversation. (And check out the video version of this story above, to get an even better sense of who I was dealing with.)

Caller: First of all, in order to receive your grants fund you need to write your name on top, and fill out 'Department: Once in a Lifetime,' all right? So for the activation, you need to grab one form at the MoneyGram store, all right? And you need to fill out that form... and collect your money by cash, got it? $7,000, you got it, sir?
Ted: Oh yea, 7,000 bucks. That's what you guys are sending me, right?
Caller: Correct. $7,000.

I was curious. I got the form and we kept talking.

Caller: Yea, hello, sir? Do you have MoneyGram form Express Payment?
Ted: Express Payment, yep. I got that blue form, man. So what do I do now?
Caller: So, you know, You have to register, OK?
Ted: Register. OK.
Caller: It will be $99. It will be refunded back.
Ted: So I register for $99?
Caller: There will be a registration fee.
Ted: A registration fee, OK. Is that like a government fee?
Caller: Yep.
Ted: Oh.
Caller: It will be refunded back along with the grant money.

But this was sounding a little too good to be true.

Ted: You guys are in Washington, right?
Caller: Yep.

Except I don't think they were. I'll bet you don't either.

And this ain't my first day at the journalism rodeo. I happen to know that the DC address they said they were calling from was the Hubert H. Humphrey Building, which houses the Federal Health & Human Services Department. And I also happen to know there is no such thing as a 'U.S. Department of Grants.'

So I pressed my new, generous friend.

Ted: I see these scams all the time on the news and it's like, 'Send these people a little bit of money and they'll send you a lot more back.' Are you running one of those scams? I want to trust you.
Caller: I understand your concern. These days there are a lot of scams going on, am I right?
Ted: There are a lot of scams, yeah.

Most of us would just hang up when we receive a suspicious call, which is the best advice when you do get a call like this one.

I wanted to see what happens if I just keep them on the line. They never asked for private information from me, such bank numbers or credit card information. They just kept prodding me to fill out a form at a MoneyGram store and send them $99.

I kept them on the line for nearly 27 minutes in total.

They stuck by their story and to someone gullible enough, they seemed to have all the answers.

Caller: It will take you like 10 or 15 minutes to receive your money all right?
Ted: So you get the $99 right away and then 15 minutes later I'll get my $7,000?

But we finally had enough.

Caller: So what do you think?
Ted: Well I don't think you're in Washington, DC.
Caller: (Silence)
Ted: You feel no guilt about doing this to people, do you?
Caller: Sir that's your choice... I'm just trying to help you. So at what time...
Ted: What's your real name?
Caller: I cannot understand you.
Ted: Neither can I. Thanks buddy. Does your mom know what you do for a living?

They hung up on me after that.

We called MoneyGram after we were hung up on by our new phone-buddies.

They quickly shut down the account that we were instructed to send the $99 to.

MoneyGram officials also sat down with us to discuss our call. They said it had all the earmarks of a scam they've seen far too often.

"This particular scam is related to an old scam that we would refer to as the lottery scam, in which somebody calls you and promises earnings or prize money," said Kim Garner, a senior vice president for MoneyGram and former FBI agent. "In this case it's a grant from the government."

Americans lose tens of millions of dollars each month to phone scams, she said.

"People should pay close attention to the agency that these fraudsters say they're from, because most of the time they're not legitimate agencies," Garner said.

MoneyGram is able to head off many scams before they are able to take advantage of the gullible or desperate, Garner said.

"We are able to prevent tens of millions of dollars each months in fraud," she said. "We're able to refund that to potential victims."

In the case of the account I was told to send money to, Garner told me that 12 people sent the account I was told to send money to a total of $3,890.

"There are red flags that we ask people to consider," Garner said. "The government or any legitimate lottery would never ask you to prepay any type of fees."

Other advice from Garner:

  • If you did not participate in a grant or a lottery, you clearly didn't win money from that grant or lottery.

  • Never send money to someone you don't really know.

  • Think on it or talk to family and loved ones before wiring money to anyone.

  • If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Often, there is little the police can do, but Garner suggests contacting the police anyway to make them aware. Garner said that MoneyGram wants to know if you've been victimized, too.

"If they could also contact us that would be extremely helpful," she said. "We try to stay ahead of the fraudsters every chance that we can. The fraudsters are constantly changing what they do, so new intelligence would be very helpful."

Producer Trent Seibert contributed to this report.
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