SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – The grifters are back and they’re hitting a community that is traditionally fertile soil for scams - Utah County. These scammers are highly skilled. In Utah’s most recent con game crime, the victim was not a gullible and vulnerable retired couple. It was a successful business owner.
"I think I’m a pretty savvy business woman,” said Toni Jorgensen, owner of Rib City restaurant in American Fork. Like any business owner, she’s been targeting by con artists, trying to cheat her out of money.
“I get calls all the time and I’ve never fallen for anything,” she said.
This time, though, the scammers hit her hot button.
“They played on my emotions,” she said. “They made me believe one of my employees needed help.”
The caller told Toni he was a county sheriff deputy and that he was calling on behalf of one of her employees. He said the young woman was in a hospital with injuries suffered in an automobile accident. He went on to say the employee had been driving under the influence and was going to be booked into jail on the charge. The caller went on to say the employee had $941 in her purse but that she needed $750 to make bail.
“They had enough information about my employee that I thought they were right there with her,” said Toni. “They told me because of HIPPA regulations they couldn’t give my the employee’s name. But by the description, I thought I knew who they were talking about and I ended up giving them her name.”
The caller kept Jorgensen on the line by using another tried and true tactic.
"They kept asking me, ‘Do not hang up. This is her only phone call that she has.'” said Jorgensen.
As savvy a business woman as she is, Jorgensen admits her compassion for her employee made her a patsy.
“I know she doesn’t have parents in the area and I kind of feel responsible for taking care of her,” said Jorgensen.
Restaurant manager Kristie Chidester sprang into action. She got in her car and started driving, being led by a voice on the other end of the line.
"He told me his name and that he was a deputy sheriff and he’d been talking to someone I trust,” said Chidester.
Kristie followed the caller’s directions to a nearby Wal Mart store where she sent a money order for $750 to a California address.
Too late to stop the scam, the entire episode unraveled when the employee who was thought to be in a hospital called the restaurant.
“She called in to say she couldn’t make it to work because she was sick,” Jorgensen said.
Jorgensen immediately called police. Now, the concern was for the safety of her manager, who was on the phone with the con men, following their directions to an unknown rendezvous point, out of touch with her boss.
"Our biggest concern at that time was that the employee may be in harm’s way,” said American Fork Police Lieutenant DarrenFalslev. “If she had figured out it was a scam and resisted, she could have been injured in a fight or taken or killed.”
Lieutenant Falslev said detectives are following evidence that leads them to California, the point of origin for many of the scams that target Utah County.
“The good people of our community are very willing to help family, friends or even strangers in need,” said Falslev. “That makes them particularly vulnerable to these types of scams.
Falslev said citizens can protect themselves by putting three strategies into play:
“Don’t believe anyone who says they are a law enforcement officer calling for a defendant,” he said. No law enforcement agency will ever call on behalf of someone who is arrested. Only the defendant can make that call.
“Get the caller’s phone number and tell them you will call them right back,” he said. No scammer will give you information that will help you immediately blow their cover.
“Call us right away,” he adds. Every minute counts in catching these scam artists. Within minutes of receiving Jorgensen’s call for help, American Fork police detectives were mobilized, looking for the manager and tracking the scammers.