SAN JOSE -- An unexpected call from a man claiming to be a lawyer presented a San Jose grandmother with both a dilemma and an offer to help. He said her grandson had just been jailed, but if she acted quickly, he could help her bail him out. All she needed to do was buy a $2,000 MoneyPak chit and give him the password.
Luckily, her husband smelled a rat and contacted fraud investigators at the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office. They quickly determined the couple was about to become the latest victim of a nationwide scam involving MoneyPak cards.
Using a variety of ruses, including the "emergency bail" con, scammers have been taking advantage of gullible people of all ages via the MoneyPak shakedown, including in the Bay Area. Warnings have been issued this month by both the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office and South San Francisco police.
Elderly people are particularly vulnerable, Santa Clara County prosecutor Janet Berry said.
"It's easy to find elders using online data-mining services," Berry said. "And it's easy to put them in a state of fear."
The store manager at the Rite-Aid where the grandmother had gone to buy the MoneyPak expressed concern to her when she came in to buy the MoneyPak, prosecutors said, but she bought it anyway. Rite-Aid decided Tuesday to post the District Attorney's fraud alert at all its Santa Clara County stores.
The chits are sold by a Pasadena-based corporation called Green Dot. Each card warns consumers to "Never give the MoneyPak number to a private individual," and that "If anyone asks for your MoneyPak number, it's a scam."
A spokesman for the company said the chits are intended to be used by the buyer for three legitimate purposes -- to transfer cash to the buyer's prepaid debit card, load cash into a PayPal account and make cash payments to a shortlist of Green Dot-approved businesses. People who buy the chits either don't want or can't get a debit card through a bank account.
Green Dot has long planned to phase out MoneyPak by the end of the first quarter next year, using newly developed technology. The company is switching the 92,000 retailers who use its services, including Rite Aid, to a new system that allows them to transfer customers' cash directly onto prepaid debit cards, rather than through MoneyPak and then onto the cards.
In the meantime, Berry urged consumers to call the District Attorney's Office at 408-792-2880 if they suspect they're being duped.
"My message to the public is, don't rush into anything if someone you don't know calls and asks for money," she said. "Take a minute or two to calm down."
Scammers tend to spin elaborate stories, she said, which can be a tipoff. In the emergency bail case in July, the caller claimed he was a lawyer named Jonathan Cameron, phoning from the steps of the courthouse. He said the grandson had smashed into a diplomat's Bentley, whose bumper alone cost more than $6,000.
The grandson had been injured and was wearing a neck brace, which was why his voice sounded funny when the lawyer supposedly put him on the phone.
But investigators discovered there isn't any such lawyer and there wasn't a crash.
Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482. Follow her at Twitter.com/tkaplanreport.