Elaine and Everett Varner just wanted to surprise their family.
It’s been almost 10 years since they first got the phone call declaring the couple, in their 70s at the time, lottery winners.
The first thing they planned to do with the money was split it up among their children. It was going to forever change their lives, just not in the way they thought.
Before the Varners could collect their winnings, a few boxes needed to be checked. Routine, clerical work, the assuring voice on the phone told them.
So when that voice asked them to wire $5,000, they didn’t blink. Then a request for another $3,000 came. Elaine and Everett sent that fee as well, a small fraction of their promised haul.
Then excuses began piling up from the voice on the phone, each one requiring thousands of the Varners’ dollars to be fixed. Elaine and Everett met all of the demands until they ran out of money of their own.
That’s when they spoiled the surprise by asking to borrow $15,000 from their kids, and that’s when the family finally caught on to the scam.
“They just preyed on them,” said Diane Varner, the couple’s daughter-in-law, about the faceless people who scammed the older couple. “Just constantly.”
Other names have been given to the “Varners” in this story to mask their identities.
Diane worked with the older couple, urging them to stop sending money and to report the fraud to local law enforcement. But as with many of fraud reports then and in the 10 years since, there wasn’t much the local police could do.
“It was just so bizarre for her to take it hook, line and sinker and be so taken by it and gullible like that,” Diane said about her mother-in-law. “It was just not her, by no means.”
By the time the scam was identified and the losses added up, Diane said Elaine and Everett were out $67,000.
“You look at that kind of money out of their life savings, it wiped them out is what it did,” she said.
Just last year, the Gillette Police Department reports there were 40 fraud reports made involving people age 50 and older totaling $170,000 in losses.
“That’s real money lost, not gone and then returned by the bank,” said Gillette Police Cpl. Dan Stroup.
The Internet Crime Complaint Center, an FBI program, reports that 42.59% of its fraud victims with known ages in 2019 were 50 and older.
Nearly $2.9 billion was lost by fraud victims, 49.44% of which was from older people. The largest amount, more than $835 million, was taken from people age 60 and older.
The overall losses totaled $3.5 billion in 2019, the Internet Crime Complaint Center reported.
Phone scams commonly show up on local police incident reports in Gillette, but modern types of fraud are not limited to just phone calls and not all phone scams are the same.
Other scams popularized in years past involve investment fraud, tech support hoaxes, fake sweepstakes wins, romance fraud and impersonation scams, among many others.
“Unfortunately, we’re not going to see the end of them,” Stroup said. “They’re just going to keep coming in.”
Modes of fraud
On its surface, the Facebook account brought to Christine Olson’s attention in November seemed fairly normal.
A profile picture of a cheerful man, with whom is presumably his daughter, was the face of the fraudulent account that targeted the American Legion post in Gillette along with other businesses in Wyoming and Pennsylvania.
Olson, who is a bartender at the American Legion, said customers brought the Facebook account to her attention when a post began circulating that advertised table space for sale for what turned out to be a fictitious event at the Legion hall.
The event was bogus and there were no vendor tables for sale. In fact, there was a cornhole tournament scheduled for the venue that day, she said.
The scammer was asking for $70 per table and for buyers to communicate through private Facebook messages. It turned out, he had made similar posts for similarly fabricated events in Cheyenne and Brandon, Pennsylvania, she said.
Olson was able to put out warnings on the Legion’s Facebook page and her own personal account, but she doesn’t know if any, or how many, people sent money to the scammer.
“After something like that happens, it makes you worried that it will continue or something else like that would happen,” Olson said.
At their core, many fraud cases involve identifying and taking advantage of vulnerable people.
In the aftermath of natural disasters like severe hurricanes, criminals sometimes target the disheveled survivors by preying on their need for housing and milking their incoming insurance money or remaining savings.
Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the faucet of federal unemployment compensation and business loans led to a deluge of illegitimate claims, as evidenced by multiple large-scale cases prosecuted and still being pursued by the U.S. Department of Justice.
In many of the local cases, Stroup said age is a factor. The number of calls that make their way to police is only a fraction of those beamed into Campbell County, fishing for new marks.
“We’re just hearing about the ones that are successful and I think unfortunately, it’s that over-50 crowd right now that are getting taken. They’re getting scammed,” Stroup said.
The methodology of fraudsters varies. Many conduct their scams by phone, claiming to be with companies such as Apple, eBay, Amazon or other ubiquitous technology companies. Once they hook someone on the line, they often will try to gain remote access to the victim’s computer or convince them to send money through other forms.
Bank transfers are common, but so are other less orthodox means of exchanging money.
Stroup said that gift cards are commonly used as a way to easily transfer money at little risk to the perpetrator. For example, the caller may demand to be sent money via Walmart gift cards, in which case they would coax the target into sharing the card numbers over the phone.
“Thank God we don’t have a Target here because they love Target cards,” Stroup said. “But they’ll send them now for Walmart cards, or Apple iTunes cards, because those have a monetary value.”
Last May, one local man lost money to a fraudster through eBay gift cards.
According to a police report, he arranged to buy a motor home from a seller on eBay who asked for the gift cards as payment. But the seller, who went by the name Margaret Dunlap, stipulated that he call a specific number and follow instructions to relay the gift card information. So he called and gave the numbers for the gift cards, which he first bought $1,600 worth and then another $800 worth.
Despite being assured by someone he thought was an eBay employee that the money would not go through until he received his motor home from the Wichita, Kansas, seller, he lost touch with the seller after he sent the money.
That’s when he contacted police, who confirmed that he got scammed but were unable to find the suspect or get his money back.
On top of getting scammed, people also get frustrated that there’s so little local law enforcement can do about it after the fact, Stroup said.
“They’re like, ‘What do you mean I’m out this money? I want somebody prosecuted,’” he said. “We would love to, (but) it’s just gone. I don’t know that it’s ever going to end.”
What can be done
The long-range nature of the computer and phone fraud schemes allows the perpetrators to be virtually anywhere in the country, or world, when orchestrating their crimes. That’s part of the reason why catching them can be a challenging, often futile task for law enforcement.
“A lot of these, we don’t have the jurisdictional ability to go after them,” Stroup said. “They’re overseas.”
But even if those ceaseless fraud callers keep calling and calling, there are ways to stop getting taken.
Laura Baker is the executive director and co-founder of CyberWyoming, an organization that formed a few years ago to track, thwart and protect against the increasingly prolific occurrence of cyber fraud in Wyoming.
She said that Amazon, PayPal and Apple are three of the top companies in Wyoming that fraudsters often impersonate through online and phone scams.
“If you get anything from any of those, just automatically assume that it’s probably fake,” Baker said.
She said that if pop-up windows, phone calls or emails come through telling a person to call for tech support, “it is nine times out of 10 fake.”
When that does happen, Baker said to take it to a local, trusted computer repair worker or company to look at it.
“First of all, Microsoft is never going to call you to offer you money back,” Stroup said. “It’s just not gonna happen. Amazon is not going to call you, they don’t have a phone center to call you. Nobody is going to ask identifying information and nobody, unless you personally know them, is going to ask for remote access to your computer. That’s not the way we operate now.”
In order to safeguard against various phone or online ploys, Baker suggests adopting a skeptical eye and approaching the internet with less trust than many carry in their day-to-day lives.
“We have a culture of trust in Wyoming, which is a good thing for our neighbors and our friends and our family, but (on the) the internet we should have a completely different personality when we’re on the internet, and it should not be a trusting personality,” Baker said.
“There is no shame” in being defrauded, she added, as it can happen to anybody, and often does.
Education is key to combating it. There are many people who know to ignore or block suspicious calls coming to their phones that could spell trouble, but it only takes the relatively few who don’t know to make it worth the fraudsters’ time.
Even as the strategies and ploys devised by schemers evolve, the same core tenets are manipulated and abused. Trust, vulnerability, force, deception and lack of knowledge can all be exploited, regardless of the technology involved or the location of the scammer.
That’s why as complex as the fraud schemes become, the core ways to prevent it remain somewhat simple.
“The biggest thing is we just educate,” Stroup said. “And it goes back to if it seems too good to be true, it is. And you’re being taken.”
A recent opinion from the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office helped clear up some of the legislative red tape in the way of an independent community college district in Campbell County, as a bill for the new district’s formation makes its way through the state Legislature.
In a letter from the Office of the Attorney General, two questions about the state’s existing community college statutes were answered that had been lingering through the months of discourse around Gillette College attempting to create its own district.
The first was whether the trustees of a new community college district could levy less than four tax mills. The opinion found that a district could indeed levy less than four mills “if it is not attempting to qualify for state aid funds.”
That prompted the second question, which asked if a new district assesses fewer than four mills, may it later decide to increase to four mills in order to qualify for state funding. To that question, the letter determined that the district could in fact later raise its levy to four mills and qualify for state funding.
The elected board of trustees for the new district would decide the initial levy, according to the attorney general’s letter.
“That decision is not permanent, and must be revisited annually, affording the district the opportunity to raise the assessment to four mills as needed,” the letter read.
Throughout the Gillette College trek towards forming its own community college district, questions about the mill levy requirements loomed.
Under current Wyoming law, community college districts are “not to exceed” four mills to receive state appropriation funding. However, it was unclear if a community college district could tax less than those four mills in order to exist separate from the state revenue.
The opinion cleared that up, shifting the focus to the current bill in favor of creating a new community college district around Gillette College that was introduced to the Legislature earlier this month
Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, who is sponsoring the Gillette College district formation bill, told the Gillette College Advisory Board and other legislators about the attorney general’s opinion at a meeting earlier this week.
If the bill clears the state Legislature and comes to a public vote, Wasserburger said the county would not have to levy four mills, but instead “you could levy the amount of mills to cover the state appropriation.”
But how many mills will be required is still unclear.
During the campaign last fall to get the Gillette College district application approved by the Wyoming Community College Commission, the community college task force estimated the college’s budget would cost about $14 million if it were to operate independent of the Northern Wyoming Community College District.
“If the bill is approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor, then we have to have an election and the people of Campbell County have to vote for that approval but also to accept the tax that will be a part of the bill,” Wasserburger said at the meeting.
About as murky is the uncertainty of how much those mills will be valued in the future.
Campbell County’s assessed valuation was $4.24 billion in 2020, meaning 1 mill equaled about $4.24 million, with 4 mills raising a little less than $17 million.
The Campbell County Commissioners estimated the assessed value of the county to dip and stabilize around $3.6 billion over the next few years. That would drop the value of a mill to about $3.6 million and bring the value of 4 mills to about $14.4 million.
The Board of Cooperative Higher Education Services, or BOCHES, receives a half-mill of property taxes in Campbell County, and much of that goes to Gillette College.
Each of the seven existing community college districts in the state tax either four or five mills, but each has a significantly lower assessed value than Campbell County.
Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette, is in favor of the district formation bill, mainly in order to bring the decision to the people of Campbell County, who he said should have the final say.
“This particular bill, I would be in favor of,” Bear said. “Whether or not it’s the best solution, I can’t tell you. But I think that the people need to be able to decide if they’re to increase their own taxation in order to have this benefit for the society, the community.”
The amount and impact on the increased tax is a looming question that may have major implications in how the final vote turns out, if it is to come to a public vote.
“We’re headed towards tough times,” Bear added. “I’ve committed to no new taxes personally, but any new tax on the oil and coal industry is just going to mean jobs lost. That decision on how much and if we’re going to increase the mill levy, it has to be one made wisely.”
Seven trustees would be elected to the newly formed district, should it come to be.
Rep. Eric Barlow of Campbell County is the house speaker and a co-sponsor on the Gillette College district formation bill. He said there are still many steps before the bill has a shot at becoming law, but emphasized his belief that it is up to local legislators to do their best to bring it to a vote so the community can decide.
“I’ll do everything I can to make sure this bill gets every opportunity in its process, and I’ll personally support it as well,” he said.
The idea of rallying behind the bill in the state Legislature so the college’s fate can go before the public was echoed by Tracy Wasserburger, who is on the Gillette College Advisory Board.
“If we get it though the Legislature, we still have another huge task to share with our community about the value that this college has,” Tracy Wasserburger said. “Bring it back home and let us be able to decide about the future of our college.”
The bill will go before the Senate Education Committee at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. Jeff Wasserburger said he hopes that by noon, “we will know what’s going to happen to the community college bill.”
“My thoughts are that we will come out of that committee,” he said, adding that it could be one of the first bills decided by the entire Legislature.
A special election could be held as early as May, but given the legislative schedule, it is more likely that it would occur in August.
For now, the new district is being called the Gillette College Community College District, but Wasserburger said that title, with its redundancies and all, could still be changed.