Embarrassed scam victim issues a warning to others

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Donna Cliggett (left) helps her mother, Carmella DiBrino, as they look through paperwork after a scammer bilked her of $11,000 in gift cards in Hatboro, Pennsylvania.

It took some convincing before Carmella DiBrino would let us identify her by name. The 82-year-old Hatboro resident was scammed out of $11,000 by a couple of con artists pretending to be her grandson and his “court-appointed attorney.”

She’s embarrassed that she fell for the yarn.

Still, this resilient Italian elder wanted her story told — hoping it would be instructive for others.

And she questions how the scam was expedited by sophisticated vendors — Walmart and Wells Fargo Bank — who could, and should, have waved a red flag.

Unaware how easy it is to dig up personal information on the internet, DiBrino was sucked in by an early-morning phone call from a young man identifying himself as “Matt,” the name of her grandson who is a student at Ursinus College. “He said ‘I need help, Grandmom. I was in a car accident, need bail money to get out of jail. Please don’t tell my parents.’ Then, he said ‘Here, talk to my court-appointed lawyer’ and handed the phone to a man who said that he need four thousand dollars to get Matt out and told me to go to Walmart and buy four-thousand dollars in gift cards.”

Camera icon WILLIAM THOMAS CAIN / For The Philadelphia Inquirer
Carmella DiBrino looks through paperwork after a scammer bilked her of $11,000 in gift cards.

At a nearby Walmart in Willow Grove, DiBrino went to the customer-service counter and told a female employee, “My grandson is in trouble and needs money to get out of jail.” While the counter is set up with self-service terminals, the service rep “took my credit card and processed the order for me as four $1,000 gift cards, the largest Walmart offers.” These multiple massive charges to her Wells Fargo credit card “went right through without a hitch.” An hour later, the “lawyer” called and had DiBrino “read the code numbers on the back of the gift cards.”

Then in the afternoon, he called again claiming he needed $4,000 more for bail because the police had found liquor and marijuana in the car.

Back to Walmart she went, where the same customer-service rep went through the same ritual without asking a question. Nor did a siren go off at Wells Fargo — remarkable, given how “questionable” credit card charges of just a few hundred dollars have set off alarms for this writer and others I know, demanding a phone conversation with a live bank rep.

DiBrino “got back home about 2:30 p.m. Then at 4 p.m., got another call from the lawyer. I read him the numbers on the back of the cards. Now, he said he needed $3,000 more for insurance co-pay to get the car repaired. So, I go back to Walmart a third time. There’s a long line at the counter, but the woman who’d worked with me before said, ‘You’re back again?’ She took me to a cash register where she tried to put another $3,000 on the Wells Fargo card.”

This time the process balked — but only because DiBrino was close to her charge limit of $8,500. “So I bought a $500 gift card on it, then put $2,500 more in gift-card charges on my Gap Card.”

That night, DiBrino “called my grandson in his dorm room and said ‘You owe me your life.’ And he said, ‘Grandmom, that wasn’t me. I was in school all day.’ ” With her grown children now alerted, too, a police report was immediately filed with the Upper Moreland Police Department, “which contacted Walmart. They got a blurry picture of a guy cashing in one of the card numbers somewhere down South, maybe Tennessee, but that was pretty much the end of that.”

Hardly an isolated case, phone scamming has become rampant. Just last week, at least eight employees of a Philadelphia real estate firm received a stomach-churning ransom call from an “angry, life-threatening” con-man who claimed to have “kidnapped” a relative.

So who is culpable here, beside a guileless grandmom?

Responding to our concerns, Walmart said, “We hate to hear about anyone being taken advantage of by thieves or scammers. Stores have policies in place to help guard against these types of crimes, and we train our associates to be aware of this potential threat.”

But clearly the Willow Grove employee was not duly trained. And while terminal “hang tags” warning to “only send money to people you really know” have been spotted at Walmart service counters in other towns, none were visible at the Willow Grove locale, nor at the South Philly superstore we checked.

Synchrony Bank, issuer of the Gap Card, quickly waived “all charges and fees” to its “valued customer.”

Wells Fargo, after initially playing hardball, finally relented this week. “Given the very specific situation with this customer, we have accepted this fraud claim and provided credits to her account to cover her loss.”