A Rochester mother’s heartbreak is a cautionary tale

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — In consumer news, a heartbreaking story that serves as a word of warning for us all. Telephone scammers are more than annoying. Their cunning cruelty can result in financial ruin. One Rochester single mother knows that first hand.

Joy Jone’s nightmare started with a phone call.

“When I first answered the phone they told me it was from the FBI, the Texas FBI,” Joy said, recalling the cold fear she felt that day. “[The caller said] my identity had been stolen. They found a rental car that had cocaine in it and human blood in it.”

She wondered if the call was real. She hung up and googled the number the woman had called her from. And to her shock, she traced the number to an FBI bureau in Texas. So she called the number. And the recorded message confirmed it was indeed the FBI.

Then the so-called FBI officer called back. The caller told her she was a suspect in a possible murder, as well as drug trafficking, and money laundering. All those crimes had been traced to her by identifying information. That’s when the so-called agent dropped a bombshell. Joy could go to federal prison. The single mother was beside herself.

"I broke down and told the lady and I said, ‘Ma’am I have nothing. I have nothing. This is all that I have,’” Joy told her.

The woman calmed her.

“Trust me,” she said.

She told Joy that because thieves had stolen her identity they had access to her bank accounts. The woman told her she needed to withdraw all her money, not to hang up the phone. They told her not to talk to anyone in the bank because she was now part of a confidential FBI investigation. She followed their instructions and drained her savings account. Now she had $10,000 in cash. They gave her very specific instructions, and even though they were allegedly calling from Texas, they could tell her which stores were near her location.

“I thought they had tracking on my phone," Joy said.

They told her to first go to Wegmans on East Avenue in Rochester. Again they instructed her to keep them on the phone and talk to no one. They told her to buy $2,000 in gift cards.

"They told me to make sure I keep the receipts very close and tight, and they also had me read the numbers off to them, “ Joy recalled.

The woman said she needed the numbers on the back of Joy’s gift cards so they could secure her money. Her next stop, Tops on West Avenue where she was instructed to buy more gift cards. Then they sent her to the Tops on South Clinton. By this time, Joy was beside herself.

"She told me to pull over and breathe go get a bottle of water and she needs me to relax and trust her,” Joy said quietly.

They sent her to two more stores now, Wegmans in Irondequoit, and then across town to the Target in Penfield.

She now had spent $10,000. Don’t worry, the woman said. Her money was secure. An agent would come with a cashier’s check and her new social security number. But the agent never came. And then it hit her.

"I’m calling all the gift cards, and all my balances is zero, zero, zero, zero,” she remembered.

She’d fallen victim to a terribly cruel scam just days before Christmas.

“I don’t have nothing,” she said quietly. “I lost everything.”

Thieves had used a technique called phone spoofing to make the real FBI’s number appear in Joy’s caller ID. That’s one reason why their scheme was so convincing.

Store managers and clerks are usually trained to question anyone buying large numbers of gift cards. At Target she went through self-checkout and didn’t encounter a clerk. But she encountered clerks and managers at Wegmans and Tops. So I reached out to both companies.

Wegmans sent me the following statement:

“All front-end and customer service desk employees are required to complete an annual training course regarding gift card policies and potential fraud awareness. We have a gift card limit in place at the register, so if a customer is purchasing a high-dollar amount of gift cards, the cashier is prompted to get a manager involved in order to complete the purchase. Our front-end management is trained to ask a series of questions whenever there is a suspicious transaction. In addition, we are required by law to gather information when a customer is purchasing over $2,000 of merchant cards or over $1,000 in credit-card-type gift cards.”

As for Tops, a spokesman claims they’ve concluded they found no evidence Joy bought gift cards at one of their stores, despite the fact Joy has a receipt that proves otherwise. A spokesman said they would continue to investigate.

Joy has filed a police report with RPD. Police have told her there’s nothing they can do. As for the actual FBI, Joy called them as well. An agent told her the scammers were likely overseas and her money is gone.

Joy’s family has established a GoFundMe to try to help her recover her money. If you get scammed, contact the FTC.