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Senior says prayer helped thwart scam

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Pete Pistolesi’s grandson Nicholas was safe and sound at college. But the morning of Jan. 9, Pistolesi received a call from someone who sounded just like him. “Nicholas” said he had gotten into a car accident in North Carolina, broken his nose and now was sitting in jail. Could they pay the $7,500 bond to get him out? 

“(My wife and I) looked at each other and said, ‘OK, we can do that,’ ” said Pistolesi, a parishioner of St. Michael Church in Annandale. Nicholas recently told his grandfather he was restoring an old car, and Pistolesi assumed that was the car.

“When he said, ‘This is Nicolas’ — right there it grabs your heartstrings,” said Pistolesi. “(I thought) oh my goodness, we’ve got to help this kid out.”

Pistolesi was transferred to “Nicholas’ lawyer,” who instructed him how to send the money in cash to a certain address. Later that day, Pistolesi went to FedEx and sent the money. 

“We went ahead and did what this person told us to do. The red flags were there but I didn’t notice them. We bought into it hook, line and sinker,” said Pistolesi. “I was walking around all day long proud I was helping my grandson.”

But Pistolesi had become a victim of one of the many scammers targeting seniors. The Federal Trade Commission lists a whole host of popular telephone and computer scams for consumers to look out for. Some scammers impersonate the IRS and demand money. Some claim to be from the lottery and ask supposed winners to pay taxes upfront before receiving their winnings. The calls or emails often look legitimate and many people fall prey.

“(Scammers) have become extremely sophisticated,” said Melissa Smarr, who works on the Fairfax County Silver Shield campaign to educate seniors about fraud. “Some people are losing their life savings over it.” According to the Senate Special Committee on Aging, elderly Americans lose about $3 billion a year to scammers. Though Fairfax County doesn’t track those numbers, “one detective, for the cases he was working, (said scammers had stolen) over a million dollars,” said Smarr.

Other criminals scam people in person. “The police call them woodchucks,” said Smarr. “(Fairfax County) is known for being a very rich county compared to other parts of Virginia, so they actually target the elderly (here) who live alone, who may have dementia or Alzheimer’s. (They) basically say, ‘Hey, there’s a tree that looks like it’s about to fall, we’ll remove it for $1,000.’ Then they graduate to roof, chimney and attic work (to gain access to the house.) In some cases, they’ll steal checks and other goods to get quick money.”

The Silver Shield website advises seniors to seek second opinions and check the refences of people asking for their money. If possible, pay via credit card. “We try to encourage homeowners (that) they don’t have to answer the door,” said Smarr. “If it’s a call, they can let it go to voicemail. If it’s scam-related, they won’t leave a voicemail.”

If someone believes they have been scammed out of money, they should alert the police. “Don’t be embarrassed. We're not going to blame or judge you — any of us can get scammed,” said Smarr. However, sometimes the crimes are difficult to prosecute because the criminals don’t live in the United States. “If it’s a big enough case, we’ll send it to the FBI and Secret Service. We have been working with the U.S. Postal Service Inspection Service to help consumers retrieve as much money as they can,” said Smarr. “On the woodchuck side, the police are taking these criminals to court, but that does take time.”

Children, grandchildren and friends of seniors can help as well. “Just be aware of your elderly neighbors, especially during times of natural disaster,” said Smarr. “If you're at home and someone is coming to their door and there’s vehicles you don’t recognize — look out for each other.”

On the day Pistolesi was scammed, he finished praying his evening rosary as another call came in. This time, it was from the real Nicholas, who they quickly realized hadn’t been in an accident at all. “I said, ‘Nicholas, I got to hang up, I think we’ve just been scammed,’ ” said Pistolesi. Though the FedEx store where he had sent the money was closed, he found a number for FedEx and called. “They said, ‘Don’t worry it’s coming back. It takes five or six days but you will get it back it,’ ” said Pistolesi.

He also called the police to let them know what happened. He hoped they could alert the police in North Carolina, who could then go to the place where the money would arrive to arrest the scammers. “He told me, ‘These guys are smart. The very next day they (call FedEx and) change the address and nobody knows where it's going,’ ” said Pistolesi. 

Pistolesi is very grateful he got all his money back. “I’m 87, my wife is 80. To lose that kind of money, I think I would’ve died of a heart attack,” he said. Pistolesi believes that prayer is ultimately what saved him from losing thousands. “Why did (my grandson) call at 9 o'clock?” asked Pistolesi. “The Blessed Mother was looking out for us.”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019