For five weeks, Merle Dunn watched his wife, Brenda, clinging to life while battling COVID-19. She spent 11 days on a ventilator and he begged God to spare her life. He did.
To celebrate and to make Brenda’s life easier, the couple decided to have their kitchen remodeled.
So far, their life has only gotten more complicated.
The Dunns believe they’ve fallen victim to a scam artist.
Because Brenda, 72, remains tethered to an oxygen machine, the pair decided to open up their kitchen by knocking down a wall. They also decided to lower some cabinets, install a bar and get rid of their popcorn ceiling. Brenda reached out to a friend, a real estate agent, for ideas on who to hire and she recommended someone who had worked for a few of her clients.
When the man gave her a quote $7,000 lower than the first quote she received, Brenda agreed to hire him, thinking she could buy new appliances with the savings.
After scraping a bit of their dining room ceiling, the contractor said he’d need $2,000 for supplies, including dust covers for their furniture, Brenda said. She wrote him a check for $2,000. A few days later, he showed her granite counter top samples from an Odessa store and informed her she’d have to pay in advance. After making her selection, she wrote another check, this one for $3,100.
Two weeks went by and they didn’t hear a word, Merle said. They tried texting and calling, but there was no response.
Finally, the man called to say he’d just buried his dad, but he’d start the job immediately. Another 10 days went by and still no word, Merle said.
Merle, who spent 14 years as an Ector County sheriff’s deputy, decided it was time to go to the police after discovering the granite counter top had never been ordered, the sales staff had never heard of the contractor and both checks had been cashed.
Because the man scraped a small section of their ceiling, Merle said he was told criminal charges could not be pursued. He’d have to file a small claims lawsuit.
That, Merle said, is ridiculous. The retired Ector County sheriff’s deputy believes the man can be charged with fraud under Texas Penal Code, Title 7, Section 32.53, which deals with the financial exploitation of children, elderly individuals and disabled individuals.
“What that boy did meets all of the elements,” Merle said.
The Odessa Police Department and prosecutors “need to get some huevos,” Merle said. “They need to have some intestinal fortitude.”
Merle has posted warnings about the man on Facebook and hopes to convince a county or city prosecutor to take on the case.
Word of the Facebook postings reached the man and he called them on Monday, Brenda said.
“He asked me why we were calling him a thief and I told him ‘Because you are one,’” Brenda said.
He hung up on her.
When reached by phone Thursday, the man told the Odessa American he spent five hours scraping the Dunn’s ceiling, but every time he wanted to return to their home they told him it wasn’t a convenient day. He eventually gave up because he had other jobs lined up, he said.
As for the granite counter top, he said he did purchase it, just not at the store he intended to because it wasn’t in stock.
Of the $5,100 he received, he personally got $300; the rest went to supplies and materials, he said.
“The deal was I was supposed to work sun up until sun down and I never got the opportunity,” the man said.
The contractor promised to send the OA the contract he said he provided Brenda and several emails he exchanged with her – emails he said will prove his version of the story.
By Friday evening he had not fulfilled his promise and he stopped responding to texts. He did not answer phone calls and his phone’s voicemail box had not been set up to receive messages.
The Dunns continue to insist they were ripped off.
“There was no contact,” Merle said.
“This is embarrassing for me. I should’ve picked up on it as a former cop, but I wasn’t there,” Merle said.
Although he’s also 72, he’s still working to make sure his family is taken care of and $5,100 is not an insignificant sum, he said.
Despite being embarrassed, Merle said he is speaking out because he doesn’t want anyone else to fall prey.
He has no intention of filing a civil lawsuit because that would mean criminal charges couldn’t be filed, Merle said.
“He screwed with the wrong person because I’m not going to settle until this gets resolved,” Merle said.
Odessa Police Department Detective Yolanda Medrano said when some work is done, situations like the Dunns’ have to be handled through the civil courts. There are ways to avoid finding yourself in a similar predicament, though, she said.
First, always be suspicious of anyone calling you out of the blue or showing up at the door offering services, Medrano said.
Also, don’t feel rushed to make a decision, even if a potential contractor is offering you a huge discount if you act quickly, she said. Take your time and do some research.
People considering hiring a contractor can call the City of Odessa’s building inspection office to verify that they have a business license and are bonded and insured, Medrano said. Texas does not require general contractors, home improvement specialists or people who perform handyman services to have a general contractor license, but they must have business licenses.
In addition, it’s always a good idea to check for references and with the Better Business Bureau.
Contracts should be gone over closely and the BBB also recommends never paying more than 30% down on a project, Medrano said.
“You should never make the final payment until your work is completely done,” she said.
According to an FBI report issued in 2020, their Internet Crime Complaint Center received nearly 792,000 complaints with reported losses exceeding $4.1 billion. Roughly 28% of the losses were sustained by victims over 60. The average victim lost $9,175 and 1,921 victims lost more than $100,000.
In 2015, victims over 60 lost just under $300 million to scammers, that number jumped to just under $1 billion in 2020, according to the report.
The highest losses were incurred by people over 60 falling for these scams:
- Confidence fraud/romance scams.
- Business email compromise or email account compromise.
- Tech Support.
- Real estate/rental.
- Government impersonation.
- Identity theft.
Many times scammers will take advantage of people’s emotions, whether it’s loneliness or terror.
“We dealt with some last year where people get phone calls and say, ‘We have your wife hostage if you don’t give us money, we’re going to hurt her’ and then there’s a woman in the background screaming,” Medrano said. “Well, these people think, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s my mom’ or the husband, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s my wife’ because the wife is not there at that time. They don’t let them get off the phone, they’ll say they’ll hurt her. So what is this person doing? He’s driving to where he needs to go or to Western Union to wire the money that they’re telling them to do. And all the while the wife was in town shopping or visiting a family member.”
She also handled a case in which someone texted an intended victim a Google image of his house and threatened to decapitate him if he didn’t pay a large sum of money. As it turns out, the intended victim no longer lived in the home, but he was still scared enough to make a report, Medrano said.
Medrano also said people should never, ever click on a link in an email because it can put you at risk of downloading software intended to damage or disable your computer. Nor should you ever provide bank account, credit card or other personal information to someone who contacts you out of the blue.
Her own mother received a text about her cell phone bill and she clicked on the link provided because she thought it was coming from her provider, Medrano said. With one click, she inadvertently paid for several other cell phones that were then shipped to complete strangers.
Ector County Sheriff Michael Griffis said an acquaintance recently fell victim to the sweepstake scam. She received a call informing her she’d won $2 million in the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes and all she had to do was purchase some gift cards and read the numbers to the caller. She lost $3,000 in that instance, but family members later discovered she’d actually been scammed out of another $30,000 before that, Griffis said.
“People that do that have no morals or conscience and they should go to jail forever in my opinion,” Griffis said. “These people that are doing this, they are experts at their game. They try to make themselves sound so believable that people are gonna follow through with it. But, the fact of matter is if it sounds too good to be true, it’s too good to be true.”
People also often fall victim to people posing as charitable organizations or law enforcement organizations seeking donations, Griffis said. When people get those calls, they should always hang up and then call their local law enforcement agency to verify such fundraising efforts are legitimate. As for the ECSO, they always try to put out advance notice through Facebook, he said.
Personally, Griffis said he pays an annual fee for the RoboKiller app on his phone. It screens all incoming calls so he’s never bothered by those car warranty or other scam calls.
Griffis said with tax season approaching, he’s worried.
“You better believe there’ll be people calling and telling people that they need their social security number to process their tax return and stuff of that nature,” Griffis said. “Again, you shouldn’t be giving information out to somebody who calls you on the phone. If you get a phone call from somebody that you have questions about being legit, hang up. And you know if it’s certain company you know, find out their phone number, call them back at the phone number you find and then check it out. Don’t give information.”
Medrano said businesses are also falling prey to scammers. The OPD has investigated several instances in which businesses will take large orders from someone using a credit card, allow a third party to pick up the order and later discover the credit card had been stolen. When detectives investigate, they often find the person who picked up the order had no idea they’d been hired by criminals and more often than not, the detectives aren’t able to track down who made the call because they’re calling from another state or country.
“We’re talking about thousands of dollars … Fifteen tires aren’t cheap. Twenty tires aren’t cheap. Metal for buildings isn’t cheap and wood isn’t cheap. You’re not talking about a misdemeanor, you are going to be talking about felony charges,” Medrano said.
Don’t be a target
- Do not reply to suspicious emails or messages — delete them.
- Never provide passwords, account numbers or personal information in response to emails, phone calls or texts. Scammers often try to create a feeling of urgency or alarm by threatening to close off an account or threatening legal action. They will also often offer a security update.
- Do not give control of your computer to a third party unless you initiated the call.
- If you are uncomfortable with a phone call you did not initiate, hang up. Then contact the company using legitimate sources such as phone numbers found on the company’s website.
- Do not purchase any software or services from an unsolicited call or email.
- Do not provide your personal or financial information, including your online banking password, to anyone claiming to be technical support.
- Don’t print your driver’s license, phone number or Social Security number on your checks.
- Don’t believe your caller ID. Technology makes it easy for scammers to fake caller ID information.
- Do online searches of companies or products using words like “review,” “complaint” or “scam.”
- Don’t wire money to collect a prize. If you have to pay, it’s not prize.
- Consider how you pay. Credit cards have fraud protection built in, but wiring money leaves people vulnerable.
- Talk to someone. Before giving up your money or personal information, speak with someone you can trust.
- Be skeptical about free trial offers.
- Don’t deposit a check and wire money back. Uncovering a fake check can take weeks.
- Sign up for free scam alerts at https://www.ftc.gov/
- Request a free copy of your credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com every 12 months so you can review it for inconsistencies. You can also request the report by calling: 1-877-322-8228
Sources: Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Chase, Federal Trade Commission