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This tale is a true Canadian whopper.

Only it's not about a monster northern pike getting away in a pristine northwoods lake.

This is a deviously clever scam apparently originating in Quebec that reeled in $10,700 from an elderly Billings woman last month.

After being convinced that her nephew was in jail in Quebec and needed to be bailed out, Helen Christensen wired three payments over five days to some convincing crooks.

"I was so sure it was him. It sounded just like him," Christensen said. "I wouldn't be surprised if it isn't somebody that knew my nephew."

'Don't tell my wife'

At age 81, Christensen insisted that she is wary of fraud and takes many precautions.

She regularly hangs up on telemarketers.

Mailings promising her lottery riches get tossed.

And she doesn't surf the Internet. She doesn't even own a computer, which help protects her from e-mail fraud.

But on May 12, she received a telephone call, allegedly from Montreal, Quebec. The man sounded like her nephew, who works in the aerospace industry in Southern California. (The real nephew wanted to go by the name "Doc" rather than his real name for this story because he is worried about the safety of his wife and their two young children.)

"My nephew asked, 'Could I keep a secret?' and I said, 'Yes,' " Christensen said, adding: "Maybe I shouldn't have kept this secret this long."

While traveling with a friend, her "nephew" said they stopped in a Montreal bar for a drink and the friend started flirting.

"He said his friend was hitting on a woman and in walked her boyfriend and the fight was on," she said. In the melee's aftermath, the Americans went to jail.

Her "nephew" said he needed $5,000 to get out. Would Aunt Helen please send a money order right away?

The caller provided detailed instructions on how she should go buy a MoneyGram for $5,000 and wire the funds to a street address in Montreal: 6490 Victoria St.

The man said he would use his own money to get out of jail but didn't want to let his wife know he'd been arrested.

Family ties?

Since her nephew and his wife each make good livings, Christensen said she had no worries about getting paid back. After all, this was family.

Only the caller wasn't family, at least not her nephew.

"It just makes you sick that there are people like this," Christensen said. "They must stay up all night thinking of ways to hurt people."

Delivery orders

Believing the caller was her relative, on May 12 Christensen paid a $100 fee to wire the first $5,000 to Canada.

The "nephew" called again the next day, saying his lawyer wanted to be paid upfront, so she needed to send an additional $2,800. Christensen did so, paying MoneyGram a $56 fee.

On May 16, she responded to a third and final request to forward another $2,800, so the "nephew" could pay the attorney off and leave Canada.

"Let's go!" the caller urged her at the end of the phone call.

For a few days, Christensen thought little about the money transfers, believing that her nephew had returned to Southern California and would repay her soon.

After hearing nothing for five days, she called him in California. He'd been traveling in Alabama that week, he said, and he surely hadn't been arrested in Montreal.

"Why on Earth would I ever borrow money from you, Aunt Helen?" he asked.

"Well, you said you didn't want your wife to know," she said.

"Doc" was so concerned about the incident that he called a Billings relative to see whether his aunt had gone "goofy."

"He thought I'd lost my marbles," she said with considerable embarrassment.

The fraud exposed, Christensen agreed to tell her story publicly to try to help other potential victims avoid a similar fate.

Canadian inspectors

Chuck Harwood, the regional director of the Federal Trade Commission in Spokane, spends many of his working days fighting fraud.

Yet Harwood was surprised by this voice-imitation scam.

"That's a weird one. I've never heard of that," he said. "Sounds like this scam could be done anywhere."

Fraud now has worldwide roots through the Internet and often there is no way of knowing where a scam really comes from. However, Canada is a hot spot for fraud mostly targeting elderly U.S. citizens.

Staff Sgt. Barry Elliott of the Ontario Provincial Police works almost exclusively on cross-border fraud. Elliott, who works out of an office in North Bay, Ontario, three hours north of Ottawa, helped create PhoneBusters, an international database to help law enforcement track cybercrooks.

The "wire money now" scam usually claims that a family member has been injured in a car wreck. The Christensen voice-imitation tale is a different twist.

Yet even this may not be as it seems, Elliott said.

"This kind of pitch usually comes from a U.S. prison," he said.

Phony pitches from prison

Some prisoners with nothing but time to kill have a friend using false identification buy a pre-paid cell phone. That way tracing the call is nearly impossible.

Then the prisoner gets a list of elderly people and starts dialing for dollars.

"It's not really a question of imitating," Elliott said. "Sometimes they start a conversation and create an illusion that they know this person. The victim starts assuming stuff and volunteering information without knowing it."

One of the lingering puzzles in this story is how the caller knew about Christensen's nephew or what he sounded like.

Perhaps Christensen's telephone was tapped to obtain enough personal information to make a successful pitch.

Or a real-life relative who knew the relationships played the fraud.

After the rip-off was unveiled, "Doc" traced the 6490 Victoria St. address using Google to a vacant restaurant in Montreal.

However, the address is irrelevant, Elliott said, because wired money can be picked up at any MoneyGram location across Canada.

"They (the prisoners) have a pickup with a false ID. It's usually a girlfriend," Elliott said. "So tracing this is nearly impossible."

Mixed jurisdictions

Since these frauds are occurring at ever escalating rates worldwide, many regulatory agencies have a hand in education, prevention and prosecution.

In Canada, the provincial police and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are the primary agencies.

In the U.S., the FBI focuses on criminal investigations of domestic and international fraud.

Secret Service generally handles international fraud, including credit card fraud.

Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Justice also investigate financial fraud like money laundering or widespread credit card fraud.

Even the postal inspector can get involved if the criminal uses the U.S. mail.

The FTC enforces civil law and tries to recover money, usually a hopeless effort because these crimes are so hard to trace.

Christensen reported to all the U.S. agencies, including the Billings Police Department.

Like Canada, wire transfers in this country can be picked up anywhere, according to Billings Detective Brett Lund.

"If I wire money from myself to you, I can be in Bombay, India, and you can pick it up in Red Lodge, Montana," Lund said.

Even law officers need investigative subpoenas to get pickup locations or other information from Western Union or MoneyGram, he said.

"But by then the horse already is out of the barn and it's gone," he said.

The Billings Police Department's workload has definitely picked up since the Internet matured, Lund said, because crooks can defraud you from afar.

"I'd say probably 80 to 90 percent of what we (the detective's division) do is fraud related and that just barely scratches the surface," Lund said.

Law enforcement officials try to focus on prosecution and prevention.

"The best is if you can do both at the same time," Harwood said. "We like to send them to prison poor."

Back in hock again

According to Elliott in Nova Scotia, this Billings woman has little hope of restitution.

"Even if there was an arrest and a successful prosecution, the chance of her seeing her money again is next to nil," the sergeant said.

These victims can count on one thing.

Once scammed, chances are they will be targets again.

"In technical terms, she already is on a very complex, sophisticated suckers list," Sgt. Elliott said.

Before this scam, Christensen was going to make the final payment on her Visa card this month.

Now she owes nearly $11,000, plus interest and fees.

MoneyGram charged Christensen $212 in fees to wire the three payments.

And Christensen's credit card company is charging her 3 percent, or another $324, for the three cash advances from her card.

"That's a lot of money," she said.

Contact Jan Falstad at jfalstad@billingsgazette.com or at 406-657-1306.

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