When Donna Letto got a phone call one day in December, she says, she recognized the voice on the other end of the phone.
Or at least, she believed she did.
“I thought it was my son,” the St. John’s woman told CBC News in a recent interview. “My husband was sitting on the chesterfield at the time and I said, ‘Oh, that’s Daryl calling.'”
Her son’s voice sounded a little off, though, and she asked him about it.
“I said, ‘You’ve got a bit of a cold, don’t you?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got a cold the last couple of days but there’s nothing to it. It’s not COVID.’ Then he said, ‘I’ve been in an accident in Toronto and I hit a woman that’s pregnant and she’s been sent to the hospital with multiple injuries,'” said Letto.
“He said, ‘Mom and Dad, I need your help.’ We were really taken. I thought for sure it was our son. The kids never asked us for help before.”
The man who Grenfell and Donna Letto believed was their son said he wanted them to speak with a lawyer, and then another man came on the line.
“We were talking to a man who was very professional in the way he was talking,” she said.
“He told us that our son is charged with dangerous driving while texting,” said Letto.
‘Something didn’t add up. Dad realized something was not right.”– Heather Crane
He told them them they needed to provide $9,800 to have their son released from custody on bail. He said a bonded court official would come to their home to pick up the cash and have it processed quickly. He warned them there was a court order forbidding them to speak with anyone, even family, about what was happening.
They were convinced their son desperately needed help and jumped into action. They went to the bank and withdrew almost $10,000 in cash.
The Lettos’ daughter, Heather Crane, told CBC News her parents didn’t think twice about it.
“If one of us ever called for help they would drop everything to go help the kids. So they went off and got $9,800, and later that day as my father was on the phone speaking with the lawyer again, a young man came to the door to collect the money.”
That afternoon, just hours after the Lettos received the first call, the supposed lawyer called again, saying their son now needed to pay a fine of several thousand dollars.
Again, they withdrew the money. They were told to package the cash and bring it to a courier service in St. John’s and send it to an address in Pointe-Claire, Que. When they asked why they were sending money to Quebec when their son was in Ontario, they were told Pointe-Claire was where the law firm’s headquarters were located.
Crane said it didn’t feel right to her father, a 73-year-old retired police officer.
“Something didn’t add up. Dad realized something was not right,” she said. Grenfell Letto decided to call his son’s wife. “Sure enough she said, ‘What are you talking about?’ and that’s where it all unfolded,” said Crane.
After learning their son wasn’t in any sort of legal trouble, the Lettos didn’t send the cash they’d packaged, and when the so-called lawyer called to ask about it, they gave him an earful.
No one has been charged in relation to what happened to the Lettos but the scam they described is similar to other cases that have recently led to charges in St. John’s. There have also been similar reports in other provinces of this type of scam, in which a person who sounds convincingly like a relative calls looking for financial aid. Police believe a criminal network is responsible for targeting seniors across Canada.
Experts say it’s possible scammers are using artificial intelligence technology to create the voices that convince victims their relative is calling.
Memorial University associate professor and computer security expert Jonathan Anderson says there are cheap, effective ways to replicate actual voices online.
“You can clone someone’s voice, and given the ability to do that, it’s not at all surprising that somebody would do that for nefarious purposes,” Anderson said. “It’s going to be more effective, especially while people get used to the fact that deepfake voices are a thing, and they are easily obtainable and easily accessible.”
Police in St. John’s say at least four other senior couples lost a combined $200,000 to similar scams between Feb. 28 and March 2. The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary says Charles Gillen, 23, came to St. John’s from Toronto to collect the money in person.
Gillen was arrested on the tarmac at St. John’s International Airport, on a flight leaving the province, on the evening of March 2. He’s facing 30 charges of fraud, extortion and conspiracy to commit an offence.
The Lettos, who saw a photo of Gillen in court, say he isn’t the man who collected the money from them.
Crane says her parents are deeply embarrassed that they were tricked into giving scammers money and that almost kept them from speaking publicly about what happened.
“At first it was shock and relief. The days after were probably worse,” she said. But her parents set aside their embarrassment in the hopes of helping people, she said.
“If this will help somebody else they’re more than happy for me to speak on their behalf because they do truly want to help. They are genuinely kind people.”
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