Cops: Phone Scam Included Threats Of Harm

South Pasadena police are investigating a threatening phone call made Dec. 28 to a local business employee that resulted in nearly $950 being wired to Mexico.

The unknown caller made threats in Spanish that led the employee to believe she was being watched and would be harmed if she did not comply with sending a combination of personal and business funds, according to investigators.

The case has several crimes embedded it in, including extortion and criminal threats, according to SPPD Det. Mike Palmieri.

The female employee at GNC on Fair Oaks Avenue received the call and was told to remove money from the store’s cash register and leave the building or she and her co-worker would be harmed.

“We’re dealing with a felony here because of the nature of the crime and the call,” Palmieri told the Review.

As the employee left the business, she activated the robbery alarm system. In fear for her life and the safety of her co-worker, she stayed on the phone with the caller and ultimately was directed to send the money through a Western Union transfer to a location in Mexico.

SPPD arrived at GNC minutes after the alarm activation and learned the employee had left the store with the money, but received no additional information as to her whereabouts. Officers searched the area and found the employee safe and unharmed at another business within the city.

Palmieri said the department is still working on leads, which include the phone call, caller ID and the origin of the call to the employee’s personal cell. As for the threats of harm, he said it wasn’t clear if the caller was bluffing or not.

“There is no way for us to know, as there is no way for us to know for certain whether or not the caller did have one or more people watching her,” said Palmieri. “In this case, I won’t say that didn’t happen because I just don’t know.”

Palmieri encouraged both businesses and residents to be aware of the nature of telephone scams. In the event that a business receives a phone call of a threatening nature, the best defense is to delay, not offer personal information and have someone contact SPPD from another phone so that the department can get involved to help verify if the call is legitimate, police said. Officers can work to check out suspicious vehicles in the area and help vet the call.

Palmieri said the department receives numerous reports of people being called by con artists posing as police officers, Social Security workers, the FBI or someone who can clear suspected criminal charges for a fee. If a phone call is received by a caller identifying themselves as from an agency, Palmieri recommended people to use their own resources to call the agency back in order to verify the call.

“The criminal doesn’t want to disconnect the call because that’s going to give the victim time to maybe think about the call and maybe realize that this isn’t as legit as it appears to be,” said Palmieri. “As long as the caller has the victim on the phone, they’re going to implant urgency, just enough criteria to get somebody to believe that it’s credible. Not everybody falls for it. Some people do. It’s a toss-up.”

If you have any information on this case or have been affected by similar circumstances, contact the South Pasadena Detective Bureau at (626) 403-7297. The SPPD also recommends signing up for the Federal Trade Commission’s scam alerts at ftc.gov/scams.