Paso Robles woman ‘devastated’ after losing $50,000 in phone scam

A rural Paso Robles woman is “devastated” after she lost more than $50,000 in a phone scam on Monday, when a caller claimed she was involved in a Social Security money laundering incident.

Lena Callery, 66, was preparing to leave for her job as a state In-Home Supportive Services provider when she received a call on her cell phone from someone claiming her Social Security number was part of a $22 million scheme, she said.

The caller said Callery would be arrested and her money and credit cards seized if she didn’t cooperate. Someone would come provide her with a new Social Security card the following day, the caller said.

“I’ve had some trouble in the past,” Callery said. “The last thing I wanted was to go to jail.”

To comply with the caller’s demands, Callery removed about $55,000 from her bank account in three transactions — she twice withdrew $20,000 and then took out another $15,000.

She then purchased about $12,000 in gift cards from Target and Walmart in Paso Robles. Callery also bought about $43,000 in Target gift cards in Santa Maria.

She then scratched off the back of the gift cards and gave the caller the access codes.

“It was just too easy to do,” Callery said. “They just told me how to do it.”

Various people at the stores where Callery bought the gift cards asked her if she was being scammed, she said. Although Callery was suspicious a few times, she believed she was protecting her money.

“I was too concerned about my money and not reality,” she said.

The next day, Callery reached out to the caller again but found the phone number had been disconnected.

Callery said she called the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office and was told she likely wouldn’t get her money back, but she should reach out to Target.

So far, Callery has been told she may be able to get about $2,500 of her money back.

Tony Cipolla, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman, confirmed Callery contacted the agency about the scam.

Callery said she was planning to use the money she lost to build a new house on her property for herself and her adopted children. Now, she can’t even afford to purchase new school clothes for her kids, she said.

Callery has been beating herself up ever since she realized she fell for the scam.

“I really don’t want anyone else to devastate their lives like I did,” Callery said.

Cipolla provided the following tips for anyone contacted about Social Security scams.

  • In general, no government agency or reputable company will call or email you unexpectedly and request your personal information.
  • Anyone asking for gift cards or wire transfers over the phone is a major red flag.
  • Don’t assume a call is legitimate because it appears to come from a government or law enforcement agency. Scammers use “spoofing” technology to trick caller ID.
  • If you do receive a potential scam call, hang up and call the agency’s official phone number (not the number given to you by the scammer) to verify they are trying to contact you.
  • If you feel you have been scammed, report it immediately to your local law enforcement agency.
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Lindsey Holden writes about housing, North County communities and everything in between for The Tribune in San Luis Obispo. She became a staff writer in 2016 after working for the Rockford Register Star in Illinois. Lindsey is a native Californian raised in the Midwest and earned degrees from DePaul and Northwestern universities.