JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - It was Tracy Branson's dream to get her husband out of prison.
"Up front was going to be $5,000. But, then of course, he stated through time, there could be other costs incurred," Branson said.
She's taking about the con man who took $30,000 of her money promising in return he would get her husband, Greg, released from prison.
Authorities say there has been a rise in a variety of scams targeting families with loved ones behind bars. Channel 4 crime and safety expert Ken Jefferson says families and loved ones of an incarcerated family member will do just about anything to get that person released.
"The con men that we see in these cases make all sorts of crazy claims including that they are lawyers, that they are investigators, that they have political connections to influential people -- using those stories they gain the trust of the victims and ultimately get their money," said Dan Taylor, a U.S. postal inspector.
In this case, the con artists gave Branson's daughter, Caitlin, false hope that her dad would be free.
"She was making plans for the rest of her life that would involve her dad, you know," explained Branson. "She carried this on for the next few years -- through college -- the things he was going to see her do… which in turn made my hope even stronger because I wanted to believe not just for me, but for her as well."
On the day Branson was expecting to go to the prison and pick up her husband, she was told by the con man the release was called off at the last minute.
"Caitlin completely broke down and she knew she wasn't going to see her dad that day. That was the hardest… definitely the hardest day," said Branson.
For almost a year, the suspect strung Branson along until she decided to do some investigating of her own.
"I was done doubting, I had to know one way or the other so I made a phone call and it was that one simple phone call that totally turned everything around," she said.
Postal investigators started working Branson's case and the suspect was quickly arrested.
"These people have so little hope of getting their loved one out and the con men realize this and look to seize on that little ray of hope and wrap themselves around it," said Branson.
In cases like this, Ken Jefferson says the scam artist will generally hang out in the following places scoping his prey:
- Detention Hearings
"They often times listen to the various charges being read in court and pick and choose who they will target based largely on which family member appears in court or at the hearing," explained Jefferson. "If the person's mother or wife is present, the scam artist may look at this as easy prey because he knows that person is very emotional and vulnerable."
Ken Jefferson's Tips to Remember:
- If you have a loved one incarcerated waiting for trial or have already been sentenced and you are approached by a would be lawyer or investigator, ignore them.
- Most legitimate lawyers or investigators will not solicit your business in a court house or outside a jail.
- Always check their credentials if you find yourself interested in what they are offering.
- If you do want to retain a lawyer, check with the Florida Bar Association to see if any complaints have been filed against the lawyer that you may be considering.
- If a lawyer or investigator cannot meet you in his or her office, this is a huge red flag that they are not legitimate.
- Never exchange any money unless you have a written agreement and have someone review the agreement before you sign it.
Jefferson adds it is not common for people to lose large amounts of money like Tracy Branson did.
"What the viewers need to know is that some senior citizens have lost their life savings, hard-working families have lost large quantities of money behind these scam artists," Jefferson said.
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