Two Harvard freshmen who said a phone caller threatened and scammed them out of more than $1,500 recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to recuperate their losses.
The two students, Belén A. Mella ’19 and Amelia G. Miller ’19, started the fundraising campaign after they said they were the victims of a phone-based scam that led both of them to wire money to Puerto Rico. As of Monday evening, about 100 donors, including some Harvard freshmen, had contributed more than $1,100 to the undergraduates—roughly two-thirds of the $1,670 lost.
The scam began Saturday afternoon, when Mella said she received a call from an unknown individual who claimed that someone was holding her mother at gunpoint in Mella’s hometown of Miami, Fla. The caller claimed to be involved in a “car accident” that injured his “nephew,” Mella said.
Threatening to injure Mella’s mother, the caller demanded that she electronically wire $4,000 to Puerto Rico to fund medical expenses for the caller’s nephew, Mella said. The anonymous caller ordered that Mella not call the police or her mother during their conversation, she said.
After Mella emptied her Bank of America account and wired a withdrawal of about $1,400 to Puerto Rico, according to Mella, the caller said the funds were insufficient, leading Mella to call her roommate Miller, a Crimson magazine editor.
“Belén said to me , ‘I need you to give me $1,000 in cash and I can’t tell you why.’ I had no clue what she needed it for, but we are best friends so I said okay,” Miller said. Because of withdrawal limits, Miller said she provided $280 to Mella.
After completing the second wire transfer to Puerto Rico, Mella called her mother, who said she was safe at home in Miami.
Mella said she filed a report with the Harvard University Police Department on Saturday afternoon. HUPD spokesperson Steven G. Catalano wrote in an emailed statement that the department is currently investigating the report and does not comment on ongoing investigations.
In the aftermath of the unfounded threat, Miller and Mella started a crowdfunding website. Dylan H. Wong ’19, a friend of theirs, said he suggested that Miller and Mella attempt to recover the costs through online fundraising.
“When I first heard it, I was honestly just confused because it sounded so ridiculous,” Wong said of the incident. “I didn’t really know how something like that could actually happen.”
Similar scams have become widespread in recent years, according to a recent FBI press release. “Most schemes use various techniques to instill a sense of fear, panic, and urgency in an effort to rush the victim into making a very hasty decision,” the press release states.
Mella said she is not the only undergraduate who has experienced similar scams. Pennypacker resident Karla V. Alvarado ’19 said she was also the victim of a similar scam last fall.
Alvarado said she nearly wired money to Puerto Rico but foiled the plan when she contacted her sister, who the scammer claimed was “at gunpoint.” Although Alvarado alerted authorities, including HUPD, Cambridge Police, and Northeastern University Police, she said the phone call could not be tracked.
Despite what they said was a traumatic experience, Miller and Mella said they wanted to make light of the situation through the crowdfunding page. In exchange for a $5 contribution, the two will give a donor “an original ‘I helped Amelia and Belén recover from a ridiculous phone scam badge.” For an extra $15, donors will receive “a DINNER WITH THE VICTIMS (including a Skype-in from Belén’s mom) for a play-by-play of the worst day of Belén’s life (and a weird day for Amelia)!”
“It was Belén’s entire savings account so it’s not a small loss,” Miller said. “We thought to ourselves even if the page doesn’t work, at least we would raise awareness about this issue so that people know in case it happens to them.”
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