Officer Denise Maestas could have just written down the complaint and filed it away.
An elderly man had walked into the Olean Police Department station at the beginning of Maestas’ 5 p.m.-to-3 a.m. shift to report he’d just mailed out nearly $10,000 in cash to bail his grandson out of jail, but was now realizing it was likely all a scam.
It was far from a unique complaint. The eldery are often victims of such phone scams, and there’s typically little local police departments can do to recover the money as the scammers are often across the country or overseas.
Maestas, a 15-year law enforcement veteran, had filed away plenty of similar complaints over the years, knowing full well that there was nothing to do.
But this time was different.
“I knew — looking at the time, knowing he had (mailed) it today — there might possibly be a chance I could do something,” Maestas says. “I knew I was going to do something. I just didn’t know how it would end.”
It turned out to be a happy ending, as Maestas jumped in her patrol car, put on her siren and even pulled over a UPS driver in order to recover the package and return the elderly man his $10,000.
Olean police recently shared the story from earlier this summer with State & Union. The June 12 incident earned Maestas a letter of commendation from department officials, praising her for recognizing the urgency of the situation and “going above and beyond.”
“She could have just taken the complaint and told him there wasn’t much we could do — but she made the extra effort,” says Olean Police Chief Jeff Rowley. “You never get this money back, it never happens like this, it’s very rare. So I’m happy she did that.”
The elderly man, who did not wish to be named, was called by a scammer telling him his grandson was arrested for drunk driving in another state and needed bail money. The scammer instructed him to place $9,800 in a magazine and mail the magazine to a specific address out of the area.
The man did as the scammer said and sent the package out from the UPS store in Allegany near St. Bonaventure University. However, he instantly regretted it and came into the Olean police station to make a complaint at approximately 5:30 p.m.
He ended up speaking to Maestas, who tried calling the local UPS store but could only get in touch with their out-of-area call center.
“Looking at the time frame, I thought there was a small chance that I might be able to get to UPS before they actually sent out the package,” she says.
While driving down West State Street toward Allegany, Maestas spotted a UPS truck driver.
Naturally, she pulled him over.
“He thought he was in trouble,” Maestas says with a laugh. “I just figured he might have a local number to his workplace to give them a heads-up I was on my way down and hold the package if it was close to being put on the truck to Buffalo.”
The driver was able to call, and by the time Maestas arrived at the store, employees had the package waiting for her.
“They were really helpful in the situation, too,” she says, adding UPS even credited the elderly man the $80 he spent to overnight ship the package.
Maestas then hand-delivered the package to the elderly man at his house.
“He was actually looking out the window, and I held up the package,” she says. “Just the smile on his face — that was worth it.”
While Maestas was delivering the package back to the man, the scammer called. Maestas answered.
She pretended to be the man’s daughter, asking the scammer about the grandson’s supposed DWI arrest. The scammer, pretending to be a public defender, had answers, even offering a tidbit that a pregnant woman had been injured in the grandson’s supposed car crash.
“I said, ‘OK, I think I’m very clear on what has happened, but I have one last question for you. … How do you sleep at night?’” Maestas says. “He didn’t answer and I said, ‘I’m Officer Maestas, I work for the Olean Police Department, and I can guarantee you your package is not coming.’
“He hung up the phone.”
Maestas wishes she could do more than scare the scammer, but notes scammers often have victims send the money to vacant houses so the crime cannot be traced back to them.
She even asked UPS if they could send out a dummy package in order to catch the scammer picking it up.
“The answer was no because they couldn’t do anything to put their drivers in jeopardy, which I understand,” she says.
Rowley said the incident is a good reminder to be wary of such scams.
“No one is going to call you and ask you to send them that kind of money in cash for any reason,” he says. “And if anybody ever gets these calls or emails or letters, call the police department.”
The incident was somewhat personal for Maestas, who has older parents. She notes the older generation “worked for everything they have” and many now get by on a limited income, relying on Social Security or a pension.
“I guess I feel like as the people we know get older, it’s kind of our responsibility — civilian or law enforcement — to look out for them,” she says.