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Durango coffee shop falls victim to telephone scam

Still Life is out $1,500 after an employee was swindled into wiring money
Haley Wilhelmsen, left, and her mom, Laurie, owners of Still Life Coffee and Botanicals, inside the coffee shop on Tuesday. One of the shop’s employees wired $1,500 to a telephone scam artist on Monday. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The stories are always a little different, but scammers all want the same thing: your money.

This time, coffee shops seems to be the target.

A scammer called Still Life Coffee and Botanicals on Monday using the title and, possibly, actual name of a Durango Police Department officer. The caller, who had a male-sounding voice, falsely informed the employee who answered that the shop’s recent deposits had been made with fraudulent bills and the shop was “in trouble.”

The caller provided a fake incident number and said the employee needed to wire $1,500 electronically to a bar code, which he provided to the employee.

The employee left the coffee shop, headed to Walgreens with the cash, and did just that.

“She was just swindled by somebody over the phone and got totally taken advantage of,” said Haley Wilhelmsen, the shop’s co-owner. “We're just out about a week's worth of cash deposits.”

At some point in the call, the suspect mentioned Wilhelmsen by name and asked for her phone number.

At that moment, Wilhelmsen had just received a call from another staff member informing her that the employee had just left the shop with a large sum of cash.

The duped employee provided the caller with Wilhelmsen’s phone number with the understanding that he would conference the owner into the call. But at that exact moment, as Wilhelmsen tried frantically to get ahold of her rogue employee, she found that her phone was unable to make calls.

“It just like froze my phone,” she said.

DPD Commander Deck Shaline said the incident is under investigation, and added that he has never heard of an incident where a scam artist blocked a party’s phone from working. The department’s forensic analyst is looking into the matter.

Although $1,500 might not be a huge sum of money, Wilhelmsen said it will have an impact on the coffee shop, which is in its infancy.

“This totally puts us behind for payroll, which we have to run Friday,” Wilhelmsen said. “... For us it actually is super significant and means several bills are going to be paid late. It’s an unfortunate thing to have to admit.”

Shaline said it is not uncommon for scam artists to call and impersonate law enforcement officers. He said callers will sometimes even use officers’ real names.

“We would never conduct business this way,” he said.

At least two other coffee shops in Durango received similar calls on Monday, but did not take the bait.

Shaline’s advice is to request a face-to-face meeting with the officer, and to call the department’s nonemergency line – 385-2900 – to report suspicious calls.

A representative from Walgreens told DPD investigators that the money is untraceable. The department is continuing to investigate and is searching the phone upon which the call was received for further evidence.

But in the face of an unexpected $1,500 loss, Wilhelmsen hopes to find a silver lining.

Still Life will host what she is calling a “Anti Fraud Friday” event this week from 2-6 p.m. featuring live music, nonalcoholic cocktails from District Three and a surprise from Odd Bird Baking Co. The shop will discount retail items 15% in the hopes of recouping some of the lost revenue and will also have a guest speaker from the Bank of the San Juans in attendance to talk about fraud prevention.


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