REED POINT — On Easter Sunday, Craig Buckner was doing yard work at his Reed Point home when a man approached him, asking for a helping hand. Buckner believed him and obliged to his request, only to be scammed out of $15,000.
“I was in my front yard. Two o’clock in the afternoon on Easter Sunday. All by myself, nobody’s in town. And here’s the only schmuck on the street,” Buckner said on Tuesday. “He pulled up and goes, ‘Hey, hey can you help me?’ with a deep Turkish accent. This is his MO. He’ll always be with his son, his wife, or his wife and some of his children. And he’s always claiming that he’s from out of the country, from Turkey, and he’s a businessman. He’s extremely wealthy. He’s draped in this crap."
Buckner has lived in Reed Point for 17 years and has never been asked anything like this from anyone, stranger or friend. Buckner said the man asked for $20,000 in exchange for what he claimed to be $300,000 worth of gold jewelry. Buckner told the man he had $15,000 in cash that he had saved up over the years and agreed to exchange the large sum for the jewelry. The man stated he would return on Tuesday to pay Buckner back in exchange for the jewelry, but Buckner quickly learned that was all a lie.
The $15,000 he handed over was money he and his late wife, Bonnie, worked for 27 years to save. Bonnie died 15 months ago following a battle with lung cancer, which Buckner attributes to his willingness to lend a hand nowadays.
“So it was 15 months ago I lost her. So I’ve been kind of in a, you know, grief is tough. Comes and goes," Buckner said. "So it’s not beyond me to do a lot of things for others at this time."
He took the jewelry to a Billings gold dealer to be evaluated and was told he was the victim of a fake jewelry scam.
“Before I even put the stuff on the table, they had his MO. They told me all about him before I said one word,” Buckner said about the shop workers. “He goes, ‘I hope you didn’t pay much for this.'"
Buckner took the jewelry to Grizzly Gold and Silver, located at 2450 King Ave. W., where he met Matt Speck, the general manager. Speck states this particular scammer has been making his rounds in Montana for years.
“We’ve been seeing gold rings, gold bracelets, gold necklaces. Well, alleged gold. It typically occurs that they were in a parking lot somewhere. Usually at a gas station. A man will come up to them, he needs money for gas, he’s driving an SUV and there are children in it and usually a spouse. And they’ll give him anywhere from $50 to $200 for this jewelry," Speck said on Saturday. "And it’s fake, it all looks the same. It has the same appearance. The first time I encountered it, it didn’t test as gold. We use chemicals to test the materials to see whether it is gold or not. And it doesn’t test. It all looks the same, as I said. He’s operating anywhere from Missoula all the way down to Lander, Wyoming that I know of."
And the problem isn't slowing down.
“It goes in waves. I’ve seen, over the past three or four years since the first person I’ve encountered, five a week to maybe one a month," Speck said. "But it really seems to go in waves. I can deduce from that they operate in a specific geography for a period of time, and then they move on. Or they get a big score, like they did from the gentleman yesterday."
Speck states one of the victims actually followed the scammer back to his home, which turns out to be in Billings.
“I’ve encountered one person that followed him and has a general idea of where he lives," Speck said. "I suspect it’s probably several people and they operate in tandem. There might be one as a lookout to make sure nothing happens to the main actor."
And Speck believes the only way to stop this scammer is to spread awareness and remember that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
“If somebody approaches you at a gas station or in a parking lot and they want you to give them money for gas or whatever, and they’re well-dressed, do not do it. Do not give them money. Don’t accept their jewelry,” Speck said. “You’re doing it out of the kindness of your heart, but they’re not requesting it out of the kindness of theirs."
No arrests have been made in the matter, leaving victims like Buckner wondering how many others have been burned by this scammer.
“This is $15,000. This is a felony. Grand larceny. It’s a scheme. And this guy’s doing it to everybody,” Buckner said. “I really would like everybody to know about it. It burnt me. Oh boy, it burnt me. But I would like everybody else to be aware of this guy. And if they find him, supposedly he lives off Mullowney Lane out in Billings. He lives in Billings."
Buckner said he filed a police report but was told little could be done.
Buckner states others should be on the lookout for this man, who stated his name was Ali Mustafa and was driving a dark-colored SUV with Illinois plates.
“I would say he’s approximately six feet, 220 pounds. Dark complexion. Turkish, heavy accent. Well-dressed, and he wears a lot of cologne,” Buckner said. “He's usually in an SUV and he’ll have somebody else in the passenger seat. (The SUV is) dark, black I would say. With light-silverish highlights on the outside of it. I think it’s a Hyundai. I remember it was Illinois plates."
And while he spreads awareness on the scam, Buckner is also looking to replenish his savings, which could involve him coming out of retirement.
“That hurt me a lot. I’ll never recover from it,” Buckner said. “He cost me $15,000 from my savings. I gotta get a job now. I retired. Now, I gotta go get a job."
Buckner would appreciate any help during this time following the loss of his cash savings.
“He’s extremely persuasive. And very relentless. Once he’s got you on the hook, he’s relentless. You have to say no. And the best thing to do is pick up your phone and take a picture. Anybody that comes around him, take a picture of him. Anybody who wants to push their stuff on you, take a picture of them,” Buckner said. "I don’t want anybody else to get hit."
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