William Comfort booking photo

By Shereen Siewert

A Los Angeles, Cal. man accused of swindling multiple Wausau-area victims out of tens of thousands of dollars in an alleged “grandparent scam” is now in custody and has been ordered to stand trial on theft charges.

William T. Comfort, 27, appeared Wednesday in Marathon County Circuit Court for a preliminary hearing on three counts of theft by false representation between $10,000 and $100,000 as party to a crime, with increased penalties for a case involving an elderly victim. Comfort is accused of posing as an attorney and collecting money from three separate elderly people in the metro area who thought they were helping a grandchild in trouble.

The three alleged thefts happened between May 6 and May 11. Comfort is also facing similar charges in two additional Wisconsin counties.

The first report involved a Rib Mountain woman who received a phone call pretending to be her granddaughter, claiming to have been involved n a fatal car crash. A man took over the call and identified himself as “Mike Gallagher,” an attorney, who asked for $18,400 in bail money for the girl. The woman’s husband then withdrew the cash from the bank and a “bondsman” named “Alex Davison” came to the couple’s home to collect the money. The couple then called police after realizing they had been scammed, court documents state.

Another alleged victim, also in Rib Mountain, called police the same evening and said she, too, received a call from someone she thought was her granddaughter. A man took the phone, identified himself as “Joe,” and said he was a lawyer who needed $18,000 in bail for the girl, who he said was involved n a car crash. After a “courier” picked up the cash and left, “Joe” called back and said he needed another $12,000 to avoid court, police said. But the woman then called her granddaughter and confirmed she had not been arrested, nor was she involved in a crash, according to the incident report.

A third complaint, in the town of Texas, involved a similar scenario in which a woman was allegedly scammed out of $16,000 after being told her grandson was under arrest. In this case, a courier also arrived to take the cash.

A similar case was reported in Iola, where a woman was persuaded to pay a “bond” of $20,000 cash to help keep her grandson out of prison.

Police traced Comfort through a car rental agreement coming from the Green Bay Airport and used video surveillance footage to match the California man’s identification with a Volkswagen Jetta allegedly used in the thefts. Investigators traced Comfort’s movements through GPS and said the vehicle traveled to communities including Merrill, New London, Iola, Chicago, Appleton, Waupaca, Stevens Point, Marshfield, Medford, Kronenwetter and Mosinee and the Wausau area. California criminal records show Comfort has a prior arrest for burglary, in 2017.

A copy of the summons and criminal complaint from Marathon County was mailed on Aug. 12 to the defendant. Comfort also faces felony theft charges in Taylor and Waupaca Counties.

During a Sept. 20 initial appearance, Circuit Judge Scott Corbett ordered Comfort jailed on a $50,000 cash bond. He remains behind bars. On Wednesday, he was ordered bound over for arraignment and trial in the case.

A pretrial conference is set for Oct. 21.

Grandparent scams and related cons are common. According to AARP, from 2015 through the first quarter of 2020, the FTC logged more than 91,000 reports of crooks posing as a relative or friend of the victim. Police say such scams can be lucrative: Eight people charged in a July 2021 federal indictment allegedly ran a nationwide scam network that used this ruse to steal some $2 million from more than 70 older Americans over an 11-month period in 2019 and 2020.