Paul Johnson smelled a rat.

When an elderly woman approached the customer service counter at the Hy-Vee grocery store at 2200 W. Kimberly Road, Davenport, on Wednesday, saying she needed to send money by Western Union, Johnson paid close attention.

“When I put the Western Union form on the counter, she made a comment about her vision, and I said, ‘Would you like me to help you fill it out?’” he recalled Thursday. “I asked who was getting the money, and she had to look in her purse for the name.

“That was a red flag. If they’re trying to send money to people they don’t know, that’s the biggest red flag.”

The 87-year-old customer was not trying to send her $1,099 to a family member or friend. She thought she was sending it to Publishers Clearing House to pay the taxes on a prize of $100,000 a year for life she was told she had won.

“That’s when I talked her out of sending the money,” said Johnson, the store’s assistant manager of operations. “I told her this kind of thing happens way too often, and I said she’d be better off not sending the money.”

He was correct: Scam averted.

“I called the non-emergency number at the Davenport Police Department, and I gave her the number and encouraged her to call them, too,” he said.

According to a police report filed Thursday by the Davenport woman, a woman who identified herself as “Deborah Holland at Publishers Clearing House” called Wednesday to tell the woman she had won a top prize.

The almost-victim, who is not being identified, went to her bank after getting the phone call, withdrew the money and headed for Hy-Vee. When she was alerted to the likelihood of a scam, she called “Deborah Holland” back.

The woman who claimed to be from Publishers Clearing House then became rude, declared that Hy-Vee would be sued and told the victim she owed her an apology, according to the report.

A police officer also called the woman, the report states, and was hung up on.

Police Capt. David Struckman said Johnson did precisely the correct thing in paying attention to the woman’s transaction and encouraging her to keep her money.

“This is an example of an alert clerk and one who thinks outside the box,” he said.

Johnson said he was only doing his job.

“We aren’t specially trained, but we do talk about it and are aware of Western Union fraud,” he said. “I think most of the people who work in customer service would’ve caught it. I’m happy she didn’t send the money.

“It’s sad, isn’t it?”