Courtesy Alison Hill
En español | During their weekly phone call in December 2016, Alison Hill sensed something was amiss with her mother, Valerie Hill. Normally reserved, the 93-year-old woman sounded giddy.
When she pressed her mother for details, the older woman revealed that soon none of her children would need to worry about money. They were going to be rich.
Alison asked her mother, who lived along Florida’s Gulf Coast, to tell her what was going on. “I can’t,” she replied. “It’s a secret.”
The exchange “sent up red flags,” said Alison, 67, an artist and gallery owner who lives in Maine.
She remembered that a couple of months earlier, her mother had mentioned she had received a notice in the mail announcing she had won a Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes. Initially, her mother dismissed the prospect of collecting her winnings, saying she didn’t want to appear on television.
After the call with her mother, Alison phoned her four sisters, saying they needed to figure out what was happening.
Early into the sisters’ sleuthing, a paper trail emerged and showed suspicious withdrawals from their mother’s bank account.
One sister who kept an eye on their mother’s account discovered that several checks for about $9,500 each had been written to another woman but assumed the largesse was related to their mother’s church. Valerie Hill was a daily churchgoer and active in her Catholic parish.
It wasn’t long before the account showed suspicious withdrawals to make wire transfers to Jamaica and buy money orders.
All five sisters urged their mother to reveal what was going on, but she was tight-lipped. They implored her not to give away more money. “She agreed, but only to keep us quiet,” Alison said.
Her sister Abbe Hill, 55, a scenic artist from Brooklyn, said her strategy was “to ask a lot of questions and give her information about being careful and watching out for scams.”
“That wasn’t working,” she added. “The money was still going” out.
Alison, Abbe and their sister Melanie Preston, 63, are sharing their story because they want to protect older Americans from falling victim to scams like their mother did. A once-vibrant retiree who in the years after World War II flew international routes as a flight attendant for American Airlines, Valerie Hill was widowed at 39. After losing her husband, she bought and sold real estate to put their six children through college.
Her behavior throughout the scam “was extremely out of character,” Abbe said.
Swinging into detective mode
Valerie Hill’s five daughters and a son live outside Florida. The sisters decided to team up and visit their mother to get to the bottom of her runaway spending. Two sisters flew down in February 2017 and were alarmed to learn their mother had looked into refinancing her condo. “She never took out loans for anything,” Alison said.
When Alison and sister Abbe traveled south a month later, they uncovered an accordion file containing more troubling clues: Papers showed their mother was trying to obtain additional credit cards and open other bank accounts. Another telling document: Alison and Abbe found what appeared to be a Publishers Clearing House notification that “looked official, except when you examined it closely,” Alison recalled.
While talking to Abbe, Valerie Hill disclosed that a man had come to her condo with a briefcase full of prizes and promised they would be hers once she completed a process.
One scammer from the purported sweepstakes even told their mother on the phone to imagine how it would feel when she was driving her new Mercedes, according to Melanie, a jewelry maker who lives in Newport, R.I.
Their mother “was a really rational person, so we didn’t understand how they got her acting this way,” according to Abbe, who said the older woman even told the scammers not to call when her daughters were visiting.
The file also contained a credit card statement showing their mother had racked up charges for about $20,000 at a jewelry store. When confronted with the statement, their mother owned up to buying Christmas presents for the people purportedly working to help her collect her prizes.
When the sisters went to the jewelry store seeking answers, a saleswoman remembered their mother and said she had had watches and gold chains mailed to New Jersey.
The checks, the wire transfers, the spending spree at the jewelry store — in the end, their mother had frittered away almost $100,000 to satisfy the scammers’ persistent requests.
Concerned you or a loved one is a victim of fraud? Call AARP's free Fraud Watch helpline at 877-908-3360 to speak with volunteers trained in spotting scams.
Valerie Hill had survived tough times in the past. She had lost her husband a month before daughter Abbe, her youngest, was born. She “got things done through pure drive and will,” Abbe said.
During retirement, their mother built an active, independent life in Florida. She dressed impeccably, kept an immaculate home, volunteered, devoured books and, a gourmet cook, entertained friends, the sisters said.
Her secrecy amid so many worrisome signs prompted Alison and Abbe to install a spy camera in their mother’s condo and put a tracking device on her car.
The surveillance showed their mother was getting as many as seven calls a day, Alison said. The callers would tell her they loved her and she was their best friend but “they were always asking for money,” she added. “I could tell because she’d say things like ‘I can’t do that’ or ‘I can’t afford that. You’re taking all my money.’ ”
Publishers Clearing House has a warning on its website, saying “you NEVER have to pay to claim a prize.”
“If someone contacts you claiming to be from PCH, and tells you that you’ve won a prize — then asks you to send a payment or money card in order to claim the prize — STOP! You have not heard from the real PCH,” it states.
Throughout the country, frauds involving prizes, sweepstakes and lotteries are a persistent problem: There were 142,870 reports of them in 2017, when losses climbed to $95 million, according to the Federal Trade Commission, which aims to educate and protect consumers.
FTC attorney Kati Daffan, with its Bureau of Consumer Protection, puts it plainly: “Having to pay money to collect on a prize is a scam.”
Scammers, she added, are “very savvy with creating as many indicators of legitimacy as possible” and use phony documents, websites and phone numbers and other tools.
“What we see is people will trade on a supposed affiliation with an entity that people know and trust, like Publishers Clearing House.” The scammers who targeted Valerie Hill were manipulative, according to Alison, who used the surveillance camera to monitor her mother’s responses on the phone. “I’d hear her say, ‘I love you, too,’ ” she said.
At AARP, fraud expert Amy Nofziger spoke to Alison after the sisters pieced together the traps that ensnared their mother. “The scammers were essentially able to brainwash the mother and convince her that they were the good guys,” Nofziger said.
“They work in teams so they’re available 24 hours a day and keep the victim under their purview,” she added. “The mom in this case became almost addicted to the scam.”
Before the ordeal began Valerie Hill was “very conservative with her money,” Melanie said. While she would gamble on cruise ships, buy lottery tickets and play slot machines, she’d have a $20 to $50 limit.
Alison observed: “It seemed like she was getting a rush from being caught up in it. She was getting excited about getting all this money and all this attention.”
Scammers do their homework, according to Nofziger. “They read books about what to say to women,” she said, “and they figure out what they want or need emotionally, what their core values, dreams and desires are. And then they exploit that to their advantage.”
The FTC’s Daffan said perpetrators follow a formula, telling people they need to provide a small amount of money to collect big winnings; setting deadlines for them to act to create time pressure; and insisting others not be told about the prize or they’ll miss out on a great opportunity.
Time and again, the sisters turned to the authorities. Alison convinced the county sheriff’s department to talk to their mother and warn her about scam risks. A relative arranged for FBI special agents in Florida to speak to Valerie Hill about how scammers operate. “She’d be very compliant, but then the scammers would call again, and she’d be right back with them,” Alison said.
The sisters had a priest from their mother’s church talk to her, but his pleadings fell on deaf ears. Instead, “she stopped going to church because she was so embarrassed,” Abbe said.
Even the local police weren’t helpful. “They told us this [sort of scam] was rampant down there,” she said. But “they said there was nothing they could do, unless she admitted to what was going on.”
In early March, one of the scammers convinced their mother to drive 90 minutes to a quick-loan establishment to get $10,000. After overhearing this on the spy camera, Alison called the lender before her mother arrived and explained what was happening so her mother wouldn’t get the cash. It worked. When Valerie Hill relayed this to the scammers, they insisted she try again but she refused, saying: “It almost killed me to do that drive,” according to Alison, who listened in on the spy camera.
Later that month, while Melanie was visiting, their mother “opened up to me for the first time and admitted she might have been scammed,” the daughter said. “She let me go through all her receipts and account statements, and I told her to let us handle the bills for her from then on. I thought we made a lot of headway, but she liked control and didn’t want to relinquish it.”
“That’s when her health started going downhill,” Melanie added.
Giving in, giving up
Abbe next visited in April 2017, when her mother’s eating habits and mood had taken a turn for the worse. “Her spark was diminishing,” the daughter said. “It was like she didn’t care anymore. When we said goodbye, she said, ‘I’ll always remember you,’ which was strange.”
Looking back, the sisters realize their mother’s health was spiraling downward, despite her putting up a brave front during phone calls. “She never let on that she was doing poorly. She was very stoic,” Melanie said.
By July of that year, their mother had lost all her hair — probably from stress, the sisters believe — and could hardly walk. Her voice was raspy and she had trouble speaking. By August, Valerie Hill entered an assisted-living facility where she was bedridden and dismissive of physical therapy.
“She sounded quiet and depressed — it wasn’t Mom anymore,” according to Melanie. Within a month, their mother entered a hospice. The three sisters, joined by a fourth, were with her when she died in September 2017. She was 94.
“It was like she’d made a decision to die,” Abbe said.
“I think she got so disillusioned with the fact that she’d been scammed that she got depressed,” Melanie added.
The sisters have struggled to make sense of how and why their once-savvy, vibrant mother was conned out of a sum approaching six figures and robbed of her health. They’ve had to piece together her ordeal, relying on each other’s discoveries and observations. “It’s been a hard year, trying to make sense of all this,” Alison said. “There’s a lot of self-blame going on. We feel like we should have been there.”
AARP’s Nofziger said one focus should be protecting older adults from scams, and another should be supporting their children to “help them deal with the emotional trauma they experienced as bystanders.”
“It’s a very difficult position for adult children to be in,” she said. “This person is still their parent and vulnerable and making poor choices in ways they’ve never seen before. It’s devastating to a child to be pushed to the outside and still trying to take care of the parent.”