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How a Connecticut Woman Lost $165,000 in an FBI Impersonation Scam

Her large cash withdrawals didn’t raise red flags at her bank. She wishes they had


spinner image A fake FBI agent scammed a woman out of thousands of dollars.
Nes / Getty Images

Leslie Fumega, 78, lives a quiet life on the Connecticut shore, in the same tidy house where she and her husband, Chris, raised their two daughters and owned a liquor store together before he died in 2002. Long retired and ever frugal, Fumega mows her own lawn twice a week and is a DIY pro, taking care of her home’s electrical work and plumbing.

But her peaceful, penny-wise life was completely upended this year, starting with a disturbing phone call on May 24.

How it began

Fumega, who doesn’t own a computer or use email, had been receiving repeated calls from what appeared to be the Norwalk Police Department, according to her caller ID. She ignored the first few, assuming they would be requests for donations. When they persisted, she finally answered, planning to tell the caller that she was unable to donate at that time.

But the call was far more alarming than a donation pitch. The man on the line introduced himself as James Walsh, the chief of the Norwalk Police Department, and told her he had some terrible news: Her identity had been stolen, and her financial accounts were in jeopardy — but not to worry. She could speak with an FBI agent to discuss the situation the next day.

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Walsh called back the next day and, as promised, transferred her to someone who said he was an FBI agent in Washington, named James Dawson. The so-called Dawson, whose number had a D.C. area code, told Fumega that her name had been used in a string of crimes, and the money in her bank account was at risk. To safeguard it, she would need to send it to a secure location, where government officials would keep it for her until they could resolve the issue.

Emphasizing that she shouldn’t tell anyone about what had happened, Dawson was a near-constant voice in Fumega’s ear as he guided her through a high-stress, multiweek effort to supposedly protect her life savings.

First, he told her she had to go to Walmart to buy supplies: gray duct tape, bubble wrap, cardboard boxes and student notebooks. Then she was to withdraw money from her account at a specific branch of her bank (later he’d send her to other branches).

“He said, ‘Go in the bank and tell them, ‘I wish to withdraw $20,000 out of my money market account.’ And if they asked what it was for, I was to tell them it was for renovations,” Fumega recalls.

She did so, with her cellphone in her pocketbook so Dawson could listen to her transactions. He then gave her elaborate packing instructions for the cash. She was to place two or three bills at a time between pages of the notebooks — this took hours — box and seal them, and wrap the box in bubble wrap, followed by more wrapping and boxing.

Then he directed her to a UPS Store near her home, where she was to mail the package overnight to an address in California. “If someone asked me what was in the box, I was to tell them photo albums,” she says.

Fumega ended up essentially repeating this procedure, with multiple days in between transactions, nine times over the next six weeks, withdrawing a total of $165,000 from different branches of her bank and sending it to different addresses in California at Dawson’s direction. On days she made withdrawals, he would sometimes be on the phone with her for more than seven hours.

“A few times I had to call the night before because the bank doesn’t always have that kind of money on hand,” she says. “I would tell them, ‘I need $20,000 for tomorrow out of my account,’ and they said OK.”

Between these cash withdrawals, Dawson would call her twice a day, morning and evening, like clockwork, to check on her and reassure her that the money was being held for her in a locker in Ventura, California. He even gave her the locker number, and she began to receive official-looking letters confirming the number and the fact that her money was safe and would be returned soon.

She was anxious and overwhelmed, she says, but when she’d cry and say, “Mr. Dawson, I can’t do this anymore,” he’d tell her, “Don’t worry, you’re doing the right thing.”

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“He was a very polite man. I hate to say it,” Fumega adds. “Very kind and respectful. A very nice man.”

A horrible realization

On July 6, after Dawson asked her for even more money, Fumega finally broke down on the phone with her daughters and told them what was happening. Her younger daughter immediately called the police, who first went to Fumega’s home, then drove her to the station to make a report that night. She spent three hours laying out the details of the crime, which she had been recording meticulously in a diary throughout the ordeal.

The detective returned to the house later, to be on hand when the scammer was due to call. When he did, she answered and said, “This is Detective Taylor from the Norwalk Police Department.” He hasn’t called since that evening.

The case is suspended (meaning it’s on hold), according to the detective, Lindsey Taylor, who declined to comment further.

Fumega also reported the crime to the Federal Trade Commission. “But you know the money’s gone,” she says. “When I think about how foolish I was, I get very, very upset.”

Only she wasn’t foolish, says Kathy Stokes, AARP’s director of fraud prevention programs. Stokes, who works hard to counteract the shame and blame many scam victims experience, emphasizes that “it is not the victim’s fault. Fraud is at a crisis level and can happen to anyone.”

How impostor scams like this succeed

Fumega says the only kind of scam she’d heard much about was the infamous grandparent scam. She never felt suspicious of this kind-seeming man – “the sweetest man in the world,” as she described Dawson at one point — who called her twice a day to see how she was doing. And she was genuinely frightened that her money was at risk.

“A scammer’s number one goal is to get you in a stressful state of emotions,” says Amy Nofziger, director of victim support for the AARP Fraud Watch Network. “They want to get you out of your rational thinking and put you in your emotional thinking, because otherwise you would think, Why does this person need me to do this? This doesn’t make sense. But in your emotional state, you think, I have to do what he says now, or my money will be gone.

Fumega says she’s from a generation that grew up trusting authority figures more than younger people might: “When somebody was a superior to you, you did what you were told.” And Dawson was clearly a pro. “He was very good at what he did,” she says. “He had me totally convinced.”

She is far from alone. Financial institutions filed more than 72,000 suspicious activity reports (SARs) related to elder financial exploitation (EFE) in 2021, up from 62,000 in 2020, with billions of dollars in losses, according to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), a bureau of the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

The average reported loss per older adult was $35,101 in 2022, based on reports to the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center. That’s an 84 percent increase over 2021.

“There’s been an explosion of these types of scams,” says Connecticut Assistant Attorney General Mercedes G. Alonzo, who spoke with Fumega in the wake of the crime. “I see them practically every day.”

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What banks (and others) can do

Fumega is disappointed that her bank didn’t catch her unusual behavior and intervene. ”The fact that I came in that many times to that many different branches,” she says, “that to me was a signal, right? I felt that they let me down.”

Ken Palla, a longtime security expert for MUFG Union Bank and a bank security consultant, agrees that in Fumega’s case, it’s surprising the bank didn’t notice red flags for fraud. “The person was 78 years old,” he says, “and large amounts of cash were withdrawn from the same bank, different branches, but the same bank nine times over six weeks. This definitely seems anomalous.”

Fumega submitted a complaint to the Connecticut Department of Banking about her bank’s failure to intervene during the scam, but the department “found no violation of Connecticut Banking Law.” This was after reviewing the bank’s response to Fumega, which stated that with each transaction, “you provided a legitimate purpose for withdrawing the funds,” and never inquired “about the legitimacy of or express any concerns about the safety of your funds.” 

Without “a reasonable basics to believe that you were or about to become the victim of a fraud,” it concluded, “the Bank is prohibited by the Gramm Leach Bliley Act” — a federal law that protects the privacy of customer information — “from sharing non-public personal information which includes your banking transactions.”

Banks and credit unions are generally not legally required to reimburse account holders who lose money in these scams because the victims have authorized the transactions, Palla says. Victims of unauthorized transactions, in which the account holder had no role in the withdrawal, are legally required to be compensated.

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Lawmakers have expressed growing concern about these crimes. Seventeen states have enacted legislation or adopted resolutions addressing financial crimes against older people, with varying aggressiveness. Wyoming, for instance, passed a bill (with the support of AARP Wyoming) that protects banks and other financial institutions from being sued for briefly freezing a vulnerable adult’s assets if they believe that person is being exploited. It requires financial institutions to file a report with Adult Protective Services and law enforcement within five days of a suspected fraud against a vulnerable adult.

The American Bankers Association (ABA) Foundation is making an effort to educate bank employees, partnering with the FBI on a new guide with information on how to detect and prevent EFE, which the ABA defines as “the illegal or improper use of an older person’s funds, property, or assets.” It notes that red flags for EFE include:

  • Customers who “appear fearful of or submissive to a caregiver, show a sense of sudden urgency or indicate the transaction is for a new online friend or romantic partner.”
  • “Accounts with sudden and abnormal cash withdrawals or wire transfers … or any transactions that appear out of the ordinary with the customer’s established patterns.”

There’s also BankSafe, a free AARP initiative that teaches frontline staff at banks and other financial institutions how to fight elder abuse with free online courses, among other tools. Program director Jilenne Gunther cites “the power of employee education and training to prevent exploitation. We know that 1 out of every 2 times a frontline employee intervenes, they stop the exploitation.” She says BankSafe has helped employees save their customers more than $290 million since it launched in 2019 through proven interventions — such as asking questions, alerting other branches through account notes and delaying suspect transactions — to stop exploitation before money is lost. 

Gunther adds that financial institutions’ efforts to prevent exploitation sometimes are limited by the federal Expedited Funds Availability Act, which requires financial institutions to follow customers’ requests to transfer and deposit funds.

There are tech solutions that banks and individuals can use to raise red flags when someone appears to be in the midst of a scam. Carefull is a digital platform targeted toward older adults that uses financial monitoring to pick up on unusual behavior, then alerts the consumer, their caregiver or both. First the tool establishes what “normal” looks like for an individual by analyzing two years of his or her transactions.

“Banks are really good at figuring out whether you are who you say you are,” says Carefull cofounder Todd Rovak. The problem is that scam victims “are who they say they are” but are unknowingly acting on behalf of criminals. More than 40 financial institutions offer the service to their customers, including MassMutual, Pennsylvania’s C&N Bank and Nationwide.

The aftermath

Unfortunately, all these worthy efforts didn’t help Fumega. She has enough money left to live frugally — something she’s used to doing. “I’m not the type that spoils myself,” she says. “My priorities are my children and grandchildren.” And she’s happy to have a great-grandbaby on the way.

Yet she’s still struggling with the emotional fallout. Her family members keep urging her to put the incident behind her, she notes, “but I can’t. I probably never will. ... There are times when I start to think about it and I just burst out in tears.”

Still, she hopes that by telling her story she can prevent others from becoming victims of similar impostor scams. “If I can help even one person,” Fumega says, “that would make me very happy.”

Where to report fraud and other resources

If you are the victim of a scam like this one, contact your financial institution immediately to see if there’s any way to get back the stolen assets. Then file a report with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at IC3.gov, and contact your closest FBI office for help. Refer to the report you filed with IC3.gov, Stokes says. The more information authorites have, the better they can identify patterns, link cases and ultimately catch the criminals. Older victims also can call the Department of Justice’s National Elder Fraud Hotline at 833-FRAUD-11 (833-372-8311) for assistance with reporting suspected fraud.

The AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline, 877-908-3360, is a free resource; call to speak with trained fraud specialists who provide support and guidance on what to do next and how to avoid scams in the future. The AARP Fraud Watch Network also offers online group support sessions.

For more on impostor scams like the one described here, listen to this episode of AARP’s The Perfect Scam podcast, about a woman in Montana who lost her life savings to a criminal who claimed to be an agent from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.