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A Hiker’s Trail of Lies: Part 1

When Melissa met Jeff Cantwell online, the two connected immediately. But all was not as it seemed.

A man walking in the woods with sunglasses and hiking gear on


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When Melissa met Jeff Cantwell online, the two connected immediately. He was friendly, well spoken and shared her love of the outdoors. Jeff told Melissa stories of the daunting hikes he’d completed and shared the tragic loss of his family in a car accident. But these were just stories: In reality, Jeff “Cantwell” was Jeff Caldwell, a con man who’d spent decades ripping off members of the close-knit outdoor community.

TIPS:  If you think you’ve been a victim of a scam or would like to report fraud call The Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360Anyone can become the victim of a scam, it’s important to be vigilant and know your vulnerabilities. For instance, if you are looking for a job you are more vulnerable to a work-at-home scam.

00:00:00] Will Johnson: Coming up on AARP - The Perfect Scam.

[00:00:03] He cleaned out my credit card and my bank account completely. And then took my car.

[00:00:07] Kind of in the last decade or so that he really sort of fashioned himself into a full-on outdoorsy, you know, fleece wearing hiker type that sort of gives him credibility in this community and, and help him, gives him an entree to meet other people that eventually he would, he would betray.

[00:00:27] Will Johnson: For AARP - The Perfect Scam, I'm Will Johnson. I'm joined, as always, once again by my cohost and The AARP's Fraud Watch Network Ambassador, Frank Abagnale.

[00:00:37] Frank Abagnale: Hey, great to be here.

[00:00:37] Will Johnson: Nice to have you here again, Frank. And we have another scam story we will share in just a few minutes, but first, I want to ask you about a topic that I don't think we talked about much, the various technologies where we're able to talk to our devices. A lot of security concerns going on there.

[00:00:50] Will Johnson: Yeah, very scary. Uh, when you've thunk about those type of devices, you have to ask yourself, how is it activated, how does it work? It works on voice. So with a minor twitch from a hacker, I could listen to everything you say in your house, and you look about all of these devices in your house; your Samsung TV, your remote control to the TV, uh, your refrigerator that tells you when you're getting ready to, uh, low on milk, and even your security cameras that you have around your house because you think when I go away I get on my iPhone, I can look at my house, see what's going on around my property. All those are access points for hackers. And uh, the reason is that people who develop these types of technologies, never go, what I call, through the follow-through final step and that is to ask the question, how would someone use this in a negative way? They're just more concerned about how do I get it to market, how fast can I get it to market, and they never go to that final step. So most of my uh time now is spent working with technology companies as an advisor, and those are good companies. They come to be [00:01:51] basically to say we've developed this, how would you beat it? Where is the flaw in this system, because before we put it out in the marketplace, we want to know how someone would manipulate it or get around it.

[00:02:03] Will Johnson: You know, I just don't walk around my house saying my social security number anymore.

[00:02:07] Frank Abagnale: No. But there are a lot of things you do say, and uh, and especially...

[00:02:11] Will Johnson: There sure are, there sure are.

[00:02:11] Frank Abagnale: Especially if you might be an attorney working a very important case...

[00:02:16] Will Johnson: Right, so it's not necessarily that the hackers will know what you're having for dinner, but there could be loftier security issues at hand.

[00:02:24] Frank Abagnale: Yes.

[00:02:25] Will Johnson: Oh my. What a world.

[00:02:26] Frank Abagnale: Yeah.

[00:02:21] Will Johnson: I really enjoy the smart speaker we have in our house, but it does freak me out sometimes, and my wife's name is somewhat similar to the name of the speaker of the device that we have, so she will sometimes all of sudden just come on and say, you know something and, and it's alarming.

[00:02:43] Frank Abagnale: It is. It's a little scary. It's a little bit too much technology.

[00:02:46] Will Johnson: It is way too much.

[00:02:47] MUSIC SEGUE

[00:02:48] Will Johnson: Alright, Frank, from high tech to low tech we're going to get into this week's story, and we're going to tell our listeners about a serial scammer who made his mark in the outdoor community.

Not long ago, as we were looking into more stories for our podcast, we came across a really interesting article for Outside Online, all about a thru-hiker, a mountain man, an outdoor guy who also turned out to be a con man. Pretending to be someone he's not, taking on guises in order to gain people's trust, and then take advantage of them. The article is written by Brendan Borrell. He first came across the story on a website called Mountain Project.

[00:03:23] Brendan Borrell: Yeah, well actually I'm, I'm a rock climber and I was checking on this uh climbing website called Mountain Project which has some forums, and uh I saw an unusual post from a woman named Melissa Trent who was frantic because she had, someone had just taken her car, it was a brand new Audi...

[00:03:42] Melissa Trent: And people Colorado Springs were warning about this guy. There were pictures of him and all of these victims saying yes, it's real, he's a con man.

[00:03:51] Will Johnson: Will: But all that comes much later. The story begins when Melissa comes across Jeff Caldwell's profile on a dating site.

[00:03:58] Brendan Borrell: He had uh posted a profile on um, a website called Plenty of Fish. His user name was "Love to Hike 1972," and he advertised himself as this outdoors type, and Melissa was, was a single mom and uh she thought he was pretty cute. She wasn't super outdoorsy, but she liked that he was outdoorsy. She'd, she'd been turned off from dating websites before because guys were a little bit creepy and they would ask, you know, they would say sexual things really early on and he was actually very um, a very kind guy.

[00:04:33] Melissa's in her 40s. She's been divorced for five years, lives in Colorado Springs with her two daughters. She isn't brand new to dating sites, and she liked Jeff right away.

[00:04:41] Melissa Trent: We started talking and we had a really good conversation through messaging, and he seemed really well spoken. You can tell a lot in people's texting, and he seemed well spoken, articulate, um, we had several things in common, and he wasn't, he didn't come on too strong, aggressively, like the conversation stayed very, very platonic, and I really liked that. And um, actually I think the second day that we started talking, we moved to the phone and we talked like 12 hours that day.

[00:05:16] Will: Wow, like in one conversation?

[00:05:17] Melissa Trent: Yes between texting and calling, um, it was a continuous um, I think it was like 10 to 12 hours that we were on the phone.

[00:05:25] Will: Alright, so that's a clear indication there are some sparks. So there was something going on.

[00:05:29] Melissa Trent: Yeah, yeah.

[00:05:31] Brendan Borrell: He was a good-looking guy and he told me as he got more good looking with age he, he claimed he was a little bit awkward when he was younger. Um, but as he got more good looking with age, he found that he could uh people really trusted him and, and uh that he could do almost anything.

[00:05:47] Will Johnson: But what Melissa doesn't know, comes to find out, is Jeff is not what he appears. He'd been up to this for decades, uh at least various stages or elements of cons, right?

[00:06:00] Brendan Borrell: That's right. I mean, I mean from what I understood going back to his childhood is, is he came from a broken home and, and he became a bit of a tricksters just to survive, you know, going around to neighbors houses and begging for handouts and sort of telling stories that, that would make him friends and, and help him um, survive. And he never uh sort of left that, that, that became a pattern for him over the rest of his life, and so you know he, he pretty soon after he turned 18 he, he started a, getting into trouble with petty thefts and stealing from friends, and it's kind of in the last uh, decade or so that he really sort of fashioned himself into a full on you know outdoorsy you know fleece wearing uh Patagonia wearing, uh hiker type you know, getting, getting tattoos for the various long distance trails, the Appalachian Trial and the Pacific Crest Trail, which he never actually fully hiked, um, [00:07:00] but just to sort of give him credibility in this community and, and help him, give him an entree to meet other people that eventually he would, he would betray.

[00:07:10] Will Johnson: He was really good at telling stories of adventure that were totally bogus.

[00:07:15] Brendan Borrell: Yeah. I mean he, he did sort of puff himself up

as having all these amazing adventures. You know, he told one woman that he was this uh ski instructor from Vail, uh then when they went out cross country skiing, he could barely stand up on his skis. I mean, he, you know and again he, he claimed he had hiked these long distance trails, but when people would go out with him, uh he would make it a few miles and then he'd be huffing and puffing and turn back.

[00:07:41] MUSIC SEGUE

[00:07:45] Will Johnson: After talking for four or five days, Melissa and Jeff decide to meet up in person.

[00:07:50] Melissa Trent: During that first meeting there were no big red flags. Um, he told me during that first meeting um, that he, that I asked about his, where his parents, you know where he was from and his parents, and he told me that his parents had died in a car crash when he was 18, and, and that was really the only thing that was a little bit you know, farfetched, but people's parents do die.

[00:08:13] MUSIC SEGUE

[00:08:17] Will Johnson: There was actually more to Jeff's story that he isn't telling Melissa yet; the version Brendan Borrell knows includes not just Jeff's parents, but also a wife and a young child.

[00:08:28] Brendan Borrell: You know, part of his, his play was to elicit sympathy from his victims, and so he had this sob story about um, growing up in Kodiak, Alaska, of course a remote place, famous for grizzly bears and so on, um, but that he had uh gotten married, uh at a young age and had a um, had a young child and um, was driving in a car with his parents and they got in a car accident, and you know his wife, his child, and his parents were all killed.

[00:08:59] MUSIC SEGUE

[00:09:01] Melissa Trent: The next day, I asked him, cause we, we went out the next day, and I asked him if he had ever been married. And he, he kind of looked down and you could just see the, you know just his face change, and I was like, what's wrong? And he was like, well, the part of the story that I didn't tell you yesterday is that when my parents were killed in the car crash, my fiancé and 5-month old daughter were also in the car.

[00:09:27] MUSIC SEGUE

[00:09:28] Will Johnson: Over the next two weeks, Jeff spends more and more time with Melissa and her kids.

[00:09:32] Melissa Trent: He actually stayed at our house, and the reason was, was because he claimed that the couple that he was staying with at the Airbnb um, were fighting all of the time in front of him, and it made him really uncomfortable, and so he was like, I think I'm just going to cut this short and try and find a hotel. And so I was like, well you can stay with us for a couple of days until you can find a place. And so he came on Thursday, and stayed Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday night.

[00:10:00] Brendan Borrell: You know, he came over and he made spaghetti and meatballs for the kids and he said, "I want to show the kids that I'm a great guy." And this all happened extremely fast. This was you know a, over a period of a week to 10 days, you know he, he hooked her and um, it's kind of shockingly fast to me, but I guess she was in a place where she was really um, you know, looking for someone, and he, he, he charmed her.

[00:10:25] Melissa Trent: We really liked each other, we had a lot in common, and he even, there was one day where my daughter asked if she could go um, if her and her friend could go to the mall, and he asked me, he, he came into the room and said, "Hey, how would you feel if I drove them to the mall? And I was like, why? And he was like, cause it'll give us time, you know to bond, and I can bosh the radio and they're really start to like me. And I was like, that's amazing. I can't believe, you know, cause he knows that in order to have a relationship with me, he's got to like my kids and they've got to like him, and I just loved that he was making that effort. Our third date, he came over, he brought food, he cooked the dinner for the kids, he got a menu of what they liked so that he made sure that he was cooking food that everybody liked. I mean he was, it was just amazing.

[00:11:09] MUSIC SEGUE

[00:11:11] Will Johnson: This is where the story really starts to shift into a another realm, and for the first time, Jeff mentions money.

[00:11:17] Brendan Borrell: And then one day he, he, they were out and he said his bank card had stopped working.

[00:11:22] Melissa Trent: He claimed to be a veteran and you know he got VA benefits, and he said that his VA benefit had gone in for the month but it had frozen his accounts. He was like, this is the third time this has happened. For some reason whenever they deposited, it freezes my account, and he, and I was like, oh my gosh, that's weird. He was like, so can you just give me, you know can you, can I borrow you know like 100 bucks just to get through the weekend and then I'll pay you back on Monday. And I said, sure. So, when he got there that afternoon, I asked him, you know, I wasn't to go to Garden of the Gods and just walk around, and he was like no, let's go to Cripple Creek and go gambling.

[00:11:55] Will Johnson: These were various areas around where you live.

[00:11:57] Melissa Trent: Yes, yes, around the, the Colorado Springs area. And um, Cripple Creek is a big gambling spot for people. It's about maybe 20, 30 miles away. And I had never been, and I was like oh, okay. And so we went and we went to the casino and we went in and um, we went to the ATM so that I could get out 100 bucks to give him for the weekend. And when we were standing at the ATM, he was like, can you make it 200, and that way we can use 100 to gamble tonight, and then I still have 100 for the weekend. So I was like, okay. And then he made a big production and turned around so he didn't see my pin or anything, and I took the money out and I handed him the cash. And so we did that. We, we stayed in that casino for about 10 hours. We made that 100 dollars stretch for like 10 hours and then when the money was gone, we left. So the next morning, it was Monday morning, and this is the day that he's supposed to pay me back, and he had told me he would pay me for all the gas going to the casino. You know, he had borrowed 200 but he was going to give me 300 back. And so he borrows my car to go to the bank and about [00:12:58] 30 minutes later, he messages and says, "We have a problem." And I'm like, what's the problem? And he said that the Colorado branch of his bank would not issue him a new debit card. He was going to have to go to Denver to get the debit card. And he was like, "Can I use your car to go to Denver?" And I was like, "Ah, I don't know. I mean like how long is, how long are you going to take?" He's like, "I'll be, you know, I'm going to go up there and I'll be right back. I should be back by noon.

[00:13:22] You like this guy enough, he's been like around that there is zero red flags.

[00:13:27] Melissa Trent: Yeah, the only red flag and it, and I, and I noticed it as soon as he said it, when we were at the casino, um, he was talking to another guy. We were playing um, I don't remember what we were playing, but um, oh, Black Jack, and there was another guy at the table, and they were talking about Alaska, cause the other guy had spent some time in Alaska, and Jeff made a comment about his mom and he said, my mom is Inuit. And that struck me, because my mother has been dead, at the time had been dead for about 12 years, and I would have never said she IS Inuit. I would have said she WAS Inuit. I thought to myself, that's odd. Why would he use his mother in the present tense if she's dead, but then I was like, you know, everybody deals with things differently, you know, like that was how I explained it, like maybe to him you know he, I don't know. That, but that was the only red flag that I had.

[00:14:19] Will Johnson: So, he goes off to Denver, uh to the bank supposedly, in your car.

[00:14:24] Melissa Trent: He said that he needed gas for the car to go to Denver. So he asked me if he could use one of the credit cards in my car to get gas. And I said, "What credit card?" And he was like, "There's two credit cards here." And he described them to me, and one of them was my credit card, and the other one was my bank card. And I was like, "How are those in the car?" And he's like, "I don't know. They're just here." So again I gave him the benefit of a doubt and I told him that he could use one of the cards.

[00:14:49] Will Johnson: So, but in your mind at this point, he's going off to Denver.

[00:14:51] Melissa Trent: Yes, he's going off to Denver.

[00:14:53] MUSIC SEGUE

[00:14:57] Will Johnson: So Jeff heads down the road in Melissa's car with Melissa's bank cards, telling her that he'll be back later that day.

[00:15:03] Melissa Trent: And then at 2 o'clock he messages me and says, "Oh my gosh, traffic is terrible. I just got here." And I was like, "Okay, well hurry up and get back. I need my car." And he's like, "No problem." And then I didn't hear from him again. And I started getting really nervous, and about 5 o'clock I, I, you know I was messaging him and messaging him and around 5 o'clock he messages back and says, "Chill out. I'm in the parking lot." And I was like, "What parking lot?" And he said, "The bank parking lot." And I was like, "in Denver?" And he said, "Yes." And I said, "I need my car and I need my car right now."

[00:15:34] MUSIC SEGUE

[00:15:36] Melissa Trent: And then that was the last thing I heard from him. And so finally at about 8 o'clock that night I called the police, and I reported it.

[00:15:44] MUSIC SEGUE

[00:15:46] Will Johnson: So, when you had that conversation around 5, it sounds like maybe you knew something was up a little bit?

[00:15:51] Melissa Trent: Yes, because he was so aggressive. He was just like, "Chill" I mean I had never seen that side of him. He was like, "Chill out!" And he was like, "I'm in the parking lot." And then you know no communication after that. And that was so weird, because he had always been... I mean we had been corresponding and text for a couple of weeks, and he was always, you know, would always text me right back. And so I talked to some friends and told them the situation and then they were like, you have to call the police. I mean this guy's obviously not up to good. And so the police came and I told them everything, and the police really didn't think that he had stolen the car. They were like, "Ma'am, you gave him the keys." Like, you know, that's not a stolen car. And I was like, "I know, but he was supposed to be back here at noon and I haven't heard from him since 5 o'clock, so the police took all the information, and they actually called him, and he messaged them back at 3 o'clock that morning and said, "I've already talked to her. I've already told her that I'll be back tomorrow. I've just got to stay here to get this card. I'll, you know, as soon as the bank opens [00:16:51] I will get the, the um, the new debit card and then she'll have her car back by noon tomorrow." And so the police reported that to me in the morning and said he'll be back, don't worry, blah, blah, blah. Well, I continued to message him throughout the day and he claimed that the person that issued the new debit card wouldn't do it until 3 o'clock, so he had to stay there until 3 o'clock. I knew this was not true, and so I told him, I was like, "Take a picture. If you're sitting in that bank, take a picture." And he was like, "Are you out of your mind? If I take a picture, I could get arrested. You can't take a picture in a bank." And I said, "then walk outside and take a picture." And he blew up at me, like "Are you questioning me? Do you not believe me?" And all this stuff, and I was like, "No, I don't believe you. I just, I want proof that you're at a bank and I want some assurance that you're going to be back here." And so supposably he got the new credit card and was on his way back to the Springs at around 4:30 and then it started to rain, and he messaged and said that he [00:17:51] was halfway between Denver and the Springs and that he didn't feel comfortable driving in the rain, and that um, he was turning back and going back to Denver.

[00:18:02] MUSIC SEGUE

[00:18:03] Will Johnson: It's around this time that Melissa finds the blog with other people complaining about Jeff. She decides to post her own experience with him, and this is when the writer, Brendan Borrell comes across the story. So Brendan Borrell comes across your blog, you, your post on the blog, and gets interested. He's sort of like, you know, this is, seems like maybe an interesting story, he's a writer.

[00:18:23] Melissa Trent: Yes.

[00:18:23] Will Johnson: And he gets in touch with you and then eventually he gets in touch with Jeff himself on the run in your car.

[00:18:29] Melissa Trent: Yes. Exactly.

[00:18:32] Brendan Borrell: Basically I, I started texting him and his number wasn't, wasn't working and um, and then it, one morning I woke up uh, and I, I had a text message from him and I think he had, he had asked me why Outside magazine, right, was interested in him and um, he was very skeptical of me. He thought maybe I was, I'd been hired by the, the, his last victim, Melissa Trent or else I worked for the cops. And uh so he was very reluctant, but as, as I sort of, I'd already begun to background him and I learned um, through my research that his mother had recently died, for instance, and um, when I told him this he, he asked me, I think sort of developed a trust um, and he realized perhaps that he could get something from me, and also just that he did seem to have a deep need to talk about himself and, and he was very, very transparent which actually you know, it made me sympathetic to him. So, so we begin texting [00:19:32] and, and after a while I was like, let's talk on the phone and you know, I actually had to pay to get his phone restored so that we could chat.

[00:19:42] Will: So Jeff's now on the run in Melissa's car, texting with Brendan. And remember those bank cards he borrowed?

[00:19:47] Melissa Trent: He cleaned out my credit card and my bank account completely. Yeah, he took everything. And then he took my car.

[00:19:55] MUSIC SEGUE

[00:19:57] Melissa Trent: Wednesday night, the cops came back, and they knew, they found him.

[00:20:01] Will Johnson: Wait, they didn't find him, they didn't actually find him, but they found out about him?

[00:20:05] Melissa Trent: Who he was, yes, they knew who he was. Cause he had given me a fake name. That's why, when I googled first him, nothing nefarious came up about him. Um, but they found the real, he, he told me his name was Jeff Cantwell, but his name is obviously Jeff Caldwell.

[00:20:21] MUSIC SEGUE

[00:20:22] Will Johnson: It turns out Jeff wasn't all that far away. Join us next week for Part 2 of Melissa's story in how she tries to take matters into her own hands.

[00:20:31] MUSIC SEGUE

[00:20:34] Will Johnson: And I'm back with The AARP Fraud Watch Network Ambassador Frank Abagnale. You know, the story begins with Melissa talking about how he was well spoken, articulate, and, and texted well. I guess that doesn't always, it's not always the litmus test we need.

[00:20:49] Frank Abagnale: I got really interested in this story because to be honest with you, and I hate to say it, it sounds like you're telling my story.

[00:20:56] Will Johnson: Frank, I'm glad you said it, because I was going to bring it up, but I was a little nervous and I didn't want to, I didn't want to malign you with this, with this gentleman.

[00:21:03] Frank Abagnale: No, cause it's just like hearing my story, only he was a lot older than me. Um, and uh, you know, I was this guy who, back then, you know, well dressed, thought of himself as a good looking young guy, and thought that I could convince people of a lot of things, about being a pilot, being a doctor, and I remember one incident of uh, going to rent a car in Italy, a little Fiat, and the lady said to me at the rental car company, "When will you bring this back?" I said, "Tomorrow," and then I kept it for six months. And I was driving through Sweden, and I pulled into a little town called Clippon, and it was a Shell gas station, a young boy came out, probably about 18, he saw the pilot's uniform hanging in the back, and he said, "Oh, you're a pilot." And he spoke great English. I said, "Yeah," so I started talking to him. He said, "Where are you going?" I said, "I'm going to Stockholm." Well, we got into conversation, he changed the oil in the car for me, and he said, "Why don't you come home to my house for dinner?" I said, "Well how will your parents feel about that?" "Oh no, they're, they'd be fine, they'd love to have you." And [00:22:04] I kept thinking to myself, I'm his age, but he thinks I'm 28 or so, and I'm actually his age. So I went home and ended up staying at his home for about 3 or 4 days and went out, he introduced me to a girl, and I went out to a dance with them. And then one evening I was out in the Fiat and got in a car accident and the Fiat was destroyed. So the next day I asked him, um, do you know any car dealerships, and he said, yes, so my family is friends with the man who owns the Volvo dealership. So I said, well I may have to get a new car. So he took me by and I asked a Volvo dealer if I mind, if I could take it for a spin and try it out and of course, I was friends with the family, so he said, absolutely. And I got in the car and that car ended up back down in France, which six months later then they had to come back and get it. I think when you do those things it's all about one day to another day. You're just living day to day and you're saying, how am I going to survive the next day, and you don't really think about, and it's very bad, but you don't really think about well, what's this do to the people that you know, you trusted [00:23:05] you, you took this car, you stole this car from this man. It's all about you and you know, what am I going to do to help me move on along? And, and there isn't this real conscious involved, and I think when I look back on it, that's what was so scary that you would do that. And what I have found is that a lot of times back when I look back at people who were interviewed after having met me and, and whether I was posing as a pilot or the doctor, you know, I'd say, well you know, those people kind of talked really badly about me, and yet I really never did anything to them. I didn't really steal anything from them. On the contrary, I gave them a lot of things. Took them to a lot of dinners, gave them gifts, uh, but then I realized that people are much more about they were deceived. It wasn't that you didn't steal anything from them, they believed you to be somebody you weren't. They thought you were their friend, and you actually weren't their friend, and they're more upset about being deceived than if you had stolen $500 from them. So, I think there's a lot to [00:24:06] this guy's story that he's just going along in life from scam to scam, day to day, this is what he knows how to do, and he doesn't have any emotional attachment to the people he's stealing from. He just thinks, how's this get me through another day, and he only cares about, about himself, and unfortunately, at a very young age, I was that way and uh I was able to change my life, otherwise I would have ended up living the rest of my life that way.

[00:24:30] Will Johnson: Alright, Frank, uh we will return to the story of Jeff Caldwell next week and find out what happens and what Melissa does as uh things are clearly taking a turn for the worst. The AARP Fraud Watch Network Ambassador Frank Abagnale, thanks again for being here. We'll talk to you next week.

[00:24:45] Frank Abagnale: Thank you, Will.

[00:24:45] Will Johnson: For more information and resources on how to protect yourself or a loved one from becoming a victim of a scam, you can visit AARP's Fraud Watch Network Website,, and as always, thanks to my team of scam busters here at AARP; Julie Getz, Brook Ellis, Julio Gonzales, and Steve Bartlett. For AARP - The Perfect Scam, I'm Will Johnson.


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