Valerie, a 90-year-old retiree, believes she’s won the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes. She’s handed over tens of thousands of dollars to scammers in order to collect a prize that doesn’t exist. No matter how her daughters try, they can’t convince their mother she’s being scammed. With the stress from the scam damaging Valerie’s health, her daughters take drastic measures.
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 877-908-3360. Anyone 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.
[00:00:01] Will: Coming up on this episode of AARP: The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:04] Kitty: It’s beyond my, my wildest dreams how anybody could just take advantage of, of people, sweet people. But they’re out there.
[00:00:14] Will: Welcome back to AARP: The Perfect Scam, and our two-part episode about Valerie in Florida. If you haven’t listened to part 1 of Valerie’s story, do that now. I’m Will Johnson, and I’m here with the AARP Fraud Watch Network Ambassador Frank Abagnale. Frank.
[00:00:29] Frank Abagnale: Great to be here.
[00:00:30] Will: Good to have you here. You know, after 42 years with the FBI, it’s 42 now, right?
[00:00:35] Frank Abagnale: Yes.
[00:00:35] Will: I feel like you’ve more than made up for any harm you might have caused.
[00:00:39] Frank Abagnale: I appreciate that.
[00:00:40] Will: I, I would assume you feel the same way.
[00:00:42] Frank Abagnale: Uh, it’s still a, it’s still a burden, because unfortunately there are people who uh never let you forget what you did. You have to deal with a lot of comments, you have to deal with a lot of emails that people write and blaming you for something you did 50 years ago. Uh, but I think as long as in your own mind you know what you’ve done with your life and what you’re trying to do with your life uh you just keep down that, that road. There’s always going to be, you know haters love to hate, so there’s always going to be people who resent, resent you for what you did, even though it was 50 years ago, when I was a teenager. Uh, so it’s still, it’s still somewhat of a burden that you live with and have to carry, but you understand that, you know, you did that and that’s something you just have to live with the rest of your life.
[00:01:24] Will: Yeah, I mean, we’ve talked about your motivation was survival to start, and it was a lot of big banking institutions, uh it wasn’t necessarily... and, and it started to enter your mind along the way, well maybe this is somebody who works there that might, you know, that works at a bank and maybe I’m getting them in trouble.
[00:01:42] Frank Abagnale: Exactly.
[00:01:43] Will: But any big scams, frauds, security issues you’re working on you can share with us today before we get back to Valerie’s story?
[00:01:51] Frank Abagnale: Uh, the, the newest scam going on right now is where uh they get ahold of your credit card number, and then the next thing you know, you get a statement on your credit card and it says that there’s a charge from X-Y-Z Company of $100 on your credit card. So, you think to yourself, well I don’t know anything about an X-Y-Z Company, so you call the credit card company and the credit card company tells you, you’ll have to call the merchant who posted that charge, and either they usually put their phone number next to the charge on your statement, or their, or their company will tell you, the credit card company will tell you this is the number we have for them. Then when you call them, they go, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Maybe there was a mistake, but in order for me to look into this, I’ll need some background information on you. What’s your Social Security number? What’s your bank account number? What’s your date of birth?” And it’s really a matter of getting [00:02:44] all that information from you just to scam you again. And what they do is they set themselves up as a legitimate merchant, which is not difficult to do. I can go to MasterCard, VISA tomorrow, American Express, set myself up as a merchant on the internet or whatever where I can accept their credit cards to whatever I’m selling. Maybe I’m selling blocks over the internet and I want to get, be able to get people to charge on the internet. So they set themselves up as merchants, and then they, they do that, but the whole purpose of it is to get information from you.
[00:03:12] Will: Well, so first of all, we have a colleague we’re going to hear from in one of our upcoming episodes. This happened to her. Uh, but I appreciate your bringing it up because it is one that’s out there. You just look at your bank account, or you look at your information, you call that number. And then I have a confession, so I, I’ve been really careful since we started doing this show. I live my life in fear, uh basically. Actually I want to talk about that at some point about how to sort of stay sane and also be very suspicious of everything. Uh, but so I had a, a charge, an ongoing charge on my credit card and I called, you know what I did. I looked up the company, very legitimate, well-known national company. I looked them up online and went to their website. I think I did things right here. I feel like this is stopping and verifying to some extent, and I had an online chat with them and I said, well, you know, there’s these charges and they said this, well to look into this we need to know your banking information. So I provided that on the chat. I started to say, no, I’m not going to do this right now, I’m not going to do it, and they said, you know we do this every day, all the time. So I provided some check information online, [00:04:13] and I’m, and I’m still feeling guilty about that. Eventually they said, we don’t have any charges from our, from our account there. So it was somebody else doing this under their name. So maybe I did the right thing, I don’t know. I feel like this...
[00:02:55] Frank Abagnale: No, I think you did the right thing. Again, the catch there would have been that you looked up to make sure this was a legitimate company before you ever made that phone call.
[00:04:33] Will: Alright, I feel better then. Thank you for letting me make that confession.
[00:04:36] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, absolutely.
[00:04:38] Will: Alright, so look out for that one, folks. In the meantime, we are now going to return to the story of Valerie, you’ll recall last week her, her daughters were very concerned about what was going on. They were paying visits to their 92-year-old mother in Florida, getting a picture of how much money she was mailing off to scammers. They also were realizing that their mother wasn’t sharing much information. Alison, known as Babba by her sisters, living in Maine, and Abbie in New York decided, here’s what they did, they decided that a surveillance camera was the only way to get a real picture of what was going on when they were not around.
[00:05:11] Alison: We went to um, Best Buy and we got a spy camera and we um, set it up and were able to like, when we had to leave, we were able to listen to the conversations that she would have with the scammers. I mean I'd watch her from the time I, I woke up in the morning until the time, you know, she would go to bed at night.
[00:05:27] Will: It must have been an odd feeling to go that far.
[00:05:30] Alison: It was a very odd feeling to go that far, and I felt like a criminal almost doing it, but it felt like we really didn’t have a choice, and they would call her constantly, like 5, 6, 7 times a day, all night, sometimes at 12 at night, um, telling her that they, they’d keep her on the phone for a long time and they’d tell her that they loved her and they would you know, they got really familiar with her. I couldn’t really exactly hear what they were saying to her because I could just hear her responses most of the time. At one point she'd talk to them or a couple of times she would say, “My daughters are telling me that this is one big scam. You're scamming me horribly and I, you have to stop. I can't give you any more money,” and by the end of the phone call, she'd be like, “Okay, okay, I will. I will. I love you, bye.” She was so anxious all the time, and she would go either sit on the couch like, just like looking really nervous and upset all the time.
[00:06:25] Will: To watch that must have just bizarre.
[00:06:27] Alison: It was bizarre. It was horrible.
[00:06:28] Abbie: The other thing that Babba caught on the camera which Alison and I were able to track down and stop is she was, they told her to go to a Quickie Loan place and...
[00:06:39] Alison: An hour and a half drive away.
[00:06:40] Abbie: Yeah, an hour and a half drive away, a remote place in Florida. She, Alison overheard the name of it kind of, so then we went on the internet and we researched it and we called all the places that sounded like that, and we got through and we talked to one of them, and we were like, if you let this loan go through, you're going to be in so much trouble. We're going to be all, you know, it's illegal, dah, dah, dah, dah, she's being scammed and um, they were like, got us on the phone with the manager and we had to talk about it again and then finally you know, they agreed to stop it. And she had to drive all the way there and find out, you know that she wasn't going to get it, and...
[00:07:13] Alison: I heard the phone conversation when she got back from that with the scammer, cause they called her and... “Now, did you get the money?” And she's like, “No, they wouldn't give it to me,” and they were like, “Well go back and try again,” and she's like, "No, I'm not driving all, all the way over there. That almost killed me. I'm not going to do it. I'm just not going to do it.”
[00:07:29] Will: In Rhode Island, Valerie’s daughter, Kitty, agrees the camera exposed how ugly things were getting.
[00:07:33] Kitty: It did kind of probably give us an idea of how, what we’re dealing with and how, how hard this is going to be to break.
[00:07:45] Will: In the meantime, Alison in Maine, spending her days watching her mother and hearing at least one side of the conversation. The sisters were also doing what they could to track down the scammers on their own. Abbie.
[00:07:55] Abbie: The incoming calls, a lot of the incoming calls um, were 000-000-0000. But I have three numbers that were incoming calls. So I, I called the ones that she called too, and the ones that called her and people answered. Like I called two of them and they answered the phone, and they started soliciting me for Publisher’s Clearing House. We said stuff like you know, “We’re onto you.”
[00:08:20] At what point did your mom know what was going on was a scam? Did she ever completely get through to that?
[00:08:27] Alison: I don’t think so. I mean I think, you know, sometimes she’d be like, oh yeah, I’m being scammed, but I don’t think she totally, totally believed it was.
[00:08:38] Will: How much money in total do you think she sent off?
[00:08:41] Alison: I would say close to $100,000.
[00:08:43] Will: Eventually, you tried to reach out to authorities or along the way you did. Tell us about that and, and what help you did or did not get.
[00:08:51] Alison: Well, we went to the sheriff’s department in Venice first and they um, first of all they said there’s nothing they can do, because you know, she has to claim that she’s a victim and she’s not claiming it, so they can’t really do anything.
[00:09:03] Abbie: We called all the other agencies cause we were recommended to other things as well, you know, called these like non-for-profit things, but, you know, people wouldn’t call us back or there, there just wasn’t any readily available things that, I mean unless like they, one called Mom and tried to talk to her, but she’s not listening to us, she’s not listening to anybody.
[00:09:24] Will: Believe it or not, there’s another weird twist to the story. From what Abbie and Alison were able to get out of their mother, it appears that at some point the scammers, at least one of them, possibly came to her in person, this time not with a briefcase full of prizes and promises, but as an FBI agent.
[00:09:40] Abbie: And when my mother was not, you know understand--, like kind of doubting that it might be, you know true that, you know, I mean she’s kind of thinking possibly it was a scam, it sounded like, to me, when she told me, it was someone came there who was an FBI agent, she said, and told her that it wasn’t a scam, and she believed them. And that seems like completely crazy, but I think, yeah, she was so far, like she wanted to believe it so much.
[00:10:08] Will: Valerie’s daughter, Kitty, says her visit in January was shocking to see her mother doing so poorly, but then she seems to start to improve.
[00:10:15] Kitty: Now, in March, when I went down alone, that’s when, you know, she had reached a realization that this may not be what she thinks it is. And I kept saying, I, I sat with her, and I said, “Mom, you’re alive, you can come back from this. It’s only money, you know, you have your health.” By the end of that wonderful visit she was herself. Her health was better, I mean she wasn’t jumping up and down, but she was a lot more herself. She was driving. She had energy, we’d go to the beach, we would do things. We went shopping, you know, she was back to her old self, so you know I thought by the time I left in March, she was going to, she was going to bounce back. She was going to be fine. I, I was clear that she was, she was over the hump, and don’t worry about a thing, you know, you can live your life.
[00:11:07] Will: Sadly though, Valerie seems to give out soon after Kitty’s visit.
[00:11:11] Kitty: My sent out a video of her basically bed, you know, be--, bed bound, you know, she just couldn’t move. When I saw that video, I was like, “Who’s that old man?” She had no hair. She couldn’t, you know, walk, and I, and then I realized it was my mother. I, I had, you know, and it, it just, it was like, I don’t know what happened.
[00:11:36] So here’s this woman who 12 months ago, less than a year ago was healthy, happy, doing well, going out with friends, she was part of a book club, and her daughters are now seeing her completely different. She, she’s not going out. She is not seeing friends. She’s not doing the book club. Things have changed dramatically for Valerie. Kitty has no doubt in her mind that the scam is to blame for her mother’s sudden decline.
[00:12:03] Kitty: They killed her. They killed her. She had no other, she had, she was not sick. She had no other physical um, you know, issues. I, I always joked and said, “You’re in better shape than I am,” cause I had hip issues.
[00:12:16] Will: There was something about this psychological torment that just got inside her and, and wouldn’t let go.
[00:12:23] Kitty: Right.
[00:12:24] Will: Yeah.
[00:12:24] Kitty: Stress does kill you. It’s a, that’s no secret. And you know she was under a lot of stress and I think the stress really did start when the prize never came. Where’s that prize? You promised me it was going to come. It was supposed to come last month. What about oh, it’s going to come this month? Oh, you’ve got to pay more. Well where is that prize? It’s supposed to come. And this probably went on for six months. Oh, now you’ve got to pay this. It’s, it’s really, they killed my mother. I mean they, plain and simple. I have no, no doubt in my mind.
[00:13:00] Will: If you had any ability to say something to the guy or people on the other end of that phone line, what would that be?
[00:13:05] Kitty: Oh, (laugh) I mean, you know burn in hell. I, I don’t know what sort of human being could ever do that. They’re just monsters. It’s just, it’s beyond my, my wildest dreams how anybody could just take advantage of, of people, sweet people that they tell over and over, “I love you.” You know I, I don’t know what sort of mon--, but they’re out there. They’re out there and they’re, they’re out there plenty of, in droves.
[00:13:31] Will: And your mother from what I’ve learned this afternoon and from reading your story, her story is, sounds like a remarkable woman. I’m sorry the last chapter had to be like that.
[00:13:41] Kitty: I know. It’s really, yeah, I mean the only thing, you know hopefully this will avoid somebody else, you know, from getting it. Cause it is so sad. Anyway. (crying) I mean she was a fabulous, she was talented, she was creative, she was so many other things, and to treat her like, you know, some sort of cash cow, you know, is just, just unimaginable, you know?
[00:14:17] Will: Was she, was she wiped out by the scammer?
[00:14:21] Alison: She would have been, cause they were talking about taking, having her go into the trust and she’s like, “No, no, I’m not going into the trust.”
[00:14:26] Will: And scammer, you, you said in terms of talking to investigators or the sheriff’s office, no one was able to really give you a lot of help.
[00:14:34] Abbie: No one tried. No one even called the scammers. I gave them the phone numbers. I gave everybody the phone numbers, you know, I, nobody except Alison and I, tried to track these people down and figure out who they were. And they’re doing it to more people right now. I’m sure, you know? And I, I mean we have addresses, we have phone numbers, we have so much that could be used to try to figure out the scam, and nobody was interested.
[00:15:05] Will: It sounds like you all did between all of you, you did probably as much as anyone could have done. But I’m sure it still, it’s hard to think about and do you ever wonder, like what more you could have done?
[00:15:18] Alison: What we could have done is been done there with her all the time. I think, that’s what we could have done, but we weren’t.
[00:15:24] Abbie: Yeah.
[00:15:24] Will: But literally putting your life on hold to just...
[00:15:26] Alison: Yeah, putting your life on hold, yeah.
[00:15:29] Will: I’m struck by going through the timeline how this started in September...
[00:15:32] Abbie: And she died the following year, I know. Yeah.
[00:15:37] Will: Thank you so much for talking to us.
[00:15:39] Alison: Thank you. No, really, it was good.
[00:15:42] Will: So Frank, certainly there’s no hard evidence that we can prove or disprove that, that she died because of these scammers, but Kitty makes a pretty good point that the stress and all that was going on in her life might have, might have, well she believes it did her in.
[00:16:00] Frank Abagnale: Well, and I believe it, too. I believe Kitty’s right that that drained uh, the life out of her. You know, um, on Monday night, on behalf of the FBI I spoke to all the sheriffs in South Carolina at their annual association meeting. There were probably 47 county sheriffs there. And when I went to Q&A in the presentation, the first question was, “What can we do about these people that are out of the country scamming and defrauding people and they get there in Jamaica or Russia, China,” and I had to say to them, “Absolutely nothing.” You know, we’re kind of powerless. The fact that crime now is so global, and the fact that communications like telephones and internet allow you to commit these crimes from millions of miles away, um, makes it almost impossible. And then there is the, the concept that there is so much of it that as in the law enforcement side, you then have to decide who do I go after? Do I go after the guys scamming somebody out of $100,000 or do I go after the gang that’s scamming millions of dollars? So, I think there’s some, there is some efforts going on [00:17:00]. So I spoke a, a few months ago for the uh association of State Attorney Generals. They have a fellowship program they started, and twice a year they bring attorney generals in from countries all over the world. They come for five days to Washington DC. I made a presentation to them. They were from Brazil, France, Australia, and the purpose of that is they’re trying to say, if I’m the attorney general in Maryland, and I have this scam in Jamaica, who do I call? So if I want to get involved, and I want to do something about this, what’s my connection in Jamaica? Who am I able to speak to? So it allows these people to meet each other, form a relationship, get to know each other, to network together, so when that comes up, now I know the attorney general in Brazil, cause I met him at this fellowship program, and I can call him and say, look, this is going on, we know it’s coming out of Jamaica, can you at least look into this? So I think there’s a little more of that going on. The other thing I’d say is remember that she [00:18:00] was just one of many victims. They don’t work just one case and then devote all their time to just Kitty’s mom. There were hundreds of Kitty’s moms they were working on at the same time. And yes, it’s a scripted, this is entirely scripted. They learn to do this, they follow the script. They don’t adlib. They follow a script, so when you start to say, you know, I think I’m being scammed, people are telling me you’re scamming me, and they start to get suspicious...
[00:18:26] Will: They just follow a script where they need to...
[00:18:28] Frank Abagnale: Right, they jump down to the script, call their associate in the US, tell them to go, who’s done it several times, poses as the FBI agent, poses as a policeman, go confirm this. So that’s all part of the, these people all work together and part of the scam. And finally, you know, as I’ve, you’ve heard me mention many times, anybody can be scammed including myself. There’s nothing to be ashamed of if you’re scammed. Anybody can be scammed. The smartest people on Wall Street, the smartest investment bankers have been scammed. So, if you’re scammed, the point is to not let it happen to somebody else. Tell somebody, share that with somebody, and that’s so great that these ladies came forward to tell us this so other people can actually hear the story of someone who’s really been victimized and has gone to the extent to where it really cost them their life, not just their uh money. And that’s, that’s just totally a shame.
[00:19:18] Will: I was so struck by that, the comment from this, the daughters about how they were saying, I mean, and this is certainly common I, I would guess, uh, they were saying, “I love you.” And she was saying that back. They could hear, at least hear her side of that conversation.
[00:19:31] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, because they, they, well they want to form a relationship. It’s not just the business transaction; you won the Publisher’s Sweep--, Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, it’s more about getting to know you and then becoming your friend and then saying, you know, we really care about you. We have a personal interest in you. And it’s amazing to me that you, you want to say to people, you’ve never met these people. You don’t really know who they are. So I don’t know why you’re falling for this spell, or coming under this spell from them, but you can see where people, again, that are alone, uh sometimes end up falling for these things, and these people know how to manipulate people. It’s what they do for a living.
[00:20:08] Will: They must take very, like I mean seriously, take very careful notes about each person they talk to, so they can come back again and again.
[00:20:14] Frank Abagnale: Each person, absolutely. And it’s all, you know, all in a playbook, all done as a, to them, it’s the way they do it. And again, when you say, well how can people like this do this? Yes, it’s horrible, but keep in mind that the whole purpose of the phone and the internet is there is no emotion involved. They’ve never met the person, they don’t know the person, they’re speaking to an instrument, or they’re on a computer. And this makes it a lot easier for the criminal side of it, who looks at it like, I don’t know this person from Adam. I don’t know really what they look like, who they are. There’s no emotional involvement, or maybe eventually the person goes, you know, I really feel bad about scamming this person. That’s gone because it’s not like in the old days where for a con to work, had to be one on one. I had to be conning you. So I may have gotten into an emotional relationship with you as you became a friend of mine. I’d say, you know, I really hate doing this. This guy’s a really nice guy. He’s a decent guy. That’s all gone because of the internet and communications.
[00:21:05] Will: Our show is not really about how to inform or advise family members to go about uh, or at least one method could be surveilling a family member, and I don’t know if I really would want to go there, but they, they did that, and they felt like it was a necessary step in order to know just how deep their mother was in this scam.
[00:21:26] Frank Abagnale: And I, and I felt that they did the right thing. I know that would be very hard to do, but I would not hesitate a moment to go hire a private investigator or somebody to find something out if I thought one of my family members was being scammed and they, they wouldn’t, I couldn’t convince them that they were. I’d, I’d want to bring evidence that, that I could substantiate that, that they were.
[00:21:47] Will: Abbie the, the daughter in New York talks about having addresses and phone numbers and there was not much they could do about that. You talked about talking to this uh, sheriff’s, that’s right.
[00:21:55] Frank Abagnale: Sheriffs Association.
[00:21:57] Will: The phone numbers and addresses are probably not going to ever do anybody any good.
[00:22:00] Frank Abagnale: No, and it is very frustrating to law enforcement. They hear these stories all the time, but they realize, here I am, a sheriff in South Carolina. These people are in Jamaica. What can I do? You know, so even if I get on a plane and go to Jamaica, I’m not going to be able to arrest them, and then I have to try to convince the authorities over there to do so. It’s a very frustrating thing. And this is why, as you’ve heard me say before, you cannot rely on the police, you cannot rely on the government. You cannot rely on your bank. You have to be a little smarter today, a little wiser today than you did 50 years ago. You have to think these things through and seek advice from someone you trust if you think something is going wrong, or someone’s trying to scam you out of your money?
[00:22:43] Will: If the bad guys are the ones using technology to get away with crime and getting better at it, doesn’t law enforcement have to use technology to fight back?
[00:22:53] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, and we do, they do use a lot of technology to fight back, but like this, the phone calls, you know, we do a lot of things where we allow people to buy blocks of numbers. We allow people to have phones that you can’t really trace where they’re coming from, throwaway phones, so we as an establishment, we basically allow some of these things to occur because we’re not controlling those things.
[00:23:15] Will: Right, and as sophisticated as some forms of technology may be for scammers, it also comes back just to being a good con man sometimes.
[00:23:25] Frank Abagnale: Being a good con man and it comes back to like I said when, you know, there’s, when you see those red flags, if you could just learn to say to yourself, you know, the red flags are just two, so that I’m either going to at some point ask you to send me money...
[00:23:40] Will: One. That’s one.
[00:23:41] Frank Abagnale: Right, or two, it’s going to be, I’m going to ask you information. What’s your Social Security number, what’s your bank account number, what’s your date--...
[00:23:48] Will: Right.
[00:23:48] Frank Abagnale: And if you just say to yourself, okay, the minute that happens, I’m hanging up the phone.
[00:23:53] Will: Stamp that on your, on your hand or something.
[00:23:54] Frank Abagnale: Exactly.
[00:23:55] Will: Yeah. Alright, great advice. I want to thank the, the daughters who, who spoke, Valerie’s daughters for telling us their story. They, in fact, reached out to us after they heard an earlier episode that we did, and wanted to tell the story. Obviously very emotional, and uh difficult to hear, but an important one for, I think, our audience.
[00:24:12] Frank Abagnale: Absolutely.
[00:24:14] Will: Alright, AARP Fraud... the AARP Fraud Watch Network Ambassador Frank Abagnale, thanks, we’ll be talking to you next week. If you or someone you know has been a victim of a scam, please call AARP’s Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Again, that’s 877-908-3360. For AARP: The Perfect Scam, I’m Will Johnson. Join us again next week.
END OF TRANSCRIPT
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