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Widower Loses Life Savings in a Romance Scam

He opened his heart and checkbook, losing several million to a con artist

Episode 49 of The Perfect Scam - The Two Million Dollar Romance Scam

AARP

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New Yorker Jerry Needleman was married for over 40 years when his wife passed away in 2008. The devoted couple never had children, and now in his 80s, Jerry settled into a quiet life alone as a widower. Meanwhile in Florida, a woman named Sylvia is pursuing a relationship with a retiree. The man has spent thousands of dollars on his much-younger girlfriend. When they become engaged, the man’s son steps in. In 2012, the family successfully sues Sylvia for fraud. One year later, Jerry is out for his daily walk when he comes across a distraught woman crying on a park bench. The woman is Sylvia. Jerry stops to see if she is OK, unknowingly embarking on what will be a four-year ordeal that includes a marriage, a divorce, a second marriage and annulment — and nearly $2 million lost to a romance scam.

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.

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[00:00:02] Julie: This week on AARP's The Perfect Scam.

[00:00:05] She pretended to love me. The whole purpose is to get my money. My judgment was terrible, but judgment is not criminal. What she did was criminal.

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[00:00:18] Julie: Welcome back to AARP's The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Julie Getz, and for those of you who are joining us for the first time, I'd like to introduce my co-host, Frank Abagnale. Frank, thanks for being here.

[00:00:30] Frank Abagnale: Hi, Julie, great to be with you today.

[00:00:32] Julie: Frank, our topic this week is sweetheart scams. We've talked about them before, but there always seems to be another story of someone who falls victim to one. Now one thing we've learned while doing this show is that this type of scam really resonates with our listeners, whether it's because they themselves have been victimized, or a family member, or someone they work with that went looking for romance, hoping to be swept off their feet, but instead found themselves wrapped in a scam. Earlier this year, the FTC reported that romance scams ranked number one on total reported losses, and just to unpack that a little bit further, the number of romance scams reports more than doubled, and reported losses increased more than fourfold, from 2015 to 2018. Frank, why is this scam such a lucrative business?

[00:01:19] Frank Abagnale: Well first of all, I think it's easy for people to find some people that are lonely, and they're looking for companionship, and they're very easy to get to know those people, on the internet, over the telephone, and these type of romance scams work for a long, long time. You know, people say, well, you know, I, before I ever sent any money, I was talking on the phone and visiting all the time, almost nightly, and emails back and forth for over a year. Well that's because he had 20 different people he was scamming at the same time. It wasn't you he was devoting one year of his time to the romance scam. He had 20 different people, and then he has on his computer everything he said to you the last time he spoke to you, and then he has, oh, this person over here, so he's just getting back on script, and knows where he left off with you, and you think he's, everything's devoted to you, but it was always at some point that's that red flag again that's going to come up and at some point he's going to, money's going to come up, and ask you for money.

[00:02:20] Julie: We all want to be loved, so taking advantage of that vulnerability in someone is just, it's awful.

[00:02:26] Frank Abagnale: It's devastating.

[00:02:27] Julie: So I guess it would be safe to say that pretty much anyone can fall victim to the sweetheart scam. Thanks, Frank, and let's talk more after we hear this week's story.

[00:02:35] Frank Abagnale: Right, thanks, Julie.

[00:02:36] Julie: This week we're talking to Jerry, a retired builder who lives in Manhattan's Upper East Side. Although Jerry was married to the love of his life for over 40 years, his wife passed on several years ago. They never had any children and he now lives alone.

(telephone ring)

[00:02:53] Jerry Needleman: Ya, hello.

[00:02:54] Julie: Hi Jerry, this is Julie Getz from AARP. How are you?

[00:02:57] Jerry Needleman: Oh yes, I'm fine, thank you, and you?

[00:03:00] Julie: I'm well, thank you. Have you had a good morning so far?

[00:03:03] Jerry Needleman: Yes, everything is, everything is going well.

[00:03:05] Julie: Right now Jerry is 91. But this story begins seven years ago when he was a youthful 84. He's just gone out on his daily walk when he comes across a woman sitting on a park bench. She's extremely distraught.

[00:03:19] Jerry Needleman: I was walking from my house to Central Park on a nice sunny day, and she stopped me on the street.

[00:03:25] Julie: The woman introduces herself as Sylvia Anderson. She confides through her tears that she's at the end of her rope.

[00:03:31] Jerry Needleman: She had just left her husband that used to beat her. She had two young teenaged children. She was broke, sleeping on the floor, and she was going to look for a place, an apartment to live in, and uh asked me to help her look for it.

[00:03:46] Julie: Out of all the people in Manhattan, Sylvia's picked the right person to ask. Jerry isn't the kind of guy to leave a woman crying on the street, even if she's a perfect stranger.

[00:03:57] Jerry Needleman: I've helped people all my life. I had a sister that I cared for throughout her life. She was an artist. Her father died very young and I took care of my mother. I've taken care of other people. This is my nature. I just wanted to help her, she sounded like she needed help, and I didn't think beyond that. I helped her find an apartment, and I had to guarantee the rent and also pay the rent, where she didn't have it.

[00:04:23] Julie: A week or so after the two of them meet, Sylvia settled into a new apartment, just a mile away from Jerry. He checks in on her regularly and he's astonished that the 38-year-old woman seems to know so little about the modern world.

[00:04:38] Jerry Needleman: She was entirely different than everything I was ever familiar with. If I would talk to her about something she didn't know, she would get very excited. I once showed her a map of the world, I laid it out on a table. She didn't know what she was looking at.

[00:04:53] Julie: Sylvia might not know how to read a map, but she does know how to read Jerry. It isn't long before she starts asking him for favors, and Jerry's only too willing to give.

[00:05:04] Jerry Needleman: She and her son would buy used vans, fix them and, and resell them. So I loaned them money for that purpose so they could buy, fix up, and resell vans. She said that there were some jewels that her grandfather left for her, it was diamonds and rubies and gold and platinum and her husband had pawned it, and uh, the pawn shop insisted that she redeem it, or they were going to sell it, and she said she couldn't bear the thought of not, not owning that, that was left to her by her grandfather, and she pleaded with me to give her money to get it out of the pawn shop. I said, how much is that? $86,000.

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[00:05:47] Julie: For most people, $86,000 is a pretty big ask, especially when you barely know them, but Jerry Needleman has extremely deep and generous pockets, built from a lifetime of frugal living.

[00:06:01] Jerry Needleman: As a young man, I had no money. When I became successful, I lived modestly. I had 2½ million dollars when I met her. I couldn't have spent 2½ million dollars the way I live, no matter how long I live.

[00:06:13] Julie: Over the next two years, Jerry opens his checkbook to whatever Sylvia wants; $60,000 for a dowry for her son, paid three times after each relationship breaks up, $50,000 for a daughter who's having custody issues, expensive clothes, furniture, jewelry, phones, trips, all for Sylvia herself. His reward, Sylvia's enthusiastic gratitude which gradually turns into more.

[00:06:41] Jerry Needleman: Well, at some point she began to express her, her love for me. I guess what I was doing for her, uh both verbally and in writing. She expressed her great love, eternal love that she would, when I died, she'd jump in a box. She often said that. And I can show you greeting cards and writings that she undertook, promises eternal love, care.

[00:07:06] Julie: Sylvia never gets tired of asking for more. Jerry is happy to give. Two years after they meet in the park, Sylvia makes her biggest request yet.

[00:07:16] Jerry Needleman: At some point she pleaded with me for me to marry her. I said, Sylvia, I'm not interested in marriage. I didn't find her attractive, certainly there was no romantic interest, nor at 85, I was not looking for a hot young dame.

[00:07:30] Julie: But Sylvia's pleas are convincing and earnest, and little by little Jerry begins to wonder if after all these years of giving to others, it may finally be his turn to get something back.

[00:07:41] Jerry Needleman: The fact is, I was growing old, growing frail, and I didn't want to end up in a nursing home. I wanted somebody who had a desire to take care of me because of what I've done for them. Not just paid attendants. And I thought if I took care of her and the children, she would keep her promises and take care of me in old age. So after all that pressure, I finally gave in.

[00:08:08] Julie: On September 8th, 2015, Jerry takes Sylvia to the New York City Clerk's Office. The ceremony is short and sweet, but the marriage itself soon turns out to be a bitter pill to swallow.

[00:08:21] Jerry Needleman: We had sex twice before we got married, when she talked me into it. After we got married, we never had sex, never, never. She would stay up until 3 in the morning. Sometimes she went out and didn't come home until 3 in the morning if she came home. Never made breakfast for me. Very rarely cooked dinner.

[00:08:40] Julie: This isn't the marriage that Jerry hoped for. His 40-year marriage to his late wife, Giddy, had its ups and down, but it wasn't anything like this. Sylvia's moods are unpredictable and unnerving. Even worse, it seems that she's gotten back together with her ex-husband and cheating with him on the side.

[00:08:58] Jerry Needleman: Very short after she married me, she moved down to Bowie, Maryland, for a year, for the purpose, stated purpose of getting her son married. And she posted, I think two weeks after she left me, posted on Instagram a photograph of her and her husband celebrating their happy 23rd wedding anniversary. So she was living with me very, very little.

[00:09:25] Julie: The tiring drama goes on for months. The arguments, the pleading, the reconciliation. But now that he's gotten himself into this mess, Jerry can't seem to find anyone to help him find his way out.

[00:09:37] Jerry Needleman: All my relatives had died. All the good friends, three of them, all died in one year. I really didn't have friends. I had some acquaintances. And well, they thought I was nuts. I mean those, those that knew my first wife couldn't understand how I could put up with someone like this compared to the woman that I had.

[00:09:59] Julie: Nearly two years into the marriage, Jerry decides that he's had enough. He files for divorce, and finally (audio cuts out) that gets Sylvia's attention.

[00:10:10] Jerry Needleman: She pleaded with me to remarry her, promised that everything that was wrong with the first marriage she would, would correct. She said she would take care of me; it's what I wanted to start with. Well we remarried, six days later I filed for annulment. She was lying again. She moved out of here the end of the first week in November 2017. She fled in anger. I never saw her again after that.

[00:10:40] Julie: Nearly four long confusing years after Jerry Needleman meets Sylvia Anderson on a park bench near Central Park, the cold, hard truth of their relationship hits him like a ton of bricks.

[00:10:52] Jerry Needleman: She pretended to love me. The whole purpose is to get my money. My judgment was terrible, I don't, I don't question that. But judgment is not criminal. What she did was criminal.

[00:11:07] Julie: When Jerry realized that he'd fallen victim to the scam, he started looking for help. Enter Bob Nygaard, a bulky ex-cop who's now a private investigator. His specialty, investigating fraud, especially sweetheart scams.

[00:11:23] Bob Nygaard: A lot of times I get called, and it's from a family member, a son or a daughter who are, you know, say in the Midwest and they're calling me about their elderly father in Florida, and they say, and "Hey Bob, you know, we have a problem," and I say, "What's going on?" And they say, "Oh, well, you know, my father just told me he's getting married." And I say, "Well, what's so bad about that?" And they said, "Well Bob, he's 80 and she's 25." So then I end up going over there and finding out that the old man was just, you know, accosted in a public place, and you know, he's all alone, and he's sitting there looking at a TV set every day, um, you know, eating a frozen dinner, and uh with nobody uh watching after him or taking care of him, and the next thing you know, he's got this young woman saying, "Hey, I want to come over and cook you a hot meal," and then she's sitting on his lap, she's rubbing his leg, she's got the two little kids with her, she's taking him out to lunch. Within a week she's taking him out to dinner. The next thing you know, they're at a car dealership and she's getting him to, to lease a car for her, and the next thing you know, she's getting him to change his will, so she owns his million dollar apartment.

[00:12:26] Julie: So Bob, when Jerry hired you to help him and to start looking into Sylvia's background, what did you find out?

[00:12:32] Bob Nygaard: Sylvia Anderson, she had previously had a civil suit filed against her in Massachusetts in 2011, where she had scammed an old man out of a lot of money. She met him out of the blue, and she told him that she was homeless and that she had two teenaged children and she was fleeing an abusive relationship. So she used the same story on an--, on another old man, back in 2011.

[00:12:57] Julie: But that's not all the investigation uncovers. Nygaard finds that Sylvia has a sister, and that she targeted Jerry first.

[00:13:06] Bob Nygaard: The sister, who is known as Sandra Cooter Anderson, who has been arrested in the past for sweetheart swindles, had approached him first, and then he had written two checks for $10,000 to her but had cancelled them and then uh, you know, when that didn't work out, uh next thing you know, within two weeks, uh he meets a, a young attractive woman on a corner and it happens to be the sister of Sandra Cooter Anderson who is Sylvia Anderson, aka Sophia Anderson, and she came at him with a different approach.

[00:13:38] Julie: For those of us that don't really know that much about how sweetheart swindler scams work, is that normal? Is that typical to work as a team?

[00:13:45] Bob Nygaard: It's not typical to work as a team, no.

[00:13:47] Julie: So, Bob, another thing that's not typical was that you were actually able to get testimony from Sylvia's family to back up Jerry's account. Can you tell me about that?

[00:13:56] Bob Nygaard: The family of the alleged sweetheart swindler, Sylvia, were willing to come forward, which is very rare in one of these cases where family members of the, of the suspect will actually agree to cooperate. But in this case, Sylvia, she had left the gypsy husband for another man, and uh, there was a whole chain of events that occurred between the son and the, and the husband, and the new lover, and uh that uh was one of the reasons that sparked their willingness to come forward and want to help uh, with the case.

[00:14:29] Julie: So what did the family tell you, and how did that help build your case against Sylvia?

[00:14:33] Bob Nygaard: I spoke to the husband and the jewelry that she claimed the husband pawned, that was, it was just a, a ruse to get $86,000 out of Mr. Needleman. Another thing is during the course of the scam, uh she told uh Mr. Needleman on three separate occasions that her son needed to get married and that there was a $60,000 dowry that needed to be paid to the other family, so on three occasions Mr. Needleman paid $60,000 for a total of $180,000 in order, you know, out of the goodness of his heart, so that, that the young man could get married and they would have a dowry. And meanwhile I had an interview with the young man. He told me, "Bob, I was never getting married like that. I never, it was never any $60,000 dowries that were needed." So it was one, one complete scam.

[00:15:17] Julie: What did Sylvia's son think about what his mother was doing?

[00:15:21] Bob Nygaard: Sylvia's son told me "Bob, my mom's been conning this man, old man for the last couple of years, and I've had enough of it, and I'll go to the police with you, and I'll do whatever has to be done to have her arrested."

[00:15:33] Julie: It sounds like you had a really strong case against them if it ever does go to trial.

[00:15:38] Bob Nygaard: Yeah, these cases are not hard to prove. And if you get the facts in front of a jury, people have a great propensity to see the truth.

[00:15:45] Julie: And what was the total financial loss for Mr. Needleman?

[00:15:48] Bob Nygaard: I came out with a figure of one million, seven hundred and eight-four thousand dollars.

[00:15:52] Julie: Wow.

[00:15:52] Bob Nygaard: For me, it, it's just so reprehensible that someone would come in and, and take someone's life savings, you know, almost two million dollars over the course of a of couple years under the guise that she's going to be there for him.

[00:16:07] Julie: So how did this whole situation affect the way that Jerry is living now?

[00:16:11] Bob Nygaard: I mean what, what does an elderly person do when they're wiped out of their life savings? They can't go back to work. Mr. Needleman he, he went, and he went out and he said, "Bob, I'm going to look for jobs." And he went out and started to look for jobs. He says, "But Bob, no one will even give me an interview." He said, "Who's going to hire me?" And he goes, "They won't even give me an interview 'cause if they turn me down, they'll be worried that it's age discrimination." And Mr. Needleman, he doesn't even have money for food, and he was going to get kicked out of his apartment. Luckily, a, like a long lost relative uh came forward and got a few other relatives together and agreed to pay Mr. Needleman's rent for him.

[00:16:48] Julie: Bob, Jerry Needleman's out, almost 1.8 million dollars, over a four year sweetheart swindler scam. What happened to Sylvia?

[00:16:55] Bob Nygaard: Sylvia's still out there. Nothing happened to Sylvia at all.

[00:16:59] Julie: Okay, and Jerry is presently trying to figure out a way to get his money back, correct?

[00:17:04] Bob Nygaard. Correct. I'm still working on trying to find someone in law enforcement that will agree to take the case, and agree to prosecute the case. Right now, you know, everybody's innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, and uh, you know, I just built the case and, and I'm trying to uh, report it to law enforcement.

[00:17:21] Julie: When you say trying to report it, what do you mean? I know that Jerry talked to a police detective but had some challenges in getting law enforcement to take this scam seriously.

[00:17:30] Bob Nygaard: There's a misconception, I know that, that, that the police detective had said to Jerry that well you've got basically this beautiful young woman, and uh you know, you paid for her and basically, you know almost like, you know, you got what you paid for kind of a, an attitude. And it, it really irks me, okay, because that was a total misconception of what went on here, and that's what a lot of people don't understand. That this is not an elderly man in these situations that is looking to pick up a hot young woman. This is an elderly person who is scared that they're not going to be able to take care of themselves. So these are nontraditional organized crime suspects. They uh take advantage of the criminal justice system's uh propensity to treat nonviolent offenses with leniency.

[00:18:26] Julie: And hopefully things will change. Bob, thanks again, so much, and as always, it's so great to have you on the show. Have a great rest of your day.

[00:18:34] Bob Nygaard: Thank you. Thank you.

[00:18:35] Julie: Thank you.

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[00:18:38] Julie: Frank, I'll be honest, of all the scams we've covered in this podcast, the sweetheart scam stories really hit me extra hard. Poor Jerry. He loses his wife and then he finds himself in a scam that financially ruins him. And what I find interesting is that the FTC reported that people who said they were ages 40 to 69, lost money to romance scams at the highest level. More than double the rate of people in their 20s. Now, at the same time, people 70 and over reported the highest individual losses. Frank, what can you say about romance scams, and what are the key elements in pulling this scam off?

[00:19:13] Frank Abagnale: Well, first of all, they take the time to win over that person's affection, that person's to care about them and trust them, and that's what I think is why it's one of the most devastating of all the scams, because you've come to learn to trust somebody, and then you find out they truly were deceiving you the entire time. The fact that you've been just so mistreated, and they had that thought of your feelings so worthlessly like that, that that becomes very deceiving. So I think of all the scams, it's one of the most harmful scams emotionally for individuals, because they've been deceived. And it's very hard because you get emotionally involved as the person, so you automatically trust that person. So just 'cause they asked you for some money for whatever the reason is, you don't immediately think, oh, they're trying to scam me, and this is a romance scam. So I think they're very easy to work, and as we know, there's been cases where we discussed here last time where it starts out as a sweepstakes scam, or a travel scam, and then the person turns into a romance scam, 'cause they get involved with the person who's trying to scam them.

[00:20:15] Julie: Okay, Frank, last question. We know that most romance scams happen online. Is there a way that we can prevent our friends and family members from falling into this devastating trap?

[00:20:25] Frank Abagnale: It's very important that people understand that if you, you have someone like that, it's great to have someone to talk to, it's great to have someone to share email with and etc., uh but again, you always have to keep in your mind that you never saw this person, you never met this person, you really don't know other than what they told you. So, when it comes to the part of them having to separate again with some money or some personal information, that's where you have to just stop and ask yourself, do I really know this person? Have I ever actually met this person? Again, I always believe in sharing, getting advice from a trusted friend that says, you know, I met this person online, I've been having this great relationship. That's been really great. It keeps me, it gives me a lot of company at night, somebody to talk to, and we have a lot of things in common. But recently, he asked me about giving him some money for an operation or sending him some money for this reason. So then your friend can say the exact thing, do you know this person? I mean, have you actually met them? Do you know who they are, that they say they are? Get a different perspective about it, but I can obviously understand why people fall for it, and why people get very trusting, and that's because they're willing to take the time and devote the time to basically play you, scam you. But always, I remind people, you're not just the only one. They're scamming a number of people at the same time.

[00:21:43] Julie: And are there any clear warning signs?

[00:21:45] Frank Abagnale: The warning signs are the signs that we discuss all the time, and they're the same signs with every scam, and that is, that at some point in this relationship, I have to benefit from it. So I'm either going to ask you for money, for whatever the reason might be for you to send me money, or I'm maybe start asking information. So Helen, where do you actually do all your banking, 'cause I bank at Chase in New York. Well I bank at Wells Fargo. Oh really? Well how long have you banked there? Do you have any credit cards that you use from them, 'cause I have a lot of trouble with my credit card... they're starting now to get information from you. They're asking you personal things that you probably don't want to share with anybody, no less somebody you never actually met. So the, the red flags are the same.

[00:22:29] Julie: Frank, one more tip that I heard about is if I receive an email from someone with a photo attached, and this person claims to be him or her, that I can copy and paste the photo into the Google search image feature and see if the photo image pops up anywhere.

[00:22:43] Frank Abagnale: If that's a real person. Or go to, you know, you can, you may go to LinkedIn, you can go to some other things to see if they are really who they say they are. If I told you I graduated from Columbia University in New York and this is the year I graduated, you can go online to Columbia University's yearbook for that year and see if there actually is a person that graduated from that class and that school. That's what I mean. There are so many resources today that we didn't have 15 years ago, that you can check these things out. But if you're going to devote enough time to have this romance scam and be involved with this person, you can devote a few minutes to go check out that they're saying. You know, I always tell people, there's nothing wrong with being skeptical; it's a virtue to be skeptical. And so, you want to make sure that you know you're getting involved with somebody that you can trust.

[00:23:26] Julie: Thanks, Frank. It's always so great to talk to you and hear from your experience.

[00:23:29] Frank Abagnale: Okay, Julie, thank you.

[00:23:32] Julie: If you or someone you know has been the victim of a fraud or scam, call AARP's Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Thank you to our team of scambusters; producer Brook Ellis, our audio engineer Julio Gonzales, and of course, my co-host Frank Abagnale. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP - The Perfect Scam, I'm Julie Getz.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

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