Looking for a change of pace, FBI agent Gasper decides to move from New York, where he’s lived his entire life, to North Dakota. As he settles in to his new field office in the Midwest, Gasper discovers that there are an alarming number of lottery scams being perpetrated against residents in his area. The cases are complex, and with many of the scammers overseas, they are hard to bring to trial. But Gasper is set on getting justice for the victims of these swindles and dedicates himself to investigating the crimes.
Meanwhile, Nancy, a 78-year-old retired financial planner, receives a letter stating that she’s won the lottery. To claim her prize, she just needs to pay the taxes on her winnings. She isn’t sure if the claim is legitimate and is hesitant to proceed. But after receiving multiple assurances from the scammers over months, Nancy gives in and sends them $20,000 and becomes one of the many victims Gasper will interview as part of his investigation. After years of painstaking work, the FBI agent finally gets the break he’s been looking for. He links a U.S. resident to the lottery-scam ring that operates overseas. This is the connecting piece that Gasper needs and will lead to a large-scale U.S. trial, the arrest of 27 scammers, and justice for 95 victims.
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.
[00:00:02] Will: Coming up on AARP - The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:05] Yeah, these are real life everyday people whose lives are being devastated by criminals, because these con artists steal millions of dollars.
[00:00:18] Will: Welcome back to AARP - The Perfect Scam. I'm Will Johnson, and I'm here with my cohost, AARP's Fraud Watch Network Ambassador, Frank Abagnale, and Frank, everyone can be victimized by scammer. It can be the young, it can be someone who's middle age, you can be old, everybody is vulnerable. One thing that is really interesting that I've heard talked about is while education is, of course, so important, especially for people who are older and who might not be aware of some of these scams, it's the people who we're trying to reach don't always go to the educational forums where they might learn about scams, they might not be downloading our podcasts, so it can be harder to reach those people that are most vulnerable.
[00:00:52] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, and that's why, you know, and I'm not just saying this because of my involvement with AARP and the Fraud Watch Network, but long before I ever came to AARP, uh, AARP and the Fraud Watch Network had been doing just that. They had been trying to basically educate individuals young and old about these scams to help them, prevent them from being victims of these scams. I think they do an amazing job; they go beyond that by having a call center that people can call into. Uh, they do programs with me in many of the states around. We get thousands of people come out. We do the podcasts here to help educate people. I don't know of any government agency or any private sector group that is doing anything close to what AARP does in this realm and then opens it to anyone, not that you're a member of AARP or that you're 50 years old or 100 years old. Anybody can learn from this and it's open to anyone. So I think they do the number one job, and as I've said many times on the show, I believe the attorney general in every state does a great job in this area because first of all, they're elected by the people of the state to protect the people of the state. They have great resources with, for the law enforcement, as he or she is the chief law enforcement officer of the state. They all have the so-called consumer protection bureaus, they're well-staffed, they're educated people, they know what they're talking about, so to me, those are the two big things I see going on. Now years ago, 30, 40 years ago, I was the one who went out and did a lot of work encouraging police departments to open what we now call crime prevention units. I had to go around doing a lot of lecturing to police departments, that instead of just going out investigating crimes, we should be preventing crimes, and we should have a unit in the police department that does just that and, again, through education by going out and giving talks and doing things of that, of that nature, and still today, crime prevention is a very big tool in dealing with these types of scams and cons that go on every day.
[00:02:51] Will: And you were doing that in your capacity with the FBI, of working with the FBI.
[00:02:54] Frank Abagnale: As of, in the FBI and also just out speaking at chambers of commerces and police labor, police organizations, your police unions and things like that.
[00:03:03] Will: You mentioned the attorney generals in each state. This week we are talking about Kentucky and a crime that's happening there, a victim of a scam in Kentucky. The attorney general of Kentucky is actually doing quite a bit to protect victims. In the last four years they've returned 2.1 million dollars to victims. So we're going to get into our story, and we'll find out more about it, and come back to talk about what attorney generals are doing, what states are doing, what police departments are doing, and what you're seeing out there.
[00:03:32] Will: If you're a regular listener to our show, you know that scam artists are working hard every day to steal your money. They work alone, in groups, around the world, and right here at home. They put in hours, days, weeks, and months grooming victims, convincing them that they've won money, or they owe money. They go after seniors, Millennials, women, men. They'll uncover our weaknesses, they'll hone in on victims who are alone and vulnerable. But the other side of the coin are the people who wake up every day to stop scammers from getting their money. They meet people who have given their last dollars to scammers. Others who've fallen in love only to realize they're caught up in a scam. Those stories are often difficult to hear. Like the one we'll tell you about this week; an 81-year-old woman in Kentucky who thought she'd won millions in a lottery scam. But as long as there are scammers, there will be scambusters, and just like scammers, they'll spend days, weeks, and months digging into financial records, talking to victims, following the trail of money. One of those people is Mike Smithers. He's well-versed in the world of scams.
[00:04:29] Mike Smithers: Yeah, I mean they're all personal. I mean any time you take advantage of the, of people that's not, you know, in their right frame of mind in anything, I mean, no matter what the amount is, I mean I've, I've prosecuted a lot of these constantly, so I mean, once you see you can reach out and possibly grab a bad guy that's done this, then that's very gratifying.
[00:04:50] Will: Kentucky Attorney General, Andy Bashir has gotten to know Mike Smithers well over his time as Attorney General.
[00:04:55] Andy Bashir: Well, what I can say is that Mike Smithers, um, is, is a very dedicated investigator, and we don't want to give away the, the tools of his trade. Um, but, but Mike has, has a career in, in law enforcement, and I will tell you, he keeps score. He cares so much about the people that he helps. He has a big board in his office, uh where he, where he keeps track of, of the money that he has returned to people, uh and the number of scammers that, that he's put away. Uh, and he is a self-starter. I mean you walk in there and he's working almost uh solely by himself in his office every day, but he has so much purpose uh in his work, and having people like Mike that are out there, uh, working for us every day is, is why we are doing better, uh and we are, we are stopping more scammers than ever before, and we know there's more work to do.
[00:05:48] Will: Like Mike, Andy Bashir has made it his priority to protect citizens from scam artists. Kentucky's efforts are paying off. Over 2 million dollars has been returned to victims in the last four years alone.
[00:05:59] Andy Bashir: I, I was raised in Kentucky. Uh, been here most of my life uh with the exception of my first job and, and college and law school. I'm, I'm Kentucky born and bred. Uh, and so we've been, we've been working in this community and, and trying to help people for, for as long as I can remember. And cracking down on scams and protecting seniors has been one of our core missions in the office.
[00:06:20] Will: So when a scam case comes into the attorney general's office, Mike Smithers is the man they call. After a long career in law enforcement, Mike now works fulltime investigating consumer fraud for the state. He knows who scam artists are looking for because he meets victims all the time and hears their stories.
[00:06:35] Mike Smithers: It's not complicated, it's just that you get somebody that's very, very lonely and they reach out to them, and they befriend them, and they call them multiple times over multiple weeks or multiple months, and they just, they become unaware, become friends of the perpetrators who's stealing their money, so it's just a sad, sad thing, but it's just not uncommon unfortunately.
[00:06:58] Will: In February of 2016, Mike starts looking into the case of an 81-year-old woman who's lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in less than a year. In 2015, Pat started getting phone calls telling her she'd won cash and prizes.
[00:07:10] Mike Smithers: And uh, thinking she's going to get a, a Mercedes, and this 7.5 million dollars from this sweepstake and, and they would just continually call her and then uh, convince her she needed to pay more money for more taxes and a complete scam. Unfortunately, they make 100 phone calls, they find one person that'll send them money, they've, you know, it's a normal workday for them.
[00:07:34] Andy Bashir: What, what, what they're always trying to do is steal one of two things; either your money or your personal information. On the money side they'll say, oh you won $100,000, and that's incredible. We can't just send that through the mail. We need you to bond and insure it, and that'll cost you about $1500. There are things that sound reasonable, but, but that are just supposed to get you excited enough for where you stop thinking with the front of your brain where we reason and you start thinking in the back of your brain where we have the emotions, and you go ahead and send them the money, and, and guess what, you haven't won any lottery.
[00:08:05] Will: By the time Pat's sister hears about what's going on, and calls the Attorney General's Office, scammers had been hard at work for months.
[00:08:12] Mike Smithers: They'd already been entrenched with her for some time, and she received multiple calls from probably 20 plus people connected to this group, over and over and over. Months and months.
[00:08:23] Will: And the calls come in daily, not just once or twice.
[00:08:26] Mike Smithers: Oh, the phone records showed she got them all morning and afternoon and then sometime in the evenings, but they were constant all over the, all over the spectrum. She just got continuous calls.
[00:08:37] Will: And like all professional scammers whoever was on the other end of the phone had spent a lot of time getting to know Pat, to connect with her.
[00:08:44] Mike Smithers: They become very befriending of her and keep in mind, she's 81, living alone, very lonely, and I think that plays into part of it, that they become their best friend over the phone, and they show, you know, give them attention, and then they get comfortable with them, and they're easier to send them and wire money.
[00:09:03] Will: So Mike gets the case when Pat's 79-year-old sister calls the Kentucky Attorney General's Office. She's Pat's only living relative.
[00:09:10] Mike Smithers: She don't have any family, kids, she's just got a sister that's at this time was in her late 70s that lived in (inaudible) County. So she didn't really have any direct contact with anybody on a daily basis, so they started giving her a lot of attention, asking her about her personal life and I think she just went down that rabbit hole with them, and they showed her a bunch of attention, and led to her losing what she lost.
[00:09:36] Will: Mike goes to work. He meets with Pat in person and starts getting to know her.
[00:09:40] Mike Smithers: Her demeanor was fine. She, I mean she, she still drove her car, still went to the grocery, did her own shopping, but for whatever reason, this just didn't click with her and she thought she'd won this money and, and nobody was going to convince her otherwise.
[00:09:56] Will: One caller in particular was in regular contact with Pat, checking in on her, also getting to know her.
[00:10:01] Mike Smithers: She's just one of the callers that would call her. She would basically just befriend Pat and call her continuously and talk about personal issues with her, and make her feel comfortable, and make up stories and I mean it covered a whole range of things about health issues, a family member's sick, need money for this, and they would continue convincing her to send money for her taxes or whatever. I mean if she, it was an ongoing process. She felt very close to this individual, 'cause she made her feel very important.
[00:10:32] Will: So picture Pat, 81-years-old, living alone with no family nearby, getting calls on almost a daily basis, and it starts to feel like a connection, someone who cares about her and wants to know how she's doing. It's insidious, and one of the reasons why Kentucky Attorney General Andy Bashir takes this fight personally.
[00:10:50] Andy Bashir: My job is to be the chief protector of Kentucky's families, and that doesn't just mean our kids, it means our parents as well, and, and these scams are a real threat, uh to our seniors across the country. They, they steal life savings away from people who have done it right, who saved, uh and who prepared to age with dignity, and in my state particularly, uh it's, it's ever so damaging because we have more grandparents raising their grandkids because of the drug epidemic, uh that swept our country than any other state. And what that means is that that life savings isn't just supporting uh our, our seniors that, at a time when they expected to be retired, but it's raising a whole 'nother generation of Kentuckians. And we, we've got to make sure that we protect those dollars at all costs. One of my favorite memories as Attorney General, is the first time I was able to return stolen dollars, it was to a senior in Elizabethtown that had been scammed in the IRS scam out of $50,000. And, and I jumped out of the car and I gave her a big hug. I'd never met her, but she hugged me back 'cause I was still holding that check. (chuckle) And um, and just that feeling of watching her walk into her back and her, her life was going to be okay. She, she was going to be made whole.
[00:12:04] Will: But in 2015, 81-year-old Pat is wiring money on a regular basis to the scammers.
[00:12:10] Mike Smithers: It was all taxes. I mean they continued to tell her she owed taxes on it, and she'd go to the bank and then, then she would just wire $30,000 one day, and 20 the next, 25 the next. I mean she was very efficient. I mean she would do it overnight to the point she went to, I think, three banks where the two of the banks, I think, cut her, cut her off and forced her to move her assets to another bank, because they kept telling her that she was being scammed and she wouldn't believe it. So...
[00:12:36] Will: When Mike Smithers finally sits down with Pat, he hears a familiar story.
[00:12:39] Mike Smithers: But she was very convinced, and it was a, it took us a long time to get her mindset that she wasn't getting this money or a car. They were very convincing. To the point we actually had to go to court and get her assets put in her sister's, uh name and let her be responsible for her checking accounts.
[00:12:58] Will: Mike starts to discover how much money Pat has wired to scammers.
[00:13:02] Mike Smithers: Probably over a 12-month period, they got her for close to $350,000.
[00:13:08] Will: So where, again, where is the money going? Mike starts with the money trail.
[00:13:12] Mike Smithers: Well the, I mean the simplest thing is just follow the money. I mean somebody's going to get it and receive it, so I just followed her transactions and, and tracked them to see who was uh on the receiving end of them.
[00:13:25] Will: As you can probably tell, Mike Smithers is understated. He makes it sound like just another day on the job, but his investigation is just beginning in this case and he's in it for the long haul.
[00:13:34] Mike Smithers: I mean it's tedious work, it's stuff, now this takes a year sometimes just to get records and do this stuff. This, nothing happens quick.
[00:13:42] Will: So tracking where the money's going is just the first step. After months of getting records, following that trail of money, even video surveillance, Mike gets a lucky break. The checks are getting picked up in Miami, and later sent on to Costa Rica. But the fact that the checks are going to someone in the US means Mike has a shot at the bad guys.
[00:13:59] Mike Smithers: Because once it goes out of the country again, a lot of these do, then you're at a dead end anyway, so I think that deters a lot of the investigation unfortunately, but get lucky and find them in the US, you can reach out and get them.
[00:14:13] Will: Mike learns that one of the scammers, 40-year-old Manfred Sinclair runs a barbershop in the Miami area.
[00:14:19] Mike Smithers: They're all working as a group. I mean for the, for somebody over in Costa Rica, they were sending the money to and they were getting a kickback for what they would obtain. Um, I think they all knew each other from childhood in Costa Rica. Uh, Manfred Sinclair runs a barbershop in Miami, and a lot of the stuff was uh, different things would be shipped to him there, then he'd go to the bank and cash her checks.
[00:14:47] Will: So with three names finally connected to the scam, Mike Smithers goes to work to make an arrest and bring the scammers back to Kentucky. That means more paperwork and a grand jury.
[00:14:57] Mike Smithers: What we have to do here in Kentucky is I roll up what's called a grand jury indictment on criminal charges.
[00:15:03] Will: And finally, Mike and the State of Kentucky working with police in Florida are able to catch up with the bad guys.
[00:15:08] Mike Smithers: Uh, there were three individuals we identified which there was more involved but only three that could actually, now keep in mind, I could only reach out and get the ones I can actually put hands on with the money that's involved. There was more involved, but I was only able to identify three, and uh, was able to get them in custody, and they're working out a, a, believe it or not, a barbershop in Miami in the Hialeah area.
[00:15:35] Will: The men are picked up and extradited back to Kentucky. Mike learns that this scam ring, running out of that Miami barbershop, is working victims in states across the country and bringing in millions. With the scammers behind bars in Kentucky now, they finally have to answer to the chargers against them.
[00:15:51] Mike Smithers: Theft of deception, which is a charge in Kentucky over $10,000 which makes it a Class C Felony, and then knowingly exploiting, exploiting an adult person. They pled guilty. They got to pay restitution of $104,000 back to her of the 350 that's lost. They got five years probated for five, which means that they had to pay restitution and, and if they get any more convictions, they'll be brought back to serve five years in prison here.
[00:16:19] Will: Their sentences, no time behind bars is not uncommon. That's not necessarily a bad thing according to Mike Smithers.
[00:16:26] Mike Smithers: Everybody wants these people to go to prison, which is great, I do too, but here's the problem, the trade-off is, if they're in prison, you're not going to get any money. So then you gotta weigh what's more important, put them on probation, make them pay restitution and if they don't, then they get re-locked up, or, you know, you send them to prison, you get nothing. So that's, that's what makes these fraud cases a little difficult for the victim, 'cause once you catch them, you can put them in prison, but then your victim's not getting anything. So you have to weigh what's more important at that point.
[00:17:00] Will: And in a lot of cases, the scammers end up behind bars when they get picked up for another crime, or when they don't pay the money back.
[00:17:07] Mike Smithers: And they're held accountable. I mean there's, once they plead guilty, I mean, they're, they plead to five, 10 years in prison and if they don't do what they're supposed to, they could be, what you call revoked, and taken in, back into custody. So it's generally what happens in these cases, I found.
[00:17:20] Andy Bashir: Well, we, we tried in every single one of these instances to track down these criminals. You know, people call some of these calls robo calls, they're not. They're, they're thieves trying to steal people's money, and so when we were able to track one down that isn't out of the country, and when we're able to get the assistance that we need if they're out of state to bring them back in, we take it very, very seriously. When, when we catch these people, we want to prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law because people need to know there's consequences to, to what they're doing and the amount that they are stealing from people, because these con artists steal millions of dollars.
[00:17:57] Will: But despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars Pat sent off to scammers, she didn't lose everything in the scam. The three men are now paying back at least some of that money they stole.
[00:18:06] Mike Smithers: There's three individuals arrested, there's Manfred Sinclair, Ronny Mesa, and then Danny Juan Flores who is, I got him cashing one of the checks at Sinclair's bank.
[00:18:16] Will: Unlike this case, the vast majority of scam cases are never solved, and most victims never get financial restitution. But Mike Smithers knows many of the scammers are still on the loose and probably still scamming victims.
[00:18:28] Mike Smithers: Oh, there's plenty more, I just couldn't identify the others ones. Like I said, she provided a list of phone numbers; we looked at names, it was 20 plus people.
[00:18:35] Will: But catching those three men took months, years even for Mike Smithers in the State of Kentucky.
[00:18:39] Mike Smithers: We just got them prosecuted, March of this year and this started for me in February of '16 to give you an idea how long these things can draw and drag out.
[00:18:48] Will: Attorney General Andy Bashir continues to take the problem seriously, dedicating time, money, resources, and people to the job of busting scam artists.
[00:18:56] Andy Bashir: Hell, I've got a group now of over 8 people in the Attorney General's Office that this is all they do. This isn't complicated, It's being our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper. It's believing that we all have a responsibility to look out for each other, and so these are just setting up programs sometimes that just tell one individual, look after another, to raise education and to try to create the, the apparatus we need in state government to, to hold scammers accountable, but also to go get that money back.
[00:19:24] Will: So Frank, in the, in the case of this story in Kentucky, do you see Kentucky and the attorney general as sort of an outlier in terms of trying to get money back for victims, or do you feel like a lot of states are making this a focus and a priority?
[00:19:36] Frank Abagnale: I found a lot of attorney generals that I have worked with personally; Utah, Maryland, that do a great job of doing just that. Uh, I'd like to see more do it. I'd like to see more of these state attorney generals join forces with AARP. Uh, it's to protect the people in their state and the ones that are most possible to be victimized, seniors, uh, so I think more and more states are coming on board with the encouragement of AARP, and I'm very happy to see that, but I, again, I've always felt that if I had a complaint personally, something happened to me, or I'd think something was going to be scammed somehow, I would be calling my state attorney general before I called anybody else.
[00:20:16] Will: And Frank, another way that seniors are being protected, and I know you're familiar with this, because there's education that's gone on, that I believe you told you've had some involvement with, but with stores that wire money or certainly with banks where a senior citizen or anyone that's coming in and making a large withdrawal, uh there are programs in place like AARP's Bank Safe Initiative, right, where banks are being educated about this kind of crime.
[00:20:38] Frank Abagnale: Right, and this is a great program, uh, to educate bank tellers, even bank officers in the bank, uh about some of these scams that go on, because when I come in as a, a person, an individual, and say to the bank, I need to withdraw $7,000 right away in cash, and that's not something I normally do, and they're able to sit there and say, before I do this, I just want to clarify with you that nobody's called you and told you this, nobody said you won a sweepstake, nobody said they were from Social Security or anything like that or anyone's approached you that you have to pay them immediately or right now, and uh, and most of the time those people come clean and go, well yes, I'm doing this 'cause I got this call and they told me I had to come down and get this money and do this, and they're able to tell them that that's a scam. But you have to educate those bank tellers and those bank folks, just like we do in the, with this program is to educate people. You have to educate those bank tellers to know and recognize these scams and what, what constitutes someone getting money out of the bank to pay one of these scams or to wire money out of one of these uh accounts to pay one of these scammers.
[00:21:45] Will: And we definitely heard stories on, on this show and talked about them where some, a bank teller or someone working at a store where you can wire money, has actually asked those questions or stopped someone, and it can save somebody a lot of difficulty and a lot of money.
[00:21:58] Frank Abagnale: Absolutely, it's been proven many times, and uh, I think that's just another great program AARP does, and through their Fraud Watch Program, basically helping educate not only victims, potential victims, but people who can help other people not become a victim.
[00:22:14] Will: Frank, you are a, at a point where I don't think you have to be working every day. You don't have to do this; this matters a lot to you.
[00:22:21] Frank Abagnale: Yes.
[00:22:22] Will: Protecting people and talking about scams.
[00:22:23] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, not only that, I mean I, my obligation to the FBI ended 36 years ago, so I could have just walked away when my obligation was over. I would never do that. I'm 71. I will continue doing what I'm doing until the day that I physically can't do it because of some health problem, or maybe I start slurring my words and I don't make a lot of sense.
[00:22:42] Will: We'll let you know.
[00:22:43] Frank Abagnale: I'll, I'll, I'll quit, but as long as I can do it, I have understood from day one that education is the most powerful tool to fighting crime. I know that. I believe it, and I work with AARP because they believe it, and I, they know the power of it, and so uh, it's a great pleasure and opportunity for me to have, to be able to work through people like AARP and help educate people about these problems.
[00:23:08] Will: Well, we love having you on the show, so thanks for doing it.
[00:23:09] Frank Abagnale: Glad to be on here.
[00:23:11] Will: And you're up at 4 a.m. every morning too, so you've got plenty of time. You've got a long day to think about all these things.
[00:23:14] Frank Abagnale: That's right, I've got plenty of time.
[00:23:16] Will: All right, Frank, thanks for being here, we'll talk to you next week.
[00:23:18] Frank Abagnale: Thank you, Will, thanks.
[00:23:20] Will: 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 my team of scambusters, producers Julie Getz and Brook Ellis, our audio engineer, Julio Gonzales, and of course, my cohost, Frank Abagnale. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP - The Perfect Scam, I'm Will Johnson.
END OF TRANSCRIPT
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