Distraught Veteran Loses Savings in a Social Security Scam
How one community helped a former service member overcome identity theft
Rob, a veteran in his 70s, was a caretaker for his wife for years. He is still grieving her death when he receives a call from a woman claiming to be from the Social Security Administration. The woman tells Rob that his Social Security number has been used to defraud multiple banks and there is a warrant out for his arrest. Even more troubling for Rob, the woman tells him that he will need to get all new identification cards. Rob has been looking forward to taking his special-needs daughter on a much-needed vacation, and worries he won’t be able to get a new license in time for the trip.
In a frenzied state, he starts to comply with the instructions of the woman on the phone. But as her directions get stranger, Rob begins to question if he’s doing the right thing. He realizes that he may be the victim of a scam. Unfortunately, by this time the scammers already have emptied out Rob’s savings account. Rob is distraught, as this means he’ll have to cancel his trip with his daughter. But, just when he’s about to lose all hope, Rob’s community steps in to help.
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.
[00:00:00] Will: Coming up this week on AARP - The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:02] Well I, I think they're the scum of the earth, and that's what I told somebody else. You know, I don't know how they can in good conscience do this. They scam old people and, and a lot of times they get every last dollar they have, you know, and that, I mean they don't get it back.
[00:00:14] Will: Welcome back to AARP - The Perfect Scam. I am your host, Will Johnson, and I'm here with my cohost, AARP's Fraud Watch Network Ambassador, Frank Abagnale. Frank, good to have you back once again.
[00:00:24] Frank Abagnale: Thanks, it's great to be here.
[00:00:26] Will: So Frank, uh we have yet another scam story to share with our listeners this week. I wanted to ask you about, we've talked about this a little bit before, but the idea of being skeptical, aware, but not being scared about the world and all that, all, all the scams that are out there. I have a quick story to share with you. A family member who uh got a letter in the mail, said the home inspector’s going to be coming by, um, just to, to, check on the house and do some measurements, and do what they needed to do for insurance and blah, blah, blah. So my family member welcomed the home inspector. They came into the house, went all around, measured things, went outside, and about midway through it, I happened to be visiting this family member. She said, "I wonder, you know, I don't know if I ever heard from my insurance company before all this." Anyway, long story short, got concerned that maybe this was all some scam. And then I was sort of thinking, well, maybe there is something here, like I don't know what they would be doing, but maybe they're going through and know what, you know, taking pictures of everything in your house, so she got a little freaked out, um, and eventually it was kind of moving into the week, and I'm trying to remember the timeline, but she got in touch with her, the company and they said, "Oh yeah, this is all legit." Everything turned out just fine. But there was like a, a day of sort of concern and worry and you know, she said to me later, "You know, I should have done just what you say to do. You call the company right off the bat, don't waste any time worrying about something." You can quickly stop and verify.
[00:01:46] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, absolutely. There's nothing wrong with being skeptical. Actually, being skeptical is a virtue, and uh I believe that uh, just like that, if you have any doubt, or there's some suspicion, you know, pick up the phone and verify that that company is legitimate, they are supposed to be there, um, that's all you really need to do. It's, it's not difficult to do and there's nothing wrong with being that way, of being a little safe.
[00:02:09] Will: Be skeptical, be aware, and always feel free to, you know, google something and get the right number and call, and call...
[00:02:14] Frank Abagnale: Right and verify.
[00:02:15] Will: This week we're going to tell you about a Social Security scam. We have had other scams similar to this one, but every scam is a little different, and I think we can take something away from all of the stories we hear. This week, we're going to tell you about Ron Webster. Ron is retired, living in Mansfield, Massachusetts.
[00:02:33] Ron Webster: I'm going to be 78 next month, so I'm no spring chicken either.
[00:02:36] Will: Family means a lot to Ron, in fact, he's surrounded by family.
[00:02:40] Ron Webster: It's like I have like a family compound here. I got four kids, nine grandkids, and eleven great grandkids. Most of them, most of them live here.
[00:02:47] Will: After 40 years of working as a real estate broker, he didn't have any plans to retire, but then about five years ago, life took a difficult turn, and Ron's plans changed.
[00:02:56] Ron Webster: I wasn't going to retire even though I was 72, but my wife had had a major stroke, so I had to stay home and take care of her along with my Down Syndrome daughter. So that lasted for about 5½ years, and then she got uh what they call sepsis, and she got really sick from it. They said that she, they gave her less than a half percent chance of surviving, and she did survive, but she got dementia for a couple years prior too, so her dementia ended up uh getting the best of her. She passed away last October.
[00:03:28] Will: Losing the love of his life, his wife of 59 years was devastating. Ron explains it best himself.
[00:03:35] Ron Webster: Yeah, uh I'll tell you one thing, I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy, losing your wife. And then taking care of my wife for 5½ years, I mean and she, she couldn't do anything, you know, she was incon--, continent... incontinent. I had to do everything for her, you know. And, and I think that just made it, made it that much tighter for me with her, you know.
[00:03:55] Will: So when this story begins, Ron has lost his wife, and as he explains, his head wasn't screwed on right. But he was doing his best to keep busy. In fact, he was planning a trip to Sea World with his 41-year-old daughter with special needs. It was a trip they planned for a long time. A chance to have some fun and spend some time together. But then, he gets a phone call.
[00:04:15] Ron Webster: So I was out in my greenhouse trying to keep busy, keep my mind off of that stuff; my daughter was at a day program, and I get a phone call.
[00:04:24] Will: That's how so many of these stories begin, with a phone call. A voice on the other end of the line; in this case, not a recorded message or an offer to win prizes or promises or a vacation getaway, the woman on the other end of the line is with the Social Security Fraud Department. She has bad news for Ron.
[00:04:40] Ron Webster: And that my Social Security number was used at five different banks to defraud the five banks, and um, that I was responsible. They'd been investigating it for about two weeks. They didn't think I was the one that did it; however, I was still responsible for it, and there was a, a warrant out for my arrest. I was holy cripe, I'd never, I got a speeding ticket back in the '80s for going 7 miles an hour over the speed limit, and that's the only thing that's against me. So I was like, holy crap, this is terrible. So she said, "The Mansfield police will be contacting you 'cause they will have the warrant for your arrest."
[00:05:16] Will: It sounds kind of scary if anything, like a...
[00:05:18] Ron Webster: Yeah, it was scary, and nothing sounded out of the ordinary. I mean these things happen, you know, I've seen it, but I figured, oh, maybe somebody somehow got my Social Security number and, and did that, right? So that wasn't out of the ordinary as far as I was concerned.
[00:05:31] Will: Ron gets that pit in his stomach. It's the last thing he needs to hear. A 77-year-old man widowed, just spending time around the house and in the garden keeping busy, and he doesn't ignore the phone when a call comes in.
[00:05:43] Ron Webster: I get a number of calls from the VA because I've got health problems, and I'm, I'm treated at the VA, and also my daughter if, if you know, if she's sick or something happens at her day program, so I have to really answer the phone, because I'm not techie, you know, I've just got a flip phone.
[00:05:57] Will: So back to the caller. In addition to telling Ron there's a warrant out for his arrest, she starts telling him what he needs to do to resolve everything.
[00:06:04] Ron Webster: And she told me I'd have to get a new Social Security number, and I'd have to get a new driver's license.
[00:06:10] Will: It's a lot to take in for Ron, but the first thing that comes into his mind is the trip he has planned with his daughter.
[00:06:15] Ron Webster: This was a Thursday, and on Monday my special needs daughter and I were going to go to Florida to Sea World because we hadn't been there for 32 years, and I figured we both needed to get away from things. And I had to go through a lot of rigmarole to get her a, a photo ID for her to be able to get on the plane. So the first thing that crossed my mind is oh crap, I won't be able to get on the plane on Monday.
[00:06:38] Will: So Ron really wants to get things resolved quickly if he can.
[00:06:42] Ron Webster: I said, "What's your phone number in case I have to get back to you?" So she gives me a phone number. So I hang up, and I sat down, and my heart's pounding a mile a minute. So a few minutes went by, the phone rang. "Hi, this is Offic--," it was a woman, "Officer so and so from the Mansfield Police Department," bah, bah, bah. She reiterated the same story. And she said, "We don't have the warrant yet, but now you know that we have a, we're going to have a warrant for your arrest. Don't go anywhere because that will just make it worse on yourself."
[00:07:10] Will: Had the other woman told you that this, that the police would be calling you right back?
[00:07:13] Ron Webster: She told me if you don't hear from the police shortly, give them a call.
[00:07:18] Will: Oh, okay.
[00:07:19] Ron Webster: Officer, a female officer from the Mansfield police called me.
[00:07:22] Will: Do you think it could have been the same woman with a different voice, you know...
[00:07:25] Ron Webster: No, but it was probably, they're sitting in the same room saying, "Hey, you're up next, you know?"
[00:07:29] Will: Yeah, right, right, right. But at the time he's not thinking that. Scammers are working from a script, probably a few of them, hooking Ron into thinking that this is all real. He's hoping this caller from the police department can help him out.
[00:07:41] Ron Webster: So well she told me, "You could help me get this thing straightened out." She said, "Oh, we can't help you," she said, "They're, they're the ones that are going to have you help you straighten it out." I said, "Oh, for crying out loud." I said, "Well, all right, what's your phone number in case I have to get a hold of you?"
[00:07:53] Will: The caller gives him a number. It begins with 508-261.
[00:07:56] Ron Webster: 508-261 is the Mansfield police, the fire department, and the town hall, which I'm very familiar with. So that, that rang true, you know, not that I was looking for this being phony, but it just, they just gave the right number.
[00:08:11] Will: Ron calls the first caller back. The woman from the Social Security Fraud Department.
[00:08:15] Ron Webster: She answers, and I told her what the, what the cop had said, and she said, "Well I can't help you, maybe my supervisor can." So she put him on the phone with me, and he said, "Well listen, I'm willing to help you, but you're going to have to stick with me." He said, "This is going to take some time." He said, "We don't know if it's you, a relative, a friend, a neighbor. We have no idea who it is, if it's not you. So you're going to have to keep this to yourself until we get this resolved and stay on the phone with me. Don't hang up, and I'll work through it with you." I said, "Okay."
[00:08:49] Will: A classic scammer tactic. Don't tell anyone. Keep it to yourself and stay on the line. And then the plot thickens.
[00:08:56] Ron Webster: So he told me all my accounts were going to be, they're going to take the money out of all my accounts because it was going to be used towards the fraud used at these banks, right? "So go to the bank and withdraw the funds." Well my special needs daughter has a checking account and a savings account, but I'm on it with her, of course, so I withdraw the money out of those two accounts, I withdraw it out of my savings and my checking account, so I had $3,000.
[00:09:24] Will: How did you do that? Did you go to the bank to do that?
[00:09:27] Ron Webster: Yeah I went to the bank, and he told me, "When you get to the, get to the parking lot," he said, "Pick up the phone," he said, "I'm just going to put you on hold, but I'll be here. Just call my name and I'll come back on the phone." Well I know I'm not an idiot. My oldest son said to me, "Jesus, Dad, I thought you were sharper than that." I said, "Well I usually am, Ronnie, but cripes, since Mom died, you know, my head hasn't been screwed on and bah, bah, bah, bah." Whatever. So okay.
[00:09:51] Will: So Ron takes the $3000 and the voice on the other end of the line tells him to head to the local supermarket.
[00:09:56] Ron Webster: And to buy these Google cards. He said, "You'll see them on the card rack. They go from $10 to $500." He says, "You get $3000, so get," um, what's that six? So I said, "Well, wouldn't it be, it'd be a lot easier if I just went home and put it in my safe." He said, "Well if you do that, then, then you're not working with us, and how do we know you don't just take the money and take off?" And, "Well, all right. I can see that. Okay."
[00:10:20] Will: Yeah, I mean you've already robbed a couple of banks, I mean come on.
[00:10:24] Ron Webster: (chuckle) Yeah. I know it.
[00:10:27] Will: Who knows what you're going to do next.
[00:10:29] Ron Webster: So I say, "Okay, I've got the six $500 cards." He said, "All right, on the back of the card, there's a place you can scratch the number, like a scratch ticket." Well I've gotten the scratch tickets before, you know, not many, but I've gotten a few. I said, "Okay, I see it." He said, "Well scratch the number off, that way it proves to you that we, that you got the cards." "Okay" kind of makes sense, right? So I scratch the number off, and it was a long number, so I read it to him all, all uh six of them. Little did I know that they needed this damn number to cash the card, right? So he said, "After this is all said and done, you can take these cards and just cash them in." I said, "Okay, all right, that makes sense. All right." So now I've got some uh, credit cards, so he says, "Well, you've got to, you've got to max out your credit cards, 'cause we're going to attach those too." And I said, "Oh crap, all right. Well I'm not going to go in the same supermarket, I'll go to another one that's just down the street." He says, "All right, well give me a call when you get there." So my house was just down the street, it's like a thousand feet away, so I, I had to go to the bathroom, so I said, "I'm going to skip home first. I've got enough time."
[00:11:29] Will: So Ron swings home and goes inside. His youngest son is with his daughter when he gets there. His son overhears some of the conversation his dad is having on the phone.
[00:11:38] Ron Webster: And my son says to me, "What's that Dad? Is that a, a, a, is that fraud?" And I said, "No, no, it's all right, it's all right." You know, I didn't want to go into detail. I didn't want the guy to hear because I'm not supposed to be talking to nobody about it, you know.
[00:11:51] Will: But, as Ron is driving off again, his son's words come back to him.
[00:11:55] Ron Webster: I'm starting to drive down the street and that word "fraud" kind of planted a seed in the back of my, my mind, you know.
[00:12:02] Will: After all the twists and turns of that day, the phone calls, the trips to various supermarkets and banks, the arrest warrant, all the urgency on the other end of the phone line, all of a sudden, with that simple remark from his son, Ron pauses. He turns back home, walks inside.
[00:12:18] Ron Webster: And I put the phone down on the couch and I covered it up with a sweater so he couldn't hear nothing. So I get the house phone and I called the Mansfield Police Department, and I said, "Can I speak to Officer Jane Doe," I'll say. Okay, I don't know what her name was, and he said, "We don't have any such person here." And I said, "Uh, oh."
[00:12:36] Will: Looking back now, Ron knows he should have done that in the first place, before he got caught up in everything. But that's easy to say now.
[00:12:43] Ron Webster: So I, I, so I hung up, and I called that number that this lady at Social Security Fraud gave me, and the recording said the number's been disconnected. And I said, "Double oh-oh."
[00:12:55] Will: So with the scammer still on Ron's phone, covered up by a sweater on the couch, Ron's son picks up the house phone and calls the police again.
[00:13:02] Ron Webster: And within five minutes, the guy was here. And I says, "Listen the guy's on hold. The phone's on the couch there." So he picks up the, he picks up the phone, he says, "Hello? Hello. Yeah, this is Officer so and so from the Mansfield Police Department. Your gig is up." Click.
[00:13:18] Will: Yeah.
[00:13:18] Ron Webster: The guy hung up.
[00:13:19] Will: But for Ron, the damage is done.
[00:13:22] Will: At that point, you hadn't gone and maxed out everything, but how much were you out at that point?
[00:13:29] Ron Webster: I didn't have a hell of a lot left.
[00:13:31] Will: Perhaps the worst part of it for Ron is that he might not have enough money for that father/daughter trip to Florida now.
[00:13:38] Ron Webster: And I told my son right away, and then of course he tells the other kids and you know within a matter of a couple of hours all my kids knew it, you know.
[00:13:44] Will: But what happens next and in coming days changes everything for Ron.
[00:13:49] Ron Webster: So my, my granddaughter, so uh she went on Go Fund Me, you know, I don't know none of this stuff. I don't know how it works. I don't know computers, so she goes on, she told me the next day, she said, "I went on a Go Fund Me (inaudible)" and uh she said, "We already got $1800." I said, "Wow! What the heck's that?" So she told me how it worked. I says, "Holy cow, people donated 1800?" And she said, "Yeah, so far." Well in three days' time, there was $5600 in there, and one person donated $1000, so I ended up with $5300 at any rate.
[00:14:24] Will: And just like that, in a, in a matter of a few days.
[00:14:26] Ron Webster: Three days. Yep.
[00:14:27] Will: Ron is overwhelmed. Of course he never actually had to give up his license or Social Security number or anything like that, so in a matter of days he goes from losing what he saved up to having enough money to make that trip.
[00:14:38] Will: I hope the trip went well.
[00:14:41] Ron Webster: Yeah, my oldest daughter went with us. It was actually really nice because even though I see them quite often and talk to them, even though you talk to them for 10 or 15 minutes every now and then, and that's it, you know. I ended up spending the whole week with her, we were in the same room. Slept in the same room. We did everything together. And she spends a lot of time with Sherry, and she saw and heard things Sherry do or say that she didn't know she could, and you know, it was very, it was very uh, very enlightening and, and, and great for, for, for both of us because of that. So, at any rate, it was, it was wonderful. It was great to get away and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.
[00:15:18] Will: How does it make you feel to think about the fact that somebody was doing this to you that never even met you, never even saw you?
[00:15:24] Ron Webster: Well I, I think they're the scum of the earth, and that's what I told somebody else. You know, I don't know how they can in good conscience do this. They presumably get billions of dollars a year and they scam old people, and a lot of times they get every last dollar they have, you know, and that, and they don't get it back, you know. And that, that's just, I, I just can't comprehend that how they can do this. I just don't understand it. That's terrible.
[00:15:46] Will: Well look, it sounds like you have a lot of kids and grandchildren around. I hope they're taking good care of you.
[00:15:50] Ron Webster: Yeah, yeah, they help. Yep, and I help them. Yeah, we're all in the same boat together.
[00:15:56] Will: So Frank, uh, certainly a happy ending to this story, what could have been a, a loss of a lot of money for Ron, uh, he was able to go on that trip with his daughter. It sounded like it was a really special and important trip. One extra note, the Go Fund Me campaign that they set up, actually the local news picked it up, and so a lot of people just started giving money to Ron. One thing interesting that we hear in this is that he hears, you know, his son say, you know that might be a scam, and that sort of plants a seed in his brain. It brings up the theme that we talk about over and over again about how important it is to be able to talk about a scam, share with somebody, break out of that isolation if you can, which is easier said than done.
[00:16:34] Frank Abagnale: Yeah. I truly believe, absolutely, before you part with any money, uh before you part with any information, um, there's someone you can call, whether it's a loved one, a neighbor, a family member, a past attorney, your bank where you keep your money, uh someone at the bank, uh and of course you can always, as I always recommend, the best resource is the State Attorney General's Office who has a Consumer Protection Bureau. That's their job, to protect the consumer. And you can call there and simply say, "I received this letter, I received this call, this is what they said. I'm supposed to send this amount of money. I just want to make sure this is not a scam." And they will inform you if it is, in fact, a scam or not, and if they don't know, they'll check it out and they'll say, let me call you back, and they'll get back to you about it. So there are, you know, even if you're in total isolation, there are people you can call, there are things you can do, there are resources out there, including the Fraud Watch Network where you can call and people there can advise you if whether that was a scam, not a scam. You don't have to be an AARP member. They're there just to help you. These are very knowledgeable people.
[00:17:40] Will: And I'm of the mind, still of the mind that most people are good, and that if you mention something that's going on in your life like this to you know, even the mailman. I mean maybe that's a bad example but getting that sounding board of somebody to be able to say, hey, you know what, this sounds fishy. This doesn't sound right. Check it out. It can make a huge difference and save you a lot of money and maybe a lot of heartache and a lot of other things.
[00:18:01] Frank Abagnale: And absolutely. And I would, and I would trust the mailman. If I felt that that was the only person I ever get to see, I could ask the mailman and again, the mailman says, "You know, I don't know, but let me get back to you tomorrow. Don't give anybody any money. I'll find out about that and get back to you." I mean there's somebody you can ask and just as a sounding board, and this was great that in his case one of his sons was smart enough to say, "You know, Dad, I think that might be a scam." And then he started thinking, well it could be a scam. You know and that, and that's what takes place.
[00:18:28] Will: And as the story plays out, it sounds like his, his son doesn't really even waste any time. It's just the first thing he thinks of...
[00:18:34] Frank Abagnale: Right, right, right.
[00:18:35] Will: ...for Ron who is in a much different space, a much different, you know, he's older and he lost his wife and he talks about a number of things that were going on. He didn't think of it.
[00:18:43] Frank Abagnale: No.
[00:18:43] Will: All right, Frank, we will return next week with another story, another scam, and more advice from Frank Abagnale. Thank you.
[00:18:49] Frank Abagnale: Thanks, Will
[00:18:50] 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. As always, thanks 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 Podcast or wherever you listen to podcasts. For The Perfect Scam, for AARP - The Perfect Scam, I'm Will Johnson.
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