Married Couple Swindles Victims in a Romance Scam
In part 2 of the Boltos case, Texas officials track the criminals to Nevada
Desiree, the “Sweetheart Swindler,” has made off with $15,000 of 76-year-old Jim’s money. Once a millionaire, Jim lost his real estate empire during the recession, and now thanks to Desiree he has also lost the savings he worked tirelessly to rebuild.
Desiree has moved on to a new mark, Doug, a veteran living in Nevada. This time around Desiree’s husband joins her in the con, approaching Doug in a parking lot and offering to come to his home to fix dents in his car. On one such visit, Desiree tags along. Eventually she starts to visit Doug on her own. Each time she enters Doug’s house she gathers information, stealing his Social Security number and other personal information.
Doug, who has always been close with his sister Patty, calls her when things start to go missing from his home. Patty arrives to find Doug’s life in complete disarray. There are papers and unopened mail covering every surface of his house. Patty digs in, finding multiple credit cards in Doug’s name that he knows nothing about. There are bills for women’s clothes, dinners, cash advances and even a car. Wracked with debt that he can’t account for, Doug is on the verge of losing his house. After talking to Doug’s home health care worker, Patty figures out that the bills may be connected to a woman who makes frequent visits to the house. Patty tries to track down this woman.
Meanwhile, authorities in Texas, where Desiree has a home, are also on the hunt for her, but she’s skipped town. Little does Desiree know that her crime spree is coming to an end: Authorities in Texas have tracked her to an address in Nevada — Doug’s.
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.
NOTE: At [00:14:15] Patty misspeaks and calls the DA by the last name of Bolthos instead of Bonham.
[00:00:02] Will Johnson: This week on AARP - The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:04] Lori Varnell: I think the thing that makes these cases so horrible, it makes the victims feel responsible. They feel like they've done it. And the worst part of it is, the thief gets them to steal from themselves.
[00:00:16] Will Johnson: Welcome back to AARP - The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Will Johnson, and my cohost is here, AARP's Fraud Watch Network Ambassador, Frank Abagnale. Hi, Frank.
[00:00:24] Frank Abagnale: How you're doing, Will?
[00:00:25] Will Johnson: I'm doing well, and we are back this week for part 2 of our story about Desiree Bolthos. This is a romance scam. Are, are you still surprised when you meet people who just aren't aware of common scams or, or does it makes sense?
[00:00:37] Frank Abagnale: Well, yeah, I think there are a lot of people kind of isolated. There are a lot of people especially uh seniors who, who don't hear about even some of these new scams they're making in the papers and on the media. And then there are people who are just basically honest, so they don’t have the deceptive mind to look at things and go, well this may not be so, or maybe they're not telling me the truth, or this really is my bank, or it's not my bank. Uh, so that's why education is so important, because I do believe that no matter who the individual is, if you explain it to them and say, here's how the grandparent scam works, then when they get that call saying I got your grandson, he's been arrested, you go no, I've already heard that scam. I know how that scam works. It's just then becomes common sense.
[00:01:23] Will Johnson: Yeah, everybody out there, te--, tell your parents or your grandparents, if they're, if they're living, that uh if they get a call and you, they say you've been arrested or in a fight or something like that, be skeptical.
[00:01:33] Frank Abagnale: Exactly. But you would need to know that, because if no one told them that, the grandparents are, well I never heard of that scam. I didn't know that goes on. I thought it was a legitimate call. The caller ID said it was the police department, so I assumed it was the police department.
[00:01:47] Will Johnson: Isolation is such a big deal, you mentioned that, and, and being, staying connected, if, if our show could be anything, it's just a message to call your mom.
[00:01:55] Frank Abagnale.: Right.
[00:01:56] Will Johnson: And stay in touch.
[00:01:57] Frank Abagnale: Stay in touch, and that's why I like when we go to, every year we go to 10, 15 states and we put on the seminars and programs and we get a big audience, but we also do that where we call out to thousands of people, and they get to hear this, but they also get to call in with their questions and say, well this happened to me, or I got this message from my bank that said this. And not only are you helping educate them, but all the listeners are sitting there going, whoa, that could happen to me. So it's great that you're able to be able to reach so many people through AARP and be able to help educate people about these scams.
[00:02:32] Will Johnson: Alright, Frank. Last week we heard about Jim Schmidt, the improbably millionaire who had lost all of his money. Desiree Bolthos came to him and, and was looking to scam him. He didn't have much to give her, but she did make off with about $15,000. Let's listen to part 2 of what happens.
[00:02:48] Will Johnson: As we learned last week, Jim Schmidt let Desiree Bolthos into his life briefly. Very briefly. About 24 hours. Jim had earned millions in his lifetime, then lost most of it after falling on hard times. But Desiree didn't know that, and she talked her way into visiting him from out of town saying they'd met briefly, and she wanted to see him again. Jim didn't remember the encounter but agreed to the visit. It sounded like fun. By the time she talked her way into a visit, staying the night, and then leaving early the next morning, she'd made off with $15,000 of his money and disappeared. Jim was still calling her and trying to figure out how to get his money back, but it wasn't looking good and Desiree had moved on. She had other elderly men she was scamming. She lived in a Fort Worth, Texas, suburb, but she traveled extensively and often in order to get to her next victim. One of those victims was a man named Doug living in Las Vegas. In 2018, he called his younger sister, Patty in Duluth, Minnesota.
[00:03:46] Patty: I talked to him all the time, and I've always told him, if you need me, he wants to be independent, if you need me for anything, you call me, and I've always stressed that to him, without getting too much into his business, and he called me for the first time in all these years and said, "I don't know what's going on. I've got things missing." I said, "Money or things?" He goes, "I don't even know at this point."
[00:04:08] Will Johnson: Just a year younger than her brother, she'd always been there for Doug; his path through life hadn't always been easy.
[00:04:14] Patty: After high school, he did the Vietnam thing immediately, then he um, afterwards went to chef school in Minneapolis. And then went up to Tahoe and was working at one of the casinos in Tahoe as a chef, and started getting sick, and ended up with a mass around his heart and had to have surgery and it, and thyroid cancer. And that was kind of the beginning of all his health issues that just kept getting worse and worse and it turns out, now they're saying within the last 10 years they're saying, yes, it is Agent Orange related.
[00:04:52] Will Johnson: Did he see action in Vietnam when he was over there?
[00:04:54] Patty: Yes, he did.
[00:04:55] Will Johnson: Pretty heavy time, yeah.
[00:04:56] Patty: Yeah.
[00:04:56] Will Johnson: And does he ever talk about this time there, or did he?
[00:04:58] Patty: He doesn't, but he did a lot of writings that are pretty tough to read.
[00:05:04] Will Johnson: And then later in life, in his 50s and living in Vegas, he was the victim of a robbery.
[00:05:07] Patty: Somebody jumped my brother and beat him so bad that he was unrecognizable.
[00:05:12] Will Johnson: The attack left him with a host of health problems.
[00:05:14] Patty: Slurring speech, um, not as good, his memory was going. They say he has in his medical records at the VA, that he does have early stages of Alzheimer's.
[00:05:27] Will Johnson: So he was in his 50s, if I'm doing my math right, so still a young man relatively.
[00:05:33] Patty: Still a young man.
[00:05:33] Will Johnson: And all of a sudden after having a lot of health issues, he all of the sudden had this very cataclysmic attack and it changed things even more.
[00:05:44] Patty: And at the very same time that was going on, and he was healing, he fell at a movie theater and banged his knee pretty bad. This was getting toward the end of when he was going to be able to work.
[00:05:58] Will Johnson: In other words, tragically, he was the perfect target for Desiree Bolthos and her husband Paul Hill. It was Hill who first approached him.
[00:06:05] Patty: He saw him at a gas station or a smog place or something, befriended him, saw some scratches on Doug's car, said he would come over to the house, and he could do the work for him for a lot less than turning it over to insurance.
[00:06:19] Will Johnson: It's interesting they went after your brother, because I mean you said he had money, but it wasn't necessarily like he was a millionaire. They went after somebody who they just could set up credit cards with, I guess.
[00:06:28] Patty: And if you're a veteran and he always has his VA hat on, and there's one in the window of his car, if you're a veteran you probably own you house, you've got good benefits coming, and they can get something.
[00:06:42] Will Johnson: Did it say it on his license plate?
[00:06:44] Patty: Yeah, disabled vet, yes.
[00:06:46] Will Johnson: So maybe that's how they knew.
[00:06:47] Patty: Yeah.
[00:06:48] Will Johnson: So this guy, anyway he met, he say him at the smog place, went back and said he'd fix his car up.
[00:06:52] Patty: Yeah, and he's coming a few different times and Doug's paying him a couple hundred dollars cash when he comes or a hundred bucks, whatever the guy wants. No big deal.
[00:07:00] Will Johnson: And when did Desiree enter the picture?
[00:07:02] Patty: Well, Desiree came and was introduced as his wife, and it was, she was just hanging outside, and it was a hot day, and she was, either she asked, or Doug said, "Why don't you just go in the house and sit?" It was so hot outside, or she asked for water or something, and she comes in the house and she starts talking to Doug in the house.
[00:07:22] Will Johnson: Right, and what happened?
[00:07:23] Patty: While she's in there, she's getting his, from the desk she takes a group, a box of uh, stash of his checks, his Social Security number was on a piece of paper taped to the mirror, plus all his medical records are right there which have his Social Security number on them. They’ve got his VA disability number, they've got his checking account, they've got his driver's license. They've got everything.
[00:07:49] Will Johnson: So she walks out of the house with all this stuff, and then it's several visits though where she comes back and gets more, or is it just the one?
[00:07:54] Patty: Oh yeah, no, she comes back and gets more. Keeps doing more. I think she was even going to get his mail for him, so that when the credit card showed up, she had them. She could get them, by the time the credit cards would get there, they'd be filled in a week with online shopping, and as soon as she had the number, she was shopping.
[00:08:12] Will Johnson: Was she just stopping for friendly visits as far as your brother thought?
[00:08:15] Patty: Yeah, and I guess it turned into some flirty stuff between the two of them.
[00:08:20] Will Johnson: Right, so he was happy to open the door for her.
[00:08:22] Patty: Exactly.
[00:08:23] Will Johnson: Right.
[00:08:23] Patty: Totally trusted her.
[00:08:24] Will Johnson: And how many times do you think she came by?
[00:08:25] Patty: Oh, I'd say several.
[00:08:26] Will Johnson: Over a period of months, of weeks?
[00:08:28] Patty: Months. Yeah, I think it was about 10 months that she did what she did.
[00:08:34] Will Johnson: But when Patty got a call from her brother that things seemed to be out of place and missing, she didn't know any of this yet.
[00:08:39] Will Johnson: So he called and said there's, there's bills and things are piling up, and things are missing is what he said.
[00:08:44] Patty: Things are missing. He was writing bills and he didn't even know what he was doing, but I guess, because it used to be he had plenty of money.
[00:08:51] Will Johnson: Well you got down there, right? So you flew... did you leave like that day or the next day?
[00:08:55] Patty: Yeah, as soon as I could, like within a couple days I was down there.
[00:08:58] Will Johnson: Patty arrives at her brother's house in Las Vegas. She's stunned.
[00:09:01] Patty: Look at him, he was just... (sigh) beaten down. I think he was embarrassed; he didn't know what to do, he didn't have answers to my questions that made sense. He was like a broken man. For somebody who would give you the shirt off his back, he would give you a meal and go without. I mean he's just like that. Always has been. I walked in and there were papers everywhere. All of his counter in the kitchen, on a loveseat spread all out, and his desk was just piled. Some of this stuff, a lot of it wasn't even opened yet. So I started, I said, "Doug, do you want me to just get in there?" He said, "Yeah, do, do, see if you can figure out what's going on." I said, "Okay." So I started going through stuff, but I saw something about a car, an Escalade, I think it was. And I said, "Did you buy it?" He drives a, a Toyota Rav4 that he's had [00:10:02] for since 2010 or something, it's got like 4,000 miles on it. He has his health; home health workers take him to the doctors sometimes or use it to go to the grocery store. I said, "Did... did you buy a car?" And he goes, "No." I said, "Doug, there's bills here for a $80,000 car."
[00:10:23] Will Johnson: On a credit card?
[00:10:24] Patty: No, a statement saying payment's due.
[00:10:01] Will Johnson: Right, a loan, I gotcha.
[00:10:30] Patty: A loan, yeah, and then I saw going through more things, and I'd see all these credit cards, and I said, "Did you buy pots and pans?" He said, he was a chef, but he's got the best of everything already. He's had the stuff for years. "Did you buy a bunch of pots and pans from QVC?" And then I started looking and there's women's clothes, diamond rings, um, it's all in his name. And it's all like all the QVC shopping was done within a week.
[00:10:57] Will Johnson: On a credit card.
[00:10:58] Patty: On a credit card. Then there was another VISA card; all of it was done within a week, and when I started looking at the statements, it was somebody getting into a Lyft ride going to a cafe for breakfast, getting in a Lyft ride going to uh, Gucci store, buying a $6,000 purse, getting in a Lyft ride doing some shopping, going out to dinner, going to casinos, cash advances. Like 18 credit cards.
[00:11:29] Will Johnson: So whatever was going on, someone had opened up credit cards in his name. Were they also using his existing cards, or just opening up new ones?
[00:11:36] Patty: He only had one card and a checking account and a savings account. They took some of his checks. The account was overdrawn. They had not only purchased a car, they purchased three cars.
[00:11:51] Will Johnson: Was his mental capacity before this happens such that he could get along just fine and manage his own payments and expenses and...
[00:11:59] Patty: No. No, about a year or so ago, he was, before that he was falling behind and not remembering stuff, so the VA had already set up a fiduciary to take over all his bills.
[00:12:13] Will Johnson: Desiree Bolthos had been hard at work, and she'd found the perfect victim. Doug was on the cusp of losing his home.
[00:12:19] Patty: When I got there, I had to negotiate with his home--, the homeowner's association where he lives, and pay them a little under $6,000. He was like 8 days away from losing his house. And I said, "Doug, I don't know what's going on, something is," but I didn't know it was this guy that was coming to the house.
[00:12:40] Will Johnson: Did you know anything about him or the woman?
[00:12:42] Patty: Nope. Nope. Didn't know anything.
[00:12:44] Will Johnson: And he hadn't put the, the two and two together?
[00:12:46] Patty: No.
[00:12:46] Will Johnson: Patty knew something was very wrong. She shipped all of the paperwork and bills and evidence back to Duluth, flew home, and went to work. But before she left, she had a conversation that gave her an idea of how it all started and who was scamming her brother.
[00:13:00] Patty: But I was talking to the gal that was his home health worker at the time. And I said, "Who comes to Doug's house? Who's in here?" And she said, "Well the guy that, this guy that comes and work on his car," she said, "in fact today I got here and he just, he was out in the driveway, had just set his tools down by Doug's car, and when I walked in the door, he followed me right in."
[00:13:22] Will Johnson: But when she said that about the guy coming in the house, did that, were you suspicious at that point?
[00:13:26] Patty: Yes. At that point I went, something, that's who it is. There's something going on with that person coming to the house. I didn't know about Desiree at the time.
[00:13:35] Will Johnson: Investigators in Texas were also digging into the evidence. Among them Lori Varnell, Assistant Criminal District Attorney in Fort Worth, Texas, and the Chief of the Elder Financial Fraud Unit. She heard from several victims, and Desiree was on their radar, but Desiree had skipped town.
[00:13:51] Lori Varnell: So one of the things that we learned is that there may be an address that was in Las Vegas, and we contacted Las Vegas, uh to uh Police Department, to get some assistance, and they ran down uh the address, and sure enough, there she was.
[00:14:10] Will Johnson: Back home in Duluth, as Patty was pouring through all of her brother's paperwork, she got a call.
[00:14:15] Patty: And within a, I don't know, within a couple weeks of me being home, Ron Bolthos calls me.
[00:14:20] Will Johnson: And he is?
[00:14:21] Patty: The DA from Tarrant County, Texas. He had called Doug to say, "Hey, we found one of those vehicles of yours in Texas, and we've arrested Desiree." He said, "Call my sister, Patty, I'm not supposed to talk to anyone." So he called me, and when he told me I went, "Oh."
[00:14:41] Will Johnson: When the police said Desiree was driving the vehicle, did that mean anything to you, cause you hadn't heard...
[00:14:46] Patty: I had seen the name Desiree on a couple things. On a medical bill for plastic surgery in Henderson, California. Her name had popped up a few times in what I was doing.
[00:14:59] Will Johnson: Patty asked her brother about Desiree.
[00:15:01] Patty: And he said, uh somebody's wife that was coming over to the house and without making a stink or getting him too, because I didn't say much to him because he gets confused. Then he gets frustrated, then he gets angry. And that can go really fast.
[00:15:19] Will Johnson: Patty went online and started googling the name Desiree Bolthos.
[00:15:23] Patty: And I'm seeing Desiree Bolthos and I'm seeing this Hill guy, and I'm seeing Texas, and then I'm looking at all of that stuff, and then the DA is calling me saying this is what's going on. Then it all made sense. But I still hadn't, at that point gone through everything.
[00:15:38] Will Johnson: Patty eventually met and learned about other victims; elderly men who Desiree and her husband had taken for everything. One, she had actually married.
[00:15:47] Patty: Yeah and took him for everything. The family got nothing because she was married to him, and got his life insurance, got the home, got the vehicles, got his retirement, got every penny he had. And because they were legally married, there wasn't a thing that the family could do about it.
[00:16:04] Will Johnson: He passed away I believe, right?
[00:16:06] Patty: Yep, he did.
[00:16:08] Lori Varnell: So the victim that she married, uh she married him in 2012, and he passed away in 2016. He died married to her, and he died penniless in an apartment, one room, and what I know about is in the apartment records that we got, put into evidence, when he passed away, they did an inspection on the part--, on the uh, apartment and there was feces and blood on the floor. And that is the condition he was living in.
[00:16:39] Will Johnson: And she had convinced him somehow or other that they were married but she wasn't with him on a regular basis.
[00:16:48] Lori Varnell: Right, and I think it probably began with, you know, I have to take care of my mom and these kids, and let us move in over here, and my brother's going to move in, too, and um, you know, I'll let you know when I have the house ready for you. And then I think by the end, uh, he, you know there are stories of her coming over to his apartment in the middle of the night shaking him down to take the cash out of his pocket, because he would get his paycheck and cash it, and put the cash in his pocket so she couldn't get it from the bank. And she would shake him down in the middle of the night, and he wouldn't get any sleep or rest, and then he was in ill health.
[00:17:24] Will Johnson: In a sense, when you think about what Desiree was capable of doing, Doug was lucky. So was Jim Schmidt, the improbable billionaire we told you about last week who lost $15,000 to Desiree. He learns that police had finally caught up with her. She was behind bars in Texas, and investigators were putting together the astonishing details of her scam.
[00:17:44] Jim Schmidt: I was trying to get the place to bring her back, you know, so we could take her to court, and uh so they kept in touch, and then this Lori, those people said, okay, they had her, and then uh, then I, they flew me down to Dallas/Fort Worth, and, and so then I went to court.
[00:18:03] Will Johnson: Lori Varnell and investigators in Texas were putting together a list of known victims and building their case against Desiree and her husband.
[00:18:10] Will Johnson: What charges were brought against her and her husband?
[00:18:13] Lori Varnell: Well, it began with engaging in organized crime, uh, because of the number of people, that's four, and so in Texas, organized crime has three members, and it's where you continue to commit crimes over and over again together towards the same end. Um, but we dropped that in favor of just doing theft by deception, and that's a very broad kind of thing to prove. Theft by deception and then exploitation of elderly.
[00:21:02] Will Johnson: As the trial finally started, it was the first time that Doug's sister Patty had seen Desiree Bolthos in person.
[00:21:08] Will Johnson: And what was your feeling when you saw her?
[00:21:11] Patty: She was ice cold, ner--, she was nervous. Her mother was also in the courtroom making all kinds of racket that I, telling the attorneys I was staring at her. I probably was because I just wanted to see what it was that Doug was seeing. And I could see her telling her attorney, he wasn't like that when I was around him. He wasn't like that. But he was.
[00:21:35] Will Johnson: Patty knew her brother wouldn't get his money back but testifying meant he'd had some level of protection when creditors came calling.
[00:21:42] Patty: And at first, I thought, why do I need to go? I mean Doug's not going to get a penny of this money back. And they said, because these people are going to come after Doug for the money for these things and you will have a case that you can show them that this person that did it is in prison now.
[00:21:58] Will Johnson: Jim Schmidt wanted to testify. He wanted to see Desiree pay for what she'd stolen from him. At the trial he learned more about the scope of her scam.
[00:22:06] Jim Schmidt: She spent $7 million just at the Bellagio Hotel and I said, "Where did all her money go?" And they said, "Well, she spent 7 million at the Bellagio gambling." And I said, "Well," and then I, I said, "Well, you know, but she had ripped off guys, as you know, for millions."
[00:22:25] Will Johnson: The defense tried to suggest that some of the victims, like Jim Schmidt, were paying Desiree for sex. That didn't hold up in court.
[00:22:32] Jim Schmidt: You know I know that I was a very important link, because she couldn't tell me uh, that you know I was in it for uh, uh, that I was paying for sex. And uh, the jury understood that. I know that. I looked right at her, and she just hid her head down in her hands. They didn't even, they asked, "Defense, do you have any questions?" And they said, "No." That was the end of the, and the jury they, they went out for uh to come back with a verdict or innocent or whatever, and the next morning we all met there, and that's when it came down. She was guilty as charged.
[00:23:13] Lori Varnell: She got sentenced on each count, but they all run concurrently, so it's an 85 year sentence. And uh, as far as I know, she's uh installed in whatever bunk they've put her in. Uh, and there she will stay.
[00:23:28] Will Johnson: But as Desiree was handcuffed and led to prison, her husband, Paul Hill, was not behind bars. Lori Varnell knew he was an integral part of the scams and didn't want to let him get away.
[00:23:39] Lori Varnell: After she got the 85 year sentence, we went to court. Uh, I was requesting that the judge at least put a GPS monitor on her husband to make sure that he didn't skip out. And he never showed.
[00:23:50] Will Johnson: But earlier this year when we were doing interviews for this episode of The Perfect Scam, each person we called told us the news. They had just found out that Paul Hill was behind bars.
[00:24:00] Lori Varnell: We just got word today uh that he was arrested in Las Vegas.
[00:24:04] Will Johnson: Oh wow.
[00:24:05] Lori Varnell: For armed robbery.
[00:24:07] Will Johnson: Today, so you are, you must be celebrating.
[00:24:09] Lori Varnell: We're very glad that he's in custody. And that he's not out doing more damage.
[00:24:13] Patty: I got an email from uh, Ron Bonham, the DA in Tarrant County, Texas, and he said that he sent me a little article that they had arrested him in Las Vegas on a robbery charge. And found out he also had a warrant out of Tarrant County, so they've got him.
[00:24:30] Will Johnson: So did you do a celebratory dance or anything, or...
[00:24:33] Patty: Um, no, I called and let my brother know that they had him. I knew he was in Las Vegas. I just knew he was.
[00:24:41] Will Johnson: Why? Because bad guys go to Las Vegas sometimes?
[00:24:43] Patty: Because she was caught in Texas, he's not going to go back there, because they're looking for him. There's an active warrant there, and you can get lost in Las Vegas.
[00:24:52] Will Johnson: That's what I was thinking, yeah.
[00:24:53] Patty: Yeah.
[00:24:53] Will Johnson: Yeah. Jim Schmidt’s $15,000 is long gone, but he wanted to testify in court, he wanted to talk to us, because he knows it might save someone else from getting scammed.
[00:25:03] Jim Schmidt: And the reason I'm volunteering is I appreciate what you're doing, because it might just deter that next person that comes along and says, I'm going to figure out that she, she was really a scammer, I'm not going to try to do that because look what happened to her. She's got the rest of her life in jail. I'm never going to get my money back, but it's going to help other people maybe from the same thing happening to them, because this crook is going to think twice because look what happened, you know.
[00:25:31] Patty: It sickens me because I know just because these two have been arrested, that doesn't, it doesn't begin to stop the thousands of others that are out there. Maybe hundreds of thousands of people that are out there doing the exact same thing.
[00:25:43] Will Johnson: Knowing Desiree Bolthos and Paul Hill are behind bars doesn't make her feel much relief. She's still worried about her brother.
[00:25:50] Patty: They've got his house with a big red mark on it, they know it, they know him, they know he's easy, they're not done with him. Even if they don't do anything for another six months, they will be back after him.
[00:26:02] Will Johnson: As Chief of the Elder Financial Fraud Unit, Lori Varnell is seeing firsthand how scams like this one can devastate someone. She's learned that staying connected to family, friends, to loved ones is often the lifeline older people need to stay safe.
[00:26:16] Lori Varnell: If you are a senior citizen, you have your retirement set, you're uh, bereaved because of the loss of a spouse, so you're, you're feeling feelings of loneliness, feelings of grief, that's the time when you're the weakest. So just one piece of advice, stay connected to your family, stay connected to your community groups, and don't fall prey to someone who's new in your life, all of a sudden has, is pushing you into a romantic relationship, and then all of a sudden asks for money. That is the pattern that you can follow. Uh, know that's the pattern, recognize your own self and where you are mentally and emotionally. And, and make sure to protect yourself, uh by staying very connected to the people that you love.
[00:27:05] Will Johnson: And I'm back with AARP's Fraud Watch Network Ambassador, Frank Abagnale. So certainly good news, they finally caught up with the common-law husband of Desiree, in Vegas.
[00:27:15] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, you know, when we hear these stories, I'm very, uh I feel very good that we're starting to see people actually getting arrested for these things, being charged and sent to prison for it. If we were having this conversation probably 5, 10 years ago, we'd be talking about it, but nobody would be being arrested for it, and nobody being prosecuted for it. So it is good to see that law enforcement is started to take some of these crimes seriously and started to uh actually act on them and arrest people, whether they were in this country or not in this country, uh, that are defrauding people out of all of this money.
[00:27:47] Will Johnson: This is a little off topic, but we've talked before about being on the run, and, and hiding out. Vegas is one of those places it seems like you can kind of disappear for a little bit.
[00:27:55] Frank Abagnale: Right. And again, if you don't draw attention to yourself or don’t do anything illegal, uh probably no one's going to know you're there.
[00:28:02] Will Johnson: An aspect of this story is that uh, Desiree's common-law husband met one of the victims at a, like a smog or emission type place and said, hey, I'd like to work on your car. It seems like a really nice offer, and you may meet somebody who can work on your car, but again, this is maybe a time and a place when you can be a little suspicious or skeptical
[00:28:21] Frank Abagnale: Yes, and in the case of them, they started then working as a team. So some people, they go after a victim just one on one, then the other say it takes two of them to do it. Sometimes three and five of them to convince the person that they are legitimate. So I think that they just work together on certain things and somethings they did independently of each other.
[00:28:25] Will Johnson: This case is pretty heartbreaking. There's another individual uh who's passed away, but he was mar--, Desiree was married to him. Uh, she didn't live with him, uh for one reason or another she made up excuses, but that's how far in and how deep into this romance scam some people were.
[00:29:00] Frank Abagnale: Oh yeah, I mean we've, we've covered stories where people have got involved in romance scams and have actually asked them to go do something illegal, uh bring something back into the country whether they knew it or didn't know it, uh just because they got involved in uh, with that individual and uh trusted them.
[00:29:17] Will Johnson: Like what?
[00:29:18] Frank Abagnale: Yeah.
[00:29:18] Will Johnson: Like, like drugs or something?
[00:29:20] Frank Abagnale: Like drugs.
[00:29:21] Will Johnson: And Frank, you mentioned they were operating as a team, but uh the, the main scammer in this one with Jim Schmidt and the other victim is, is a woman. So again, it just highlights the fact that men and women, anyone can be scammed. In a romance scam.
[00:29:34] Frank Abagnale: Absolutely. And uh women sometimes even more effective because they can play on the emotions of a man or flirt with someone and get an older man especially who thinks he's getting attention from a younger woman, so you know, that's been going on for a hundred years.
[00:29:48] Will Johnson: And we should mention again, report, report, report if you hear of someone you love, or you think someone you love or, or you think you're involved in a romance scam, tell somebody, call the Fraud Watch Network.
[00:29:59] Frank Abagnale: Absolutely. Report it to the Attorney General's Office. I've always found they're the most effective because, again, they're elected by the citizens of that state, and so obviously their job is to protect the people of that state so they're more apt to uh do something about it, investigate it, and obviously keep better records of those things that are going on within their own state.
[00:30:18] Will Johnson: All right, folks. Stay safe out there and remember you can find us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. Many thanks to our producers, Julie Getz and Brook Ellis, also audio engineer Julio Gonzales, and of course my cohost, Frank Abagnale. If you or someone you know has been the victim of a fraud or a scam, call AARP's Fraud Watch Network Helpline. 877-908-6360.
END OF TRANSCRIPT
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