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Scammer Recruits Grandmother to Launder Money in Romance Scam

The scheme started with a simple request on an online dating website

Grandmother Entangled in Money Mule Scam - promo illustration

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Annie makes the tough decision to put her husband of 35 years into a nursing home for his dementia. She finds her new life without him lonely and decides to join an online dating site to look for a platonic friend. After some time she meets Mark, a widower and architect living in California. Annie, who lives in the Midwest, finds the distance perfect as she wants only a friendship. Annie believes she's found the perfect friend, but in reality she is being lured into an elaborate romance scam.

Quote graphic from episode 59 of the Perfect Scam

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(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:00:01] Michelle: This week on AARP's The Perfect Scam.

[00:00:04] This guy is Academy Award material. My mom can't operate her iPhone, so the fact that my mom was like figuring out how to launder money through a machine at the gas station is like mindboggling to me.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:00:22] Michelle: Welcome back to AARP's The Perfect Scam. I'm Michelle Kosinski, and it is my absolute pleasure to be your new host. I look forward to getting to know you and all those scams that are lurking out there. And we are finding some shocking ones. With me, of course, is Frank Abagnale. Frank, it's thrilling for me to meet you, because I have long been a huge fan, and I have to admit, it was only a couple of months ago I googled you after I once again saw the movie based on your life, Catch Me If You Can, and I wondered what you've been up to lately. So that's when I first heard about this great podcast, and amazingly, and quite by happy coincidence, here we are.

[00:01:04] Frank Abagnale: That's great. Nice to meet you and work with you, Michelle.

[00:01:07] Michelle: So I think we should get started by talking about, first of all, all of the scams that we're seeing now related to COVID-19. And how, for scammers, the hard work has been done for them. People are already scared and they're worried, and they want to get tested and all of that. So, what are you starting to see come out of the woodwork, Frank?

[00:01:25] Frank Abagnale: Those are the exact things I'm starting to see. So I remind people all the time, at this time there is no vaccine treatment or cure for COVID-19. So you need to ignore offers online or in stores that claim to offer treatments for cures. Uh, scammers are always offering coronavirus testing, uh some even going door to door in attempt to steal your health insurance or your Medicare information, or to submit false claims. Uh, never provide your Medicare number to anyone but your own medical professionals. Uh, scammers are back making robocalls, uh text messages to offer air duct replacements to help keep coronavirus out of your home. Uh, that's a scam. Be on the lookout for requests for donations to help people affected by coronavirus. Ask a caller to send information by mail and to defer any decision to give a donation to a cause until you've researched it. Online options are available, like CharityNavigator.or or www.Give.org. Uh links or texts sources you don't know could cause a malicious software virus to be downloaded onto your device, so pause to consider the credibility of the source before you click. Uh, be suspicious of any emails claiming to be from the CDC or experts saying they have breaking news information about the virus, emails from local state or federal government entities will come from an address ending in .gov. And you always can call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 to report a scam.

[00:03:06] Michelle: And you know, I was talking to another fraud expert last week, Frank, who told me that there has been a 350% increase in phishing scams since COVID-19 with 300,000 new suspicious websites just in March. The numbers are incredible that, that there are even that many scammers out there looking to, to hurt people over this.

[00:03:31] Frank Abagnale: It doesn't surprise me at all, because the scammers rulebook is you one, always jump onto the latest thing that's going out. Two, you always play on people's fears, and again, we have so many people at home on their computers, so their audience has gone over a thousand-fold, so they have so many more people that they can reach now that are just sitting home on their computer. So, none of that surprises me, and wouldn't surprise me if we see that number go even higher.

[00:04:01] Michelle: There was a story out of Kentucky where, in one neighborhood, scammers had set up a fake COVID testing site, and they were wearing the masks and medical gear so people could drive up, get a test, and pay more than $200 for it, and it was all just a scam.

[00:04:19] Frank Abagnale: Funny you mention that, because a couple of days ago over my desk came a letter from the city of Charleston that was a fraudulent letter that was being sent out to students at the College of Charleston telling the students that they should come down to an address in downtown Charleston and they can test on a vaccine, they'll will give them $5,000 for just taking the vaccine so it can be tested on them. Obviously, the address was uh just an old abandoned building, and that was just somebody being malicious that wanted to get a bunch of college students altogether standing on line at a vacant building. There was no money to be made, it was just a malicious activity by those. So I think we're seeing all kind of horrible things that we see when these things go on. And we read about those every day in every state, uh going on, because there are all types of scam artists, there are always people trying to take advantage of something like this. Uh, they're using fear to play on. So none of that surprises me. So the best advice I can give to everyone listening is that more than ever before, this is when you need to be most, most careful about parting with information or your money, and be suspicious of anything that you can't stop and verify and check out before you give anyone any money or any information. This is a time to be a much smarter consumer, a much smarter individual. Educate yourself about these scams so that you understand how they work, and be careful during this entire event that's going on in the world today.

[00:05:57] Michelle: Yeah, that is great advice. Thanks, Frank.

[00:05:59] Frank Abagnale: Thank you, Michelle.

[00:06:01] Michelle: So I can't wait to get into this week's story, which is a romance scam, but one so elaborate and bizarre we're going to tell it in two parts. It started with something as simple and ubiquitous these days as, yes, online dating. Now many, many people use online dating. How many you ask? I was curious too, and I found a very recent Pew Research Center study showing that nearly one-third of all American adults have at some point tried it, and 12% of all adults, more than 1 in 10 adults in the United States have found a long term relationship through online dating. So virtually all of us know someone for whom it all worked out just great. Unfortunately, this is not that story. This is about an incredibly intricate, yep, scam. I was dumbfounded by the length these scammers went to, the number of people roped in, all to get... well, you'll see. In fact, in this scam, people have had their lives actually threatened and personal information gathered so we changed some of their names just to help protect them.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:07:10] Michelle: It all starts with a lovely woman we met named Annie.

[00:07:13] Annie: I'm supposed to go to Springfield and tell my story to the legislators.

[00:07:17] Michelle: Oh my gosh!

[00:07:20] Michelle: Annie is a vibrant 70 years old, lives in a small town, actually a quaint village in the Midwest, the kind of place where folks tend to expect or hope to meet kind, caring, salt of the earth sorts of people, and in every respect, Annie seems to be one of them. But just about a year ago, she found herself going through a really tough time; one that you could say started a few years earlier.

[00:07:46] Annie: I just, in this last January, had my 35th wedding anniversary, but um, and I have been married to um, a man who is 14 years older than I am, and we did a Brady Bunch 35 years ago; three of his, three of mine. And I married a man who had four years of sobriety in AA. And I've never had a drink in my life, so I’m totally unfamiliar with alcohol and alcoholism and the traits of that. But fast-forward to 2013, we moved from California to where we are now, and my husband retired and we moved here, but in 2013 he was confined to a wheelchair.

[00:08:41] Michelle: And Annie retired from her job too, to become a fulltime caregiver for her husband, a major change of life for both of them.

[00:08:49] Annie: I look back on that time in my life and I feel like I was sort of on house arrest. You know, I cared for him, he stayed sober, he was diagnosed with dementia, and the dementia brought out, unfortunately, all of the very negative, insecure fears and everything from his alcoholic thinking. So those last two years that I cared for him at home, he turned into a really unkind, abusive, not physically ever, but emotionally and he really destroyed every sentiment and tenderness that was a part of the marriage was just destroyed in those last two years of me caring for him at home.

[00:09:46] Michelle: I'm so sorry to hear that.

[00:09:48] Annie: Yeah, it was really hard because I love him, I still do, and I’m still, you know, caring for him, not at home; he’s at a VA facility now. But those last two years just took all of that away. And I, I have these wonderful memories but, you know, that tender, him caring for me kind of feel just vanished. And so a year ago he went into a VA nursing facility where he’s beautifully cared for, but he doesn’t always know who I am. He tells me how much he loves me, but the dementia makes him a different person. Medical professionals and nurses tell you, but you know that’s the disease. And, and I get that, but they can’t tell you how to make it not hurt, and they can’t tell you how to make it not destroy a 30-year marriage.

[00:10:56] Michelle: And to add to all this trauma, by now, Annie was feeling very alone.

[00:11:01] Annie: I was in a house by myself, which on one hand was a relief because I’d been getting three hours of sleep over the last two years. And I was lonely, and I wanted so much to just have some adult communication. I didn’t want to have an affair, I didn’t want to be unfaithful, even with him up there, that was not what was I was looking for. I was looking for companionship on a distance level. Does that make sense?

[00:11:32] Michelle: So Annie decides to try the popular website Plenty of Fish.

[00:11:36] Michelle: And did you find that there really were plenty of fish out there?

[00:11:40] Annie: I did not find plenty of fish, you know, it was like eh... whatever.

[00:11:46] Michelle: Just as she was about to give up, up pops Mark.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:11:52] Annie: I got contacted by this man, and it was lightweight, and it was friendly. He had a nice sense of humor. And so every couple of days I got a text and we'd text for, you know, a few minutes, and so this went on for probably, I don’t know, maybe a month or so of just; hi, how are ya? You know, what’s going on? What are you up to? Just lightweight. And so that made me feel really comfortable.

[00:12:20] Michelle: They got to know each other nice and slowly, in the usual way, texts, more texts, some calls, hour-long talks, no pressure. A nice soothing voice on the other end of the line. A lovely accent. Mark told Annie he grew up in Sweden and was now based in San Jose, California, a widower, an architect who traveled often and overseas. He had a professional website so Annie could check him out. She saw photos of him; a smiling guy about Annie's age with white hair and a goatee -- nice looking. A snappy dresser, too. All the things and all the ways a woman might really start to feel great about. She even called the number on his website once and another person answered and said Mark was away traveling on business. It all seemed to check out beautifully. They exchange pictures, stories about their families, their grandchildren. As friendships started to turn into affection and weeks turned to months, Mark sent Annie flowers, a cute teddy bear, expensive perfume, even eventually a pricey looking diamond necklace. Then, one day, Mark told Annie he was about to leave for a project in Singapore for three months, and while he was traveling, he still needed to keep tabs on an orphanage in African, in Ghana, that he and his late wife had started years earlier, and that he had vowed to her he would maintain.

[00:13:51] Michelle: Okay, you didn't feel like he was trying too hard to impress or anything like that?

[00:13:56] Annie: No, this guy is Academy Award material. I mean, very smooth, very patient, you know, just little pieces at a time, because I, for me, this was hard for me because fidelity was an issue in my first marriage, and so fidelity is a huge deal to me. And I was trying to resolve in my own thought whether I was being unfaithful just by texting another man, was I, you know, and, and we’re thousands of miles apart, but fidelity isn’t just about, you know, climbing into bed with someone. So, to tell someone else that I loved them was a huge piece that I had to get square before I was going to exchange those words.

[00:14:53] Michelle: Yeah.

[00:14:54] Annie: So it took me much longer than it did him.

[00:14:56] Michelle: And then one day...

[00:14:58] Annie: And then one day, he asked me if I would be willing to be the recipient of donations for the orphanage.

[00:15:11] Michelle: What that meant was that while smiling, nice, charitable Mark was away on business, people wanting to donate to the orphans would send items to Annie's house.

[00:15:21] Annie: So it was, would I just receive the goods? And I was initially uncomfortable with it, and I couldn't give him a reason...

[00:15:31] Michelle: Right.

[00:15:31] Annie: ...except that, eh... I'm not too sure about this.

[00:15:35] Michelle: Yeah, like you're, was, did you think your gut was telling you something there?

[00:15:38] Annie: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. You know, they say that hindsight is 20-20...

[00:15:44] Michelle: But being a giver herself, she did it.

[00:15:47] Annie: If I can say yes and help somebody, I'm on it.

[00:15:51] Michelle: And the stuff that started showing up on Annie's porch through the mail seemed normal enough; clothes, supplies, even food, like rice and beans. She could just imagine the happiness on the kids' faces in Ghana, thanks to sweet loving Mark and his nice orphanage.

[00:16:07] Annie: He would send me um, a Federal Express label and then I would box it into a, 'cause they were individual boxes, I would box it into one box and then take it to Fed Ex and they shipped it to Ghana.

[00:16:23] Michelle: Oh my gosh. Okay.

[00:16:25] Annie: And rice and beans doesn't make you suspicious.

[00:16:30] Michelle: And all the while, are you getting closer and closer to this person, and talk... were you talking about personal things?

[00:16:38] Annie: Yes. Yeah. We talked about my family, 'cause there's nothing in the world more important to me than my three kids and my grandkids. He was an expert, you know, he read me like a book, and, and I'll be honest, I have a tendency to, to just throw open the pages.

[00:16:57] Michelle: The next chapters of which started getting weird, but Annie was so engrossed in the building love story, she barely noticed. Things had gotten to the point after several months now, that they were going to take it IRL, as the kids say, to meet in real life. But each time something suddenly came up.

[00:17:18] Annie: They had had a disaster, a building collapsed at the orphanage.

[00:17:23] Michelle: I want to bring someone else in now, Annie's daughter Sarah, a perfect foil to Annie. Someone who was suspicious of almost everything, almost from the start.

[00:17:34] Sarah: My brother and his wife met online. My sister meets people all the time that are great people. So I’ve tried the online stuff, and I’ve met princes in Ghana, and guys that were in the military that aren’t really in the military. You know, I tried to explain the whole catfish thing to her.

[00:17:50] Michelle: And where love is so often blind, Sarah saw every red flag and then some.

[00:17:56] Sarah: Um, and then, he was supposed to come visit her in September, and something happened with the donors at the orphanage, where he wasn't able to leave, and he was supposed to come at Thanksgiving. And probably 10 days or so before Thanksgiving, he broke his back falling off a ladder supposedly, and oh, she talked to the doctor. And I'm like, "Mom, you've got to be kidding me." And no surgery, mind you, which is awkward and weird. Then it got escalated back down to, he broke his hip, and then it was, he got malaria. The same, same deal with Christmas. He couldn't come at Christmas, there was too much to do, and he was still uncomfortable from healing from falling off the ladder. I mean it was just one thing after another, and I'm like, "Mom, you've got to be kidding me." I'm like, I kept asking her, I'd go, "Have you actually talked to him? Like face-to-face on the phone?" I said, "Mom, it's the 21st century, like there's 11 different apps that you can talk to somebody face-to-face. You have an iPhone. You can FaceTime. You talk my niece almost every day on FaceTime." You know, and there was always a reason why she couldn't talk to him in person, and, you know, I mean this guy was good, and I, I think it, it isn't that you believe it, but you want to believe it, and therefore you do.

[00:19:12] Michelle: Well things didn't just escalate in the excuses or the love department. Mark then asked Annie to start taking money donations from people for that orphanage to help him while he was so busy traveling. She would only need to give him her bank account number, but even then, it seemed harmless enough.

[00:19:31] Annie: So I had a little savings account that had like $30 in it.

[00:19:36] Michelle: Got it.

[00:19:37] Annie: And it wasn't something that I used on a regular basis, so I thought, okay, if I gave that to him, and it wasn't legit or whatever, uh that, you know, I'm going to lose 30 bucks, I can deal with that, you know.

[00:19:51] Michelle: People started sending donations into Annie's account in fairly small amounts, nothing that would seem crazy; 50 bucks here, maybe a thousand there, ultimately totaling though around $34,000, but Mark told Annie since it's hard to get money into Ghana for that needy orphanage, she would need to convert it into bit coin which you can do online through certain banks or using these specialized cryptocurrency ATMs that some gas stations and convenience stores now have, then deposit that into his account.

[00:20:26] Michelle: So all, all of the sudden, you're, you're a savvy bit coin user, and...

[00:20:30] Sarah: Oh, I am so good at this, let me tell you. I could give classes on how to do bit coin. My mom can't operate her iPhone, so the fact that my mom was like figuring out how to launder money through a machine at the gas station is like mindboggling to me, like even the gal at the bank didn't understand bit coin, and my mom is like, well you take this and then you do this, and I'm like, who are you? (chuckles)

[00:20:58] Michelle: Yeah. That was about the last straw for Sarah who, along with her brother and his wife, started going deep doing way more looking into this dream guy, Mark, than her mom would have liked at the time, including checking out his website and googling the address.

[00:21:14] Sarah: Then my sister-in-law finds out it's actually a Chinese restaurant in San Jose, and you know, all these different pieces. And I finally confronted my mom, I'm like, "Look, he's on 12 different dating websites, one of them's for Icelandic Muslims, his name's Derrick or whatever it was.

[00:21:28] Michelle: When Annie's children found out she had sent a laptop to Mark, and about $200, and they got a hold of her phone and saw all those messages, saw everything, they decided to stage a full-on intervention.

[00:21:42] Sarah: And my brother called me, and he's like, "We've got to, we've got to talk to Mom today." And I was like, "What are you talking about?" Like, "Can't we do it tomorrow when I don't have plans?" He's like, "We have to do it today." I just remember feeling completely gutted when my brother told me that she had given this guy a copy of her driver's license and her banking account information. And I just, all I could think about was like, somebody's going to show up at my mom's house, or somebody's traveling around the country with my mom's ID, it was just, it was heartbreaking, because there wasn't anything I could do about it, because I could not get through to my mom. It was really frustrating because I love my mom, and she really is a great person, and to see what she... I knew that the, the end game was going to be bad, and then when we found out about the money, then all I could think about was, I'm going to have to visit my mom in prison, like you know, I just, oh... um, my son just got out of the Army, and I thought, if my mom finds out that this stuff that she's laundering and sending over could have affected military somewhere, it would crush her. Like, I, I don't think she understands like, how hard it was for me to be here watching all of this and have her not listen to me.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:23:03] Annie: But he never asked me for money, and that was one of the things that if he had asked me... in fact, you know to go back, one of the guys that I touched based with in that first Plenty of Fish week, he was in... I don't remember, New York, Connecticut, someplace, and he said that his daughter was traveling in Spain, and would I be willing to buy her a card so that she could use her phone or something like that.

[00:23:36] Michelle: Oh no.

[00:23:36] Annie: I went, I'm outta here, Jack. I said, that does not work for me. And I, I cut him off and ended it. And so, I was savvy enough to, you know, when you hit me in the head with a, with a, a 2 x 4, I kind of get it, but when you come into my heart and then, you know, go that way, eh... not so much. You know, I think because he never asked me for money, I, I was, it didn't ...

[00:24:07] Michelle: Right.

[00:24:07] Annie: ...ring that way.

[00:24:08] Michelle: She didn't feel like she was losing anything. She loved that communication with this seemingly kind and wonderful man. Felt happier than she had in years. Nothing could have prepared her for that confrontation from her own children.

[00:24:24] Annie: Sarah called and said, "Oh, I'm going to come see you, 'cause I haven't seen you in a while." So she came over and the three kids got on the phone and, and my daughter-in-law, and sat me down on the couch and Sam said, “Okay, this is how it works. If you ever have any communication from you back to this person," they couldn’t control his communication with me, but if I responded back, an email, a call, a text, anything, I would never see my kids or my grandkids again.

[00:25:04] Michelle: Oh, wow.

[00:25:05] Annie: And it was not up for negotiation. And it wasn’t that you could have a slip and then we’ll forgive you and we’ll start over. It was, it was, you will never have any contact with us again.

[00:25:20] Michelle: It sounds like they really made that believable too, like you, you took them at their word.

[00:25:24] Annie: Oh, there’s no question in my mind. (chuckle)

[00:25:26] Michelle: Yeah, well that’s, that’s really tough love there. I mean that, that must have been a, a wrenching decision for you.

[00:25:33] Annie: It, it was a, it was a quick, easy decision. I mean there, there was no, I didn’t have to think about it. I mean, that was what was laid out in front of me, and there was no question in my mind about what I would do.

[00:25:48] Michelle: Sure.

[00:25:48] Annie: But the thought of losing what I thought I had in terms of an emotional connection with someone who really got me.

[00:25:59] Michelle: Yeah, had you and Mark talked about being together ultimately?

[00:26:03] Annie: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.

[00:26:06] Michelle: Well how, how did you even get through that day knowing that you were never going to communicate with this man again?

[00:26:13] Annie: I got through the day by going back to the, the nature of truth was to uncover the lie. And obviously I had been lied to, and this was truth’s way of uncovering it for me.

[00:26:29] Michelle: Oh, so you really felt like you're starting to come out of your, your dream state at this point.

[00:26:36] Annie: Yes, yeah, and it, it, it was abrupt.

[00:26:39] Michelle: Did it feel good? Did you feel yourself waking up?

[00:26:43] Annie: I did, and I felt very loved by my kids. I was so grateful that I had kids and adult grandchildren who were kind of on the edge of it. Um, they weren’t directly involved in the intervention, but they were on the edge, and that, you know, a lot of people don’t even have one person to love them that way...

[00:27:05] Michelle: Exactly.

[00:27:06] Annie: And I have these kids and my grandkids, and as harsh and hard as they were, they were not cruel to me in, in any way. They were trying to protect me, and I knew that, and so that part was hard, to let go of what I had felt were Mark and how he made me feel. But the part that made it easier to get through was what my kids kept saying to me, and that was, “Mom, you have grown and changed so much, um, in those 9 months, but it isn’t because of him, it’s because you already had it there, you just didn’t know it. He brought it out in you. You have a confidence. You have a glow about you.” I went and had lunch like in early September with a friend I hadn’t see in six months. I walked into the restaurant and she did not recognize me.

[00:28:10] Michelle: Oh wow.

[00:28:12] Annie: And my kids saw that, you know, change in me, and but they reinforced that it wasn’t because of that relationship, that relationship helped me to see what I already had. So what I had, what didn’t go away because I wasn’t going to be in contact with this person, but that was mine, and I got to hold onto that. And so, at some point in my life, someone else will see that too, that’s real. I can hold their hands and look in their eyes, and they will see that too.

[00:28:48] Michelle: This all only happened weeks ago, and if life were like a TV show or a podcast, you might think, okay, Annie learned a major lesson here. A hard lesson, but scam over, right? All wrapped up with a tidy bow... well no. There's more. And next week you'll find out what else was going on here; the true extent of this scam, when Annie suddenly received flowers, not from Mark, but from some other man addressed to some other woman and what that all means to the people involved here.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:29:27] Michelle: 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; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; Producer, Brook Ellis; Associate Producer and Researcher, Megan DeMagnus, our Audio Engineer, Julio Gonzalez; and of course, fraud expert, Frank Abagnale. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Michelle Kosinski.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

END OF TRANSCRIPT

AARP’s Fraud Watch Network can help you spot and avoid scams. Sign up for free “watchdog alerts," review our scam-tracking map, or call our toll-free fraud helpline at 877-908-3360 if you or a loved one suspect you’ve been a victim.

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