In this 2020 archive episode, 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 joins an online dating site looking for a platonic friend. 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.
[00:00:01] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan. It's natural to look online for love and companionship these days. But risk and danger even might be lurking behind every dating profile. When Annie made the tough decision to put her husband of 35 years into a nursing home so they could care for his dementia, she logged onto the site Plenty of Fish just looking for friendship. When she connects with Mark, a widower who lives on the other side of the country, she thought that distance would keep their relationship safely platonic. Instead, she lands herself in the middle of a scam that's bigger and more dangerous than she could ever have imagined. We're taking a short break to get ready for a new season of The Perfect Scam, so we're revisiting our favorite episodes. This week Grandmother Entangled in Money Mule Scam. I'll let host Michelle Kosinski take it from here.
[00:01:03] 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're 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 where I first heard about this great podcast, and amazingly, and quite by happy coincidence, here we are.
[00:01:45] Frank Abagnale: That's great. Nice to meet you and work with you, Michelle.
[00:01:48] 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?
[00:02:07] 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 an 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.org or www.Give.org. Uh links or texts from 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.
[00:03:47] 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.
[00:04:12] 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.
[00:04:43] 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.
[00:05:01] 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 kinds 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.
[00:06:39] Michelle: Yeah, that is great advice. Thanks, Frank.
[00:06:41] Frank Abagnale: Thank you, Michelle.
[00:06:43] 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.
[00:07:52] Michelle: It all starts with a lovely woman we met named Annie.
[00:07:55] Annie: I'm supposed to go to Springfield and tell my story to the legislators.
[00:07:59] Michelle: Oh my gosh!
[00:08:02] 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.
[00:08:28] 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.
[00:09:23] 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.
[00:09:31] 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.
[00:10:29] Michelle: I'm so sorry to hear that.
[00:10:30] 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.
[00:11:38] Michelle: And to add to all this trauma, by now, Annie was feeling very alone.
[00:11:43] 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?
[00:12:14] Michelle: So Annie decides to try the popular website Plenty of Fish.
[00:12:18] Michelle: And did you find that there really were plenty of fish out there?
[00:12:22] Annie: I did not find plenty of fish, you know, it was like eh... whatever.
[00:12:29] Michelle: Just as she was about to give up, up pops Mark.
[00:12:35] 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.
[00:13:03] 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 Africa, in Ghana, that he and his late wife had started years earlier, and that he had vowed to her he would maintain.
[00:14:34] Michelle: Okay, you didn't feel like he was trying too hard to impress or anything like that?
[00:14:39] 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.
[00:15:36] Michelle: Yeah.
[00:15:37] Annie: So it took me much longer than it did him.
[00:15:39] Michelle: And then one day...
[00:15:41] Annie: And then one day, he asked me if I would be willing to be the recipient of donations for the orphanage.
[00:15:54] 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.
[00:16:04] 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...
[00:16:14] Michelle: Right.
[00:16:15] Annie: ...except that, eh... I'm not too sure about this.
[00:16:18] Michelle: Yeah, like you're, was, did you think your gut was telling you something there?
[00:16:21] Annie: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. You know, they say that hindsight is 20-20...
[00:16:27] Michelle: But being a giver herself, she did it.
[00:16:30] Annie: If I can say yes and help somebody, I'm on it.
[00:16:34] 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.
[00:16:50] 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.
[00:17:07] Michelle: Oh my gosh. Okay.
[00:17:08] Annie: And rice and beans doesn't make you suspicious.
[00:17:14] Michelle: And all the while, are you getting closer and closer to this person, and talk... were you talking about personal things?
[00:17:21] 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.
[00:17:40] 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.
[00:18:02] Annie: They had had a disaster, a building collapsed at the orphanage.
[00:18:07] 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.
[00:18:18] 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.
[00:18:34] Michelle: And where love is so often blind, Sarah saw every red flag and then some.
[00:18:40] 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.
[00:19:56] 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.
[00:20:15] Annie: So I had a little savings account that had like $30 in it.
[00:20:20] Michelle: Got it.
[00:20:21] 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.
[00:20:35] 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.
[00:21:10] Michelle: So all, all of the sudden, you're, you're a savvy bit coin user, and...
[00:21:14] 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)
[00:21:42] 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.
[00:21:58] 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.
[00:22:12] 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.
[00:22:26] 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.
[00:23:47] 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.
[00:24:20] Michelle: Oh no.
[00:24:21] 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 ...
[00:24:51] Michelle: Right.
[00:24:51] Annie: ...ring that way.
[00:24:53] 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.
[00:25:08] 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.
[00:25:49] Michelle: Oh, wow.
[00:25:50] 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.
[00:26:04] Michelle: It sounds like they really made that believable too, like you, you took them at their word.
[00:26:08] Annie: Oh, there’s no question in my mind. (chuckle)
[00:26:11] Michelle: Yeah, well that’s, that’s really tough love there. I mean that, that must have been a, a wrenching decision for you.
[00:26:18] 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.
[00:26:32] Michelle: Sure.
[00:26:34] Annie: But the thought of losing what I thought I had in terms of an emotional connection with someone who really got me.
[00:26:44] Michelle: Yeah, had you and Mark talked about being together ultimately?
[00:26:48] Annie: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
[00:26:51] Michelle: Well how, how did you even get through that day knowing that you were never going to communicate with this man again?
[00:26:58] 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.
[00:27:14] Michelle: Oh, so you really felt like you're starting to come out of your, your dream state at this point.
[00:27:21] Annie: Yes, yeah, and it, it, it was abrupt.
[00:27:24] Michelle: Did it feel good? Did you feel yourself waking up?
[00:27:27] 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...
[00:27:50] Michelle: Exactly.
[00:27:50] 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 for 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.
[00:28:54] Michelle: Oh wow.
[00:28:57] 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.
[00:29:32] 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.
[00:29:53] Michelle: Welcome back to AARP's The Perfect Scam. Annie, from the Midwest, who after 35 years of marriage found herself suddenly alone at home every day. Her husband now in a nursing home with dementia. Annie started looking for some basic companionship and conversation and was surprised to meet someone online on the site Plenty of Fish, someone who appeared to be a kind, thoughtful architect based in California.
[00:30:22] Annie: Very smooth, very patient, you know, just little pieces at a time.
[00:30:27] Michelle: A man she really felt she was getting to know, over a year's time. But sure enough, since this is The Perfect Scam, things started to get strange when he asked Annie to accept donations for an orphanage he said he and his late wife had started in Africa, and he had an elaborate excuse every time they were supposed to meet in real life.
[00:30:51] Annie: This guy is Academy Award material.
[00:30:55] Michelle: You really need to listen to that last episode and hear Annie tell this in her own words. But where we left off, this supposed architect man of her dreams was using her bank account to take supposed donations which she was then converting into bit coin and sending to his account while he was supposedly traveling. Annie's adult kids got wind of all this, had had enough and had just presented Annie with a tough ultimatum; give up entirely this man that she by then loved and saw a future with, or lose all contact with her beloved children and grandchildren. For Annie though, it was a no-brainer. She agreed to quit her online relationship cold turkey from that day this past January.
[00:31:41] Michelle: So days pass -- does it take all of your strength not to text this person or return his calls?
[00:31:49] Annie: It didn't. The price was way too high, and I got in... between 6 in the morning and 9 in the morning, I got 35 texts and 15 unanswered phone calls.
[00:32:03] Michelle: You're a strong person to not pick up that phone. And as days are ticking by and you don't have the companionship of Mark, is there something in your mind that says, well, I still want to believe that what he's saying is true?
[00:32:20] Annie: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.
[00:32:22] Michelle: It's hard to break that off, isn't it?
[00:32:24] Annie: It's really hard to shut it off because you think, what, you know, 'cause you'd look at this picture and you'd think, what if they're wrong? And then, you start thinking, so, if this is not this person, who is this guy? And, and I'd like to meet him. (chuckle)
[00:32:45] Michelle: And the kind of messages Annie and Mark were exchanging every day before this were deeply personal. They'd talk on the phone too, a few times a week, hour-long conversations. Here's one actual text Mark had sent her voiced by one of our staffers.
[00:33:01] (text) "It's the start of the day and I was thinking about you, as usual. I want you to know how much I sincerely love the times we've spent talking. It means so much to me. It truly seems like I've known you forever, and I honestly can't imagine life without you now. There will be no looking back, no second thoughts, and no regrets. I want you and need only you, and that love will only grow stronger. Do not be scared, my love, sometimes life hits you with unexpected things that take you totally by surprise. All I can say is, you're the best surprise life has given me, and your capacity for love, caring, and understanding never ceases to amaze me. I've truly been blessed by finding you, and I'll never let you go."
[00:33:58] Michelle: He invested a lot of time.
[00:34:00] Annie: Oh yeah, yeah, very sweet, never was not a gentleman, you know.
[00:34:06] Michelle: But something else was also happening. Around this same time, just before Annie's kids confronted her with their intervention of sorts, Annie got another package at her house.
[00:34:19] Annie: I came home from running errands, and there was this little bouquet of flowers. And it said a different person’s name on it, but my address. And I thought, that’s weird. And so I came in and the name of the woman on those flowers rang a bell, but I couldn’t connect it right away.
[00:34:45] Michelle: The flowers were for Sasha, and Annie started looking in the right direction, Mark's architecture website. Sure enough, listed as the company's accountant is this beautiful, smiling young woman in a white tank with long, flowing dark hair named Sasha. Just before Annie cut off all contact with Mark, she had asked him about this. Why would she be getting Sasha's flowers at her house? And Mark told her Sasha had probably just used Annie's address because some guy was trying to send her flowers or something, and she just wanted to get rid of him. That might have been the end of it, but wait, there's more. Annie starts getting cards and letters addressed to Sasha from someone named William. But this is just a minor annoyance for Annie at this point who, by now, after her kids gave her that ultimatum, had cut off all contact with Mark, frozen her bank account that she used for him, and called her local sheriff about this whole thing. She was doing her best to ignore Mark's constant calls and voice mails, emails, texts saying things like...
[00:35:55] (text) "I am finding it difficult to believe that you, of all people, blocked me. Such a cold world. I still love you, and if you ever change your mind, you know where to find me. Your forever love, Mark."
[00:36:09] Michelle: You can imagine the pain for the woman who thought she knew this man. But Annie soon had a new creepy twist to contend with. Yes, another one.
[00:36:19] Annie: There was a message on my machine at home saying, “My name is such and such, and I know this is an odd phone call, but I would like to get some information about an individual who says they’re living at your address.” And he left a phone number, and I was cautious because my kids said, you know, “Be careful who you talk to, because it might be somebody that he has connected to trying to get back at you,” because I had not answered the phone or text messages.
[00:36:54] Michelle: Sure.
[00:36:55] Annie: And so I really thought about it, I listened to the message over and over. There was definitely a smooth Southern accent, you know, American Southern accent, and so I thought, okay, so I’ll take a chance. So I called this person, and he explained that he was calling on behalf of his uncle who had been in touch with this woman who gave my address as her home and that I was her aunt. And so I gave him the name, and he was stunned.
[00:37:29] Michelle: And he was sending cards to this Sasha person. Was Sasha also looking for money?
[00:37:36] Annie: Apparently. And the person I talked to in the South was not the person who sent the flowers.
[00:37:42] Michelle: Right. So that must have been the realization, like you are the hub...
[00:37:47] Annie: Yeah.
[00:37:48] Michelle: ...for multiple scams.
[00:37:50] Annie: Yeah, I did not sign up for this.
[00:37:56] Michelle: The man on the phone told Annie his Uncle Eldridge had fallen in love online with a woman named Sasha, and remember, this is a different man from the William who is also sending flowers and cards to Sasha. So, this means Annie unwittingly became the hub, the laundress of the proceeds of all these other love scams. The donations for that African orphanage pouring into Annie's bank account over a year, about $34,000 worth, now seemed to have been from men generously sending it to someone they thought they cared for. This wasn't one scam, it was many scams all rolled into one, and though Annie didn't give much of her own money, the scammers used her to collect and launder all their dirty earnings from who knows how many other broken hearts.
[00:38:53] Todd: I've seen a lot of scams, and this one was way superior to anything I've ever seen.
[00:39:01] Michelle: Todd Young, a Louisiana financier, told about his uncle, 76-year-old Eldridge who lives down the street from him. He was married for decades but after a difficult divorce, he, like Annie, found himself jarringly alone. So Todd looks after him as much as he can. On his own, Eldridge also decided to try out this new online world of dating, just to find someone to talk to and share life with. Simply to love and be loved.
[00:39:31] Todd: He really just started focusing on, you know, finding companionship.
[00:39:36] Michelle: And did he tell you, "I've met this amazing woman online."
[00:39:42] Todd: He showed me the pictures, and, and I looked at the pictures and I said, "This is, you know, I'm just going to be honest with you, this girl is out of my league. And I still think I have it, you know, I, I still think I'm, you know, I still think I've got some gas in the tank, so to speak."
[00:40:03] Michelle: Oh... well that, that's a tough thing to have to tell somebody.
[00:40:07] Todd: It really is.
[00:40:08] Michelle: Did he get mad?
[00:40:09] Todd: But you know, the truth, you know, needs to be said, I think in, in a lot of instances.
[00:40:13] Michelle: Sasha had told Eldridge she lived at Annie's address and worked for Mark's architectural firm. So you can see how this was all intricately connected, so that when Eldridge or his nephew looked up the architect's website, there was, indeed, this picture of a beautiful woman named Sasha among the staff. The two of them, Sasha and Eldridge, talked all day for days about everything. Sasha was exotic and entrancing, even related to royalty she said, and was a good listener. Soon, she was telling Eldridge she loved him, that she could see them being together forever, that that's what she wanted. Once Eldridge showed his nephew the photos, Todd was instantly suspicious, but Eldridge was lovestruck.
[00:41:01] Michelle: So did it just take, you know, a short time for him to feel like he, he had fallen head over heels for this person?
[00:41:07] Todd: I think within four days he had asked her to marry him.
[00:41:14] Michelle: Wow.
[00:41:14] Todd: Sasha sent him a bouquet of flowers the following day saying, "I accept your marriage proposal." And at that point, I'm involved.
[00:41:24] Michelle: Sasha next told Eldridge, her mother fell off a ladder and was in the hospital in Ghana, was badly hurt, might even die, and the family couldn't afford the $2800 surgery.
[00:41:36] Todd: He called and said, "Hey, what do you know about STEAM cards? And what do you know about Google Play cards?" And it, the red flags just went up immediately.
[00:41:49] Michelle: Yeah.
[00:41:50] Todd: And I said, "Are, are you a PC gamer? Do you need STEAM cards?" And he said, "I don't even know what they are, that's why I'm calling you."
[00:41:58] Michelle: Eldridge had gone to his bank to try to get money out and buy these cards to send to poor Sasha, but the bank, sensing a scam, had stopped him from doing it. And by now, only 4 days into knowing about this online relationship, Todd had had more than enough of this woman.
[00:42:16] Todd: I said, "Okay, I'll tell you what." And I had taken him to the police station, who said, "This is a, this is just a total scam." I took him to the bank who would not let him withdraw $2,000 because he told him exactly what he was doing.
[00:42:37] Michelle: Many banks do now have guidelines in place to warn customers and help them stop suspected fraud. Some tellers even get special training, like through the AARP's Bank Safe Program. This time, the bank seemed to know immediately what was happening to Eldridge.
[00:42:54] Michelle: But even, it, it's stunning that even then, it's really hard to get somebody out of this.
[00:42:59] Todd: She called him. I got on the phone, and I said, "Hey, I know what you're doing." And I could hear the, the African accent.
[00:43:08] Michelle: Hmm.
[00:43:08] Todd: So I immediately knew just because of the, the field of business that I'm in, that this was, this was, this was gonna go bad.
[00:43:18] Michelle: Oh, gosh. Did, what did he say?
[00:43:21] Todd: I said, "I'm pretty sure, within 99.8% sure that, that you're getting scammed." And he said, "Well, you know, she's, she's not really asked me for a lot of money."
[00:43:39] Michelle: Oh... so when you, when you had this Sasha on the phone, this what, 30-year-old bombshell, is that what she presented herself as?
[00:43:48] Todd: And through, you know, Google reverse search, she is a well-known adult entertainment model.
[00:43:56] Michelle: This is something, by the way, anyone can do. On Google Images you can upload a photo and with one click search the internet for other places that same picture is being used.
[00:44:07] Michelle: So when get this person on the phone, does, does she sound like her picture? Does, does the voice match the photo?
[00:44:14] Todd: The voice does not match the photo.
[00:44:17] Michelle: When you confronted her on the phone, what did she say?
[00:44:20] Todd: Well, she hung up. Um, got angry, hung up, called my uncle back about an hour later and said, "Why is your nephew running your emotional life?"
[00:44:33] Michelle: Oh...
[00:44:35] Todd: And he's kind of all in on this girl at this point.
[00:44:39] Michelle: Todd clearly cares deeply for his uncle who's been suffering from diabetes and the start of Parkinson's Disease.
[00:44:46] Michelle: Did he get angry with you?
[00:44:47] Todd: Yes. I was kind of balking at his dream, so to speak.
[00:44:53] Michelle: Todd persisted though. He told his uncle, if he could get some proof that Sasha and her mother were real, Todd would even help him get the money to her. Eldridge did get the name of Sasha's mother, a doctor, and a hospital which Todd called, but there was no patient by that name there. Now Uncle Eldridge's bubble is finally starting to burst. And a day later, Todd got him to speak on the phone to Annie to help him see the light that sometimes the greatest online love of all really is too good to be true.
[00:45:29] Annie: It breaks my heart because we've had several conversations...
[00:45:33] Michelle: So now you're the one doing the intervention trying to wake up somebody else.
[00:45:38] Annie: Yes, yes, and he stepped in, the, the nephew stepped in, fortunately, and saved him. So um, but he, you know, it's like, well okay, so that was her, but there, there's, there's others, others out there.
[00:45:52] Michelle: But you must look at this uncle and say, "I was there, that was me." Now you, you get to see yourself.
[00:46:00] Annie: Yeah. and, you know, and I feel bad for him because I understand, he's alone, he's lonely, he's wanting that connection with another person. You want someone to witness your life, and that you can share with and that stuff, but I said, you know, I'm sorry, but, you know, a 30-year-old is not going to be your ticket to happiness.
[00:46:27] Michelle: It must be tough to see this happening.
[00:46:30] Todd: It's extremely difficult, because we want our loved ones to see what we see. But they don't always see what we see, which is why I think it's a good idea to have just a really strong solid support base of people behind you that can lead you in the right direction, in, in any manner of life, whether that's healthcare, you know, finances, whatever.
[00:46:57] Michelle: Sure. What do you think it's going to take to get your uncle away from this stuff?
[00:47:05] Todd: (sigh) That's a great question. He sees that this person is fraudulent...
[00:47:14] Michelle: I see.
[00:47:14] Todd: ...but that doesn't keep him from continuing to fish in the same shark-infested waters.
[00:47:20] Michelle: Got it.
[00:47:21] Michelle: Annie's online world came crashing down only weeks ago, and she has continued to get messages from this fake guy, Mark, only now they're not nearly so nice and imploring and loving. In fact, they're clearly threatening, and frankly, weirdly terrifying. In one he says,
[00:47:41] (text) "It's better to be late than to be called the late Annie. Think about your family. This is not a warning, but you have been warned voodoo. I am saying no more."
[00:47:53] Michelle: He sent photos of an African witch doctor with potions and bones and what looks like blood spattered on the wall, spattered on photos of Annie, her family, and baby granddaughter that she had sent him. He threatens to destroy her family, that they will die one by one. Not exactly how she expected this deep love affair to end, and imagine your loved one or parent getting threats like this.
[00:48:21] Annie: I changed my emails; I blocked all the calls that come in on those numbers.
[00:48:26] Michelle: Are you frightened; you're not frightened of him.
[00:48:28] Annie: No. It rattles your cage, but you know, the sheriff, bless his heart, he has been absolutely fantastic to me and helped me through so much of this. And he said, "People get threats all the time on these kind of scams," and he said, "I've never had anything happen to anybody from those threats."
[00:48:57] Michelle: As heart wrenching as this all is, for all the families involved, it breaks your heart just hearing about it. You could say that Annie and even Uncle Eldridge are the lucky ones. That they both had families that stepped in forcefully almost, and kept them from going any further. Neither of them lost tons of money, what could have been their life savings.
[00:49:17] Michelle: Down in Louisiana, Todd's Uncle Eldridge is doing his best to get over his heartbreak.
[00:49:23] Michelle: So he didn't lose money, but what does he lose from something like this?
[00:49:30] Todd: I think he loses hope. I think he loses, you know, the, the sense that there's good in humanity, the knowledge that someone his age could find a companion. You know, he's, he's lost the hope of that.
[00:49:45] Michelle: What do you think prevents somebody like your uncle from just going to the grocery store and chatting up someone, or going to the senior center, or the community park and, and trying to meet a real person?
[00:49:59] Todd: I have told him that I would go with him to do those things. I even took him to our local cafe where I know that all the elderly people meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9 a.m. I took him over there, and I introduced him to everybody who said, "Hey, come back next week." You know, "We would be glad to have you." Then, you know, it seems he was fixated on finding this young woman who was out of his league.
[00:50:32] Michelle: So your heart must go out to all of the people, people just looking for love and companionship.
[00:50:39] Todd: You know I 100% feel for them, and I understand that, you know, they get lonely, and they look for somebody to connect with. You know their children may have busy lives, and, you know, maybe not reach out to them or go over and spend time with them as much as they would like to. And so they get lonely and they kind of start looking around, and they decide that hey, a dating website might be a good place to go, and while it might be a good place to go, you have to also know that there are people there that are going to actively target you as a victim of a crime. It was so elaborate; it was so well thought out. Really what she was doing was just you know, saying, "I love you; I want to be with you forever," you know, just the typical bait that they would use on somebody who's vulnerable like that. But they had created a website, you know, they had done all kinds of really expensive things in order to make the story real.
[00:51:52] Michelle: Yeah.
[00:51:53] Todd: Every comeback that we had, there was an answer for it. Like it was scripted.
[00:52:00] Michelle: In a sense, the worst thing about it is not the money, it's the fact that they're preying on lonely people who want to love and be loved.
[00:52:10] Todd: Right. Right, that's all they're looking for. You know, that's what our loved ones are looking for. And on the other end, you have somebody that's telling them that that's what they're looking for, when really what they're doing is trying to empty their bank account.
[00:52:28] Michelle: Today, Annie has come out the other side, and she sounds like she's doing great. She lost what she thought was the love of her life and the spring in her step that came with that. After years of exhaustion and sadness, remember, she finally had a reason to dress up a little, have some confidence that everyone around her noticed. So now she's speaking out about all this, and has actually teamed up with her local sheriff's department to help warn other people and work with them to avoid this happening to them. She sounds really happy to find a positive goal out of all this horror.
[00:53:07] Annie: When you're in the situation I was in, my heart just overrode all of that. Because I had been without that care and affection for so many years, and that was what I was longing for. And one of the really good things that came from this experience was my son set up a message thing where my son and daughter-in-law and both of my daughters and I are all connected on, so I can write one thing, and everybody sees it. And I think that I didn't want to burden my adult kids with all the stuff I was going through, but I don't think I conveyed to them how alone and lonely I was.
[00:53:55] Michelle: Yeah, well it's, it's hard to admit that to, to people who love you, 'cause you don't want to make them feel bad.
[00:54:01] Annie: Yeah, yeah, and it's, you know, and two are in Wisconsin and my daughter's here, and she's working 60 hours a week, and everybody's busy, and I get it. And so, it was like I, you know, I'm not going to convey that to them, 'cause that just makes them feel bad that they didn't come to visit, and I don't want that. I don't want my kids to feel...
[00:54:18] Michelle: Yeah...
[00:54:19] Annie: ...like they have to go take care of Mom, you know, I'm fine, you know, and I didn't realize how not fine I was until this situation. But having that, we, we are all committed to being 100% honest with each other about everything, our feelings, where we're at, what hurts us, what bothers us.
[00:54:39] Michelle: That's wonderful. You've been through hell and back. You got a crash course in online dating, WhatsApp, uh, bit coin, and Face ID. You, you know it all.
[00:54:51] Annie: I’m really good at this.
[00:54:53] Michelle: So, Mark is in front of you, say, what, what do you say to this guy today after this year of rollercoaster, and hell, really?
[00:55:04] Annie: Um, I would probably tell him that I feel really bad for him. He had a verbal relationship with a really amazing woman. She is loving, she’s happy, she’s generous, she is full of love and loves everybody. She has a strong family base, she has a strong faith, and you blew it.
[00:55:36] Michelle: Out of her experience, she also has a much deeper communicative relationship with her children. But even now, there are dark reminders. She is still getting cards and gifts at her home sent by other lonely souls to names that are no more than scammers with dollar signs in their eyes and hungry bank accounts.
[00:55:58] Annie: There was a big teddy bear and three boxes of chocolates sitting on the front porch. I, I opened up the card and it said, “I love you now and forever,” and it just had XOXOXO. So the sheriff’s department got the three teddy bears that I ended up with, but I said, you know what, these are beautiful flowers, and those flowers instead of being a reminder of what I thought I lost, is a reminder to me of what’s ahead. I’m determined to not be a victim and to be the victor.
[00:56:36] Michelle: That is a beautiful, beautiful story.
[00:56:40] Annie: So I, I choose not to be a victim. And I, I think that in choosing not to be a victim, it allows me to help others with the story to not be victims. And if you’ve been a victim, then you can move on. It, it does not have to stop where you are. So we need to get to the victims before they become victims.
[00:57:07] Michelle: Yeah.
[00:57:07] Annie: And getting the word out there is the only way we can prevent it. It's one of those things. You know people laugh about, you know, karma and everything, but I grew up with, you know, "as you sow, so you reap." And if they are sowing heartbreak and dishonesty and those kinds of seeds, that's what, at some point they will reap that.
[00:57:32] Michelle: Take great care of yourself, and I hope we speak again sometime.
[00:57:37] Annie: I, I would love to, Michelle, and thank you so much for what you guys are doing.
[00:57:41] Michelle: Thank you.
[00:57:42] Michelle: An emotional rollercoaster with more seats than anyone expected, and plenty more cars just waiting to be filled. Let's talk to Fraud Expert, Frank Abagnale now about all we've just heard, the elaborate nature of this. And, you know, they pulled out all the stops with this website and the gifts, the phone calls. It seems like a lot of work for not that much money, am I right?
[00:58:08] Frank Abagnale: Right, but there's a lot of people out there, and when you think about people who do this for a living, and keep in mind they're all over the world, it's not just one person. They might be taking that same approach and doing it with 30 or 50 people. We've actually seen romance scams double in the last uh 12 months. So those types of scams are getting very popular. And I always tells people, you never wire money or cash or put money on a gift card for someone you have met online. You know, the red flag is all of those things, is that no matter what's going on in the conversation or the so-called romance scam or someone you meet online, everything's fine till that person brings up the two red flags. At some point they're going to ask you to send them some money or they're going to start asking you for personal information like your bank account number or social security number, or credit card numbers. You know, in this scam we saw that, that, you know, they wanted to leave a dating site immediately, in personal email, instant messaging to communicate with each other, that he professed his love too quickly to her, uh claims to be from the US, but he's traveling and working overseas, uh plans to visit but cancels at the last minute because of an event or a business deal gone sour. Asks for money for a variety of reasons; travel, medical emergencies, hotel bills, hospital bills for a child, another relative, uh visas and official documents; All of these things should be huge red flags for people. And in this time and day and age with all of this going on, you have to even be double careful than you normally would under normal circumstances, and you have to be suspicious of anything that gets into you sending someone some money or giving someone some personal information that you don't really know and have just met online.
[00:59:56] Michelle: I'm amazed that you said that these things have doubled in the last year. That’s incredible to me. Why do you think they're exploding like this?
[01:00:05] Frank Abagnale: Because they work, and they play on people who are lonely and people who are sitting at home and they're on their internet and they're looking for people to have conversations with, and, you know, the internet makes it so easy, 'cause these things can go on; sometimes some of these romance scams for maybe six months or even a year before someone ever asks you for anything. So, you feel very comfortable. You’ve gotten to know them really well; you have the same interests. They sound like they're wonderful people, but you notice that they're not coming to see you, they're not arranging to have a meeting with you, and even if it goes on for a long period of time, at some point in that romance scam, they have to come to the point of asking you for money or information. And that's when you need to raise the red flag and simply say to yourself, yes, I've had a great relationship with this person on the phone and online, but I've actually never met them; I don't know who they really are. Should I be sending this person money? And you keep in mind, again, they are not just working you so that they're spending a whole year wasting time trying to get you so they can scam you, they've got maybe 50 or 100 other people they're working constantly, and sometimes it's a group of guys or women doing the same thing. We live in a world where it's not that difficult to check people out. You can google names, you can go to LinkedIn, you can look up a lot of things by just typing someone's name in and tracking back, is that person really who they say they are? Do they really work at that company? Are they married, not married? It's not that difficult to do. You can go to public records, you can go check a lot of things if you're a little bit suspicious, especially if you think they're starting to ask you for money or information.
[01:01:49] Michelle: One thing that I wonder about is, when you see the scammers going to these great lengths, and even coming up with fake websites, which isn't that uncommon, are they doing all of this because people are getting savvier to these romance scams? Or are they just getting better at their, at their fake jobs?
[01:02:09] Frank Abagnale: They're getting better at their fake jobs, and they will change, and they change the story or the approach a, a little bit. And that's why education is the most powerful tool to fighting these types of crimes. And that's why it is so important, the work that AARP does, the Fraud Watch Network does, the podcast does in helping to try educate people so that they understand how these scams work, because once they hear it, they understand it.
[01:02:35] Michelle: Okay. So in this story, Frank, we saw Annie, even though her family was telling her these are red flags, these are red flags, one thing that kept her going was that the man never asked her for any money directly. He only had her taking these donations for his fake orphanage in Africa, so she felt like, well I'm not really losing anything, I'm just helping him out with these donations. He's not asking me for any money. But so often in these romance scams we see the person doing exactly that; being a mule, not the person who's giving the money, right?
[01:03:13] Frank Abagnale: Absolutely.
[01:03:14] Michelle: So it's like it, even if they're not getting money from you, they could still use you to inadvertently launder money, and I know that the DOJ says this is pretty common in romance scams.
[01:03:26] Frank Abagnale: Right.
[01:03:27] Michelle: Also, I want to mention, we just heard from our friends over at the DOJ's Consumer Protection Branch, and they say unless a scammer's website is clearly, clearly fraudulent, which then the DOJ can just pull down right away, they generally fall into the Protected Free Speech category, so then it can take months, if not years, to gather proof and build a complex fraud case, even more complicated or even impossible when the perpetrators are in other countries which they very often are. But back to this case, this woman, Annie, thought she had vetted Mark pretty well through his website which, in no way looked fake, and then she became a mule without even knowing it. She thought she was taking donations for an orphanage. She thought she was helping people instead of hurting people. So even if you're not giving away your own money, you could still be, be doing something that is illegal technically and not even know it.
[01:04:26] Frank Abagnale: Yes, we actually had a romance scam on The Perfect Scam a while back, and where an individual that was confined to a wheelchair, an elderly gentleman, met a young girl who supposedly was in the real estate business, kind of became a romance scam, and then she asked him if he would go to Spain and pick up a package for her. And uh he, she would pay all of his travel expenses and hotel expenses and all that, and you know, he'd said to her, "Well, you know, I'm in a wheelchair," and she, but she kind of convinced him, and he was romantically kind of involved with her on the, through the internet, and so he went ahead and went to Spain and picked up the package, and he was arrested by the authorities there and ended up in jail because of the contents of the package, and it took a lot of work from his son to get him out of jail. So yes, there are a lot of people who are used and not realize they're being used. You're part of the scam even though you don't know you’re part of the scam.
[01:05:22] Michelle: That is great information. Thanks so much, Frank. We'll see you next week.
[01:05:26] Frank Abagnale: Sounds good. See you next week.
[01:05:28] 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.
END OF TRANSCRIPT
Editor's note: This article was originally published on April 15, 2020 and has been updated with new information as an archive episode for the Perfect Scam.
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