What do you do when you learn your parent is wrapped up in a scam? Christine’s mother is a giving, caring woman who never raised her voice in anger throughout Christine’s childhood. But when her mother starts online dating, her personality changes. Now she’s up at all hours of the night texting with a man she’s never met. She’s dismissive and easily angers if family members question the relationship. When her mother begins giving this new online boyfriend her hard-earned money, Christine really starts worrying, and with good reason. Christine’s mom, it turns out, is addicted to her online relationships forged with multiple scam artists. Across the country, another family deals with a similar issue.
[00:00:01] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:04] I don't know what else can be done. So many people have told her that this is a scam, and she just freezes up and doesn't talk. And my mom was so talkative, you couldn't get her to stop talking. It's a complete personality change. It's mind-blowing.
[00:00:21] Bob: Who hasn't done just about anything for love? I sure have. Everyone has. Our need to connect is perhaps our strongest human impulse made so much harder by the coronavirus. And the power of loneliness, well it might be the world's strongest motivator. Heartstrings and broken hearts make us all vulnerable. That's why romance scams cheated victims out of almost nearly half a billion dollars last year according to the FBI. Things have gotten so bad the Bureau issues a warning recently just to raise awareness. In Idaho last year, more than 100 people said they'd been hit for more than 1 million dollars each, but these aren't just numbers, they're people and entire families, some who lose every penny and suffer emotional trauma. In this two-episode special, you're going to hear from two of them, a daughter desperately trying to break the romantic spell cast on her recently widowed mom, but who just can't break through, and a son who recently did manage to help his mom through love and understanding and patience. Here's our story, "Addicted to Love."
[00:01:36] My mom goes out of her way to help anyone. She has just the biggest heart. She is so kind, so gentle, I've really never ever seen her yell. She was a nurse for my entire life. She was always in the medical field, she was always taking care of people and she was just the sweetest, kindest little thing ever.
[00:01:57] Bob: You've never seen your mom yell?
[00:02:01] No, never, in my entire life.
[00:02:03] Bob: Wow, that's amazing.
[00:02:04] She gets loud, but I've never seen her yell. Sometimes when she gets mad, I think she might yell; I'm just waiting for it to happen, and she just starts laughing because she doesn't know why I'm like laughing at her, but it's because she doesn't know how to get mad.
[00:02:21] Bob: Christine is 25, and her mom is is 68. They live in the Midwest. It's clear how much Christine loves her mom and her father too.
[00:02:30] Christine: My dad was in the military, and when he came back home, he wanted to be a cook because he was a cook when he was in the Navy and the National Guard. It was like his fun, fun thing, so my dad was a cook, and um, my mom was a nurse.
[00:02:48] Bob: Wow, well do you remember what some of his favorite meals to prepare were?
[00:02:53] Christine: My dad was a big cast iron skillet old kind of country style cooking, so lots of butter and everything. Um, fried chicken in a cast iron skillet, and he used to use two pounds of butter to fry his chicken in it. I know it sounds crazy, but it was, it was, when I was younger, I loved it. Growing up now, I, I couldn't, I couldn't have any of it.
[00:03:18] Bob: (laugh) Maybe once a year, right?
[00:03:20] Christine: Well yeah, maybe.
[00:03:23] Bob: Christine's mom has that natural urge to take care of everybody, that's what happened when her dad got sick.
[00:03:30] Christine: My dad has been in and out of rehab facilities for the last couple of years. And he got to a point where he was no longer able to take care of himself, and my mom took care of him as long as she could, but then it came to a point where she couldn't take care of him anymore, and she still had that need where she wanted to be helping him. She would be at the nursing home constantly when we had him in a nursing home, but it was with the goal that he would be able to get physical therapy done and go back home. But he got sick when he was in the nursing home. He got the flu and went to the hospital, and then he actually got COVID when he was in the hospital, and this is right when COVID first began, too, so when he first got the flu, it was the very first week in March. And then after he recovered, then immediately when he was going to get released is kind of when it happened.
[00:04:34] Bob: Her dad suffered a heart attack and died. The grief, the confusion, the loneliness drive Christine's mom to do things she might not normally do.
[00:04:44] Christine: When my dad first started getting ill and going into the facilities, my mom was trying to talk to people online who could understand what she was going through. Other people who had sick spouses, and she even found these online chat forums and was talking to people, and I think that's really how the scammers initially found her was they found someone who was a nurse, so they knew that she had some sort of money, and I feel these people just kept talking to her, and then once they knew my dad was in the state that he was, and when he passed, is when they really hit hard and started the romance part of it. Before it was, you know, I'm your friend, and then it built to a lot more.
[00:05:31] Bob: The first inklings that someone is wrong come when Christine's mom starts acting strange about money.
[00:05:38] Christine: She used to always offer to pay for everything, and then she became the person who would attack you all of the sudden, like you were doing something wrong, and she felt insulted that you weren't helping with this, and it was very interesting. It just felt like a total shift in who she was. Her whole personality changed.
[00:05:58] Bob: Christine thinks maybe her mom is going through normal grief. To help make her feel better, Christine and the other women in the family make plans for a vacation right after the 4th of July to relax, to spend time together, maybe even laugh a little. Anything to help Christine's mom get through the loss of her husband.
[00:06:17] Christine: It was all the girls in my family, and we were all trying to social distance but still be near each other, so we all got like different cabins, and we were just in close proximity.
[00:06:27] Bob: Christine and her mom share a cabin, so Christine is able to see up close how her mom is coping. Right away, she can tell something is wrong. Her mom seems obsessed with her phone.
[00:06:39] Christine: We were all together in a place that had no reception, we all knew this going into it, we were in the woods, and then she kept leaving to try to get service.
[00:06:48] Bob: And as the days go by, there is something else. Her mom isn't sleeping through the night. It seems like she's up all night trying to communicate with someone, someone who is in a time zone halfway around the world.
[00:07:01] Christine: I had noticed that she would be waking up at the craziest hours, and she would, always have excuses for everything she did. She just was going out of her way to do whatever it took to talk to these people like it was an obsession.
[00:07:14] Bob: It feels like her mom has changed personalities overnight. Shortly after they return home from their vacation, the close-knit family investigates what's really going on.
[00:07:24] Christine: My brother was looking at her computer, at her phone. At the time I had access to see two of her email apps, because she gave me the password for them. She was getting emails, text messages, phone calls, every sort of way of communication, somebody was trying to contact her. And it was not even coherent English, that's the worst part. It was such broken English, but it just keep saying the words, "Honey, babe, I love, sweetheart," and the, the way they speak to you, it doesn't feel real. It feels like something Google Translate would spew out through you. "I would love to hold you and caress you and your body. My love, my honey, my dear. Lots of love and lots of hugs, my lovely, my dear." It was very copy and paste, cookie cutter, and she would be sending these long messages to them, and they would respond back with two, three sentences, every single time, and then the next sentence would be asking for money. And she didn't even think that was bizarre because they were responding. It was, any time she got a response, she would assume that was good. So she just kept going.
[00:08:46] Bob: I can't imagine what it's like to, to read messages that your mom wrote like that. I mean I'm sure at the same time you know, what you're reading is your mom's pain, right, and what was that like?
[00:08:58] Christine: When you read the messages, she just is yearning so bad for affection and companionship. And she said that she doesn't have anybody in her life, and she can't do things, but my brother and I are right there. She has a large, large, large family, we're all here for her, but she is pushing herself into this hole, and we don't know how to stop her.
[00:09:24] Bob: Yeah, I mean this, if I understand the timeline, I mean this is, you know, this is within months or even, even weeks right, of your father passing away?
[00:09:33] Christine: Weeks. And I then realized that she did not have any money left in her savings.
[00:09:41] Bob: Oh my God.
[00:09:42] Christine: She lost her whole cushion very fast. Incredibly fast.
[00:09:46] Bob: The first thing the children learn is that Mom has been paying an exorbitant amount for dating services.
[00:09:52] Christine: Oh my goodness, I'm trying, so it's crazy the amount of things that she used. I mean it was over $300 a month that we were paying for all these dating services. And that's just what we know of on her phone.
[00:10:07] Bob: Wow.
[00:10:08] Christine: So there's other sources that she could have been using too, and she was using, um, Facebook has a dating service, she was using a lot of dating services, but she was, she was everywhere you could think of on the internet to talk to people.
[00:10:23] Bob: But a laundry list of dating service bills is just the tip of the iceberg. Soon, Christine learns the problem is much more serious. Her mom has been sending money to strangers. A lot of money.
[00:10:36] Christine: There's, I'll give you the most elaborate, and then the most insignificant. The most elaborate one is, "My daughter has fallen in love with you. And my daughter would like to meet you. She considers you to be her new mother, even though you haven't met. She really needs help in school. She needs to do this so that she can be able to get her degree and then come to you, and you can have a new daughter in your life," that she's never met, she's never talked to. It doesn't even make sense. It really makes me feel like I was pushed aside, because I'm right here, and she tells me that no one's there for her. So this imaginary daughter that has not shown herself in any way, shape, or form, needs help, and she's ready to bend over backwards. That was like $8,000 right then. And then there's little things like, "I need to access the internet, and I'm in jail. I need to spend $50 to access the internet."
[00:11:35] Bob: Picking through the emails, Christine realizes her mom isn't under the spell of just one criminal, there are several fake lovers, and when Christine tries to help her mom, she just turns on her.
[00:11:46] Christine: Multiple people, first of all. One person said that they needed to get to her, and in order to get to her, they needed money for their passport. And I think that's the first time I realized this happened, because she sent me a message and she said, "Is this real?" And I said, "No." It doesn't say anything that would imply that it was a real statement. It just was copy and paste. And I tried to point that out to her, and she thought I was crazy. So at that point, anything I said to her, I was crazy, I was trying to stop her from meeting her love, I didn't think she deserved it. I was trying to control her. I was being manipulative.
[00:12:31] Bob: The money would be sent in all sorts of ways.
[00:12:34] Christine: She started with sending them like money orders or cashier's checks, then gift cards. Then bitcoins, then gift cards again, and transferring money from accounts to accounts. Now she's taking packages and transferring them to different places, physically moving things. It is bad.
[00:12:57] Bob: Christine feels just so helpless. It's all so painful to watch.
[00:13:03] Bob: The first thing you said about your mom was how kind she was, and I mean I can tell the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, that you're trying to be kind to your mom, but also this must be so frustrating.
[00:13:15] Christine: It is. I mean my brother has been driven even more crazy because of all of this, because he still lives with her, and he just doesn't know what to do. He's afraid to not live with her at this point, because he doesn't know what crazy thing she's going to do, or get herself into horrible trouble. She has taken a title loan out on the car twice. She has sold multiple things that are important to her, essential items in the house. She has done a crazy, variety of things from selling things or trying to get loans that she could never pay back. It is crazy and absurd to see the length that she's gone to.
[00:13:58] Bob: And to see the depths her mom is now in.
[00:14:01] Bob: How much money do you think she has lost through this?
[00:14:05] Christine: Over $120,000 for sure.
[00:14:09] Bob: Oh my God.
[00:14:10] Christine: That's just what I can count because of receipts and transactions.
[00:14:15] Bob: And it sounds like if she's taking out title loans on her cars, she doesn't have anymore money it sounds like.
[00:14:21] Christine: She does not have any more money. She doesn't have a bank account anymore either. She has been flagged from opening accounts.
[00:14:29] Bob: In fact, even as I talked to Christine on the phone, her mom was out looking for more ways to send money to these online lovers.
[00:14:37] Christine: I know for a fact she was out today trying to get a loan and constantly trying to get money and my brother, and I just don't understand why.
[00:14:46] Bob: Christine says she's run out of hope that she can break the spell her mom is under.
[00:14:50] Christine: She keeps telling us like, in X amount of days they're going to pay me back for everything. I promise. She 100% believes everything that they're saying to her. And she thinks that we are lying. They have manipulated it and told her that we are being controlling and we are trying to stop her because we, they think that we want to get her mentally declared, that she can't take care of herself. And I mean, we're at the point where if she does something crazy that's incredibly illegal, we will try to, but I mean, we can't really do anything for what's going on with her right now.
[00:15:32] Bob: Christine tells me she's looked everywhere for help, including the AARP Fraud Watch Helpline.
[00:15:37] Christine: I have talked all of my family, they all know what's happening, and they try to talk to her, and they all say she's not there. She doesn't communicate, she doesn't talk. She just is an empty shell until she's talking to these people and it's like an addiction. She gets called all hours of the night; she doesn't sleep right. She is constantly outside of the house. I don't know how she can do it. I don't know how she's not exhausted all the time. I don't know what else can be done. So many people have told her that this is a scam, and she just freezes up and doesn't talk. And my mom was so talkative, you couldn't get her to stop talking. It's a complete personality change, it's mind-blowing.
[00:16:20] Bob: The pain is deep for Christine. She feels like she lost both her parents overnight.
[00:16:26] Christine: It really felt like she wasn't even there anymore. It, it does feel like still. I don't recognize who she is. She does things that are sneaky and devious, and she never use to do that before. She was always so honest and open. She's not my mom, I'll tell you that. It's very bizarre.
[00:16:47] Bob: I'm so sorry. It feels like, I'm sure to you, you've lost your father and partly your mother all in this short span of time. I'm so sorry.
[00:16:56] Christine: Yeah, I, I told her that too. And I said, when I lost Dad, I lost you.
[00:17:03] Bob: Christine feeling like she's lost both her parents in such a short span of time. Christine's mom, not over the shock of her husband's death, now caught in a terrible web of lies. The whole family still living in the middle of this nightmare. We can't tell you how their story will end, we can tell you that experts believe it's just these kinds of life stage changes that often make people vulnerable, make them a target for criminals. And we can also tell you these stories sometimes have a happier ending. Another victim, we'll call Debbie, was going through just such a life stage change when she got embroiled in a set of romance scams. She's in her 70s and lives not far away from where I grew up in New Jersey, which was obvious from the moment I got her on the phone.
[00:17:53] Debbie: We used to have a horse trainer, and he was very condescending, and I do not like condescending people. You know, like don't, well do you want to hear another one that I like?
[00:18:02] Bob: Yes.
[00:18:02] Debbie: "Don't piss on my leg and tell me it's raining." You know, that's one of my favorites.
[00:18:07] Bob: (laughs) Okay, we're going to do a separate podcast just about your turns of phrase.
[00:18:13] Debbie: (laughs) I'm sorry. I mean everybody that knows me, I have no filter, and they say, if you don't want the truth, don't ask her a question.
[00:18:23] Bob: Ben, Debbie's son describes her as the kind of mom who always finds a way to squeeze in an extra seat at the dinner table.
[00:18:30] Ben: We joke that at any holiday we should expect that we might have some stranger amongst us, because my mom was, is very quick to strike up conversations with people in, you know, the grocery store line, or, you know, get to know the people at church and on several occasions, we would have, "This is Bob, and he uh he didn't have any place to go for Thanksgiving, so he's going to join us." You know, and that was, that was Mom.
[00:18:58] Bob: Debbie has been a widow for more than a decade, but a few years ago she announced to the family she thought it was time to try to find love again. Ben was all for it.
[00:19:08] Ben: So people who have met my mom would generally describe that she has a very big heart. She operates a lot on emotion, and a, a great deal of compassion. You know, my sisters and I, we love our mom, we had generally good childhoods that we look back on fondly. She thinks of herself as a, as a patriot and, you know, still really longs for her days with, with my dad, who uh, who passed away in 2002, uh, you know way too early for us. It was probably around 2015, so she'd been without him for, for 13 years, but you know said to us, "You know, I think I'm ready to start looking for someone again," you know, "Is that okay with you?" And we were, "Of course, Mom," you know, "We want you to be happy. We want you to have companionship."
[00:20:02] Bob: Debbie says getting over the death of her husband was really hard.
[00:20:05] Debbie: Truthfully, it took me about five years to get over it. I know I just, I wanted to die. I wanted to be with him in heaven, I didn't want anybody else to have him, and I got through it. You know, I didn't drink, I didn't smoke, I didn't do drugs, I just cried a lot and prayed a lot, you know, and I got through it.
[00:20:28] Bob: Debbie plays online games like "Words with Friends" a lot and she hears about a pal who found someone on a dating service, but she's still pretty tentative about that idea.
[00:20:37] Debbie: I remember, somebody, I have no idea when it was, but somebody said to me, have you been on a date yet? It was a long--, maybe around year 12 or something I was a widow, and I said to them, I, you know, like every once in a while, something will come out and you don't even know where it came from, and I said, "No, I'm still in love with a dead man." And I went, holy cow, you know, like how did I, how did that come out? But and then you know, he came along, and you know there was possibility.
[00:21:06] Bob: He is Joshua. A man who started to flirt with her in-between games. He gives Debbie the attention she hasn't had in a long time.
[00:21:15] Debbie: I know when I saw his picture, I go, I, I remember saying, "Oh this guy looks like trouble." But you know, it was just a comment, you know if I would just go with my instincts sometimes, but you know, he was pretty handsome.
[00:21:26] Bob: Joshua has known Debbie for a while. Had made advances that she'd initially declined in the past. But he's persistent and eventually something more intimate develops. But Joshua is stuck on an oil rig for the time being, he says, so their relationship develops entirely online.
[00:21:44] Debbie: We always texted, 99% of the time we texted. Well he would call like maybe once a week or once every 10 days or something. I don't know, they get these numbers somehow and then if he had a problem or somebody hacked it or something, he'd get another number. I don't know. But I never understood all that.
[00:22:04] Bob: But she doesn't have to. Meeting a guy online seems only natural to Debbie.
[00:22:09] Debbie: I don't go to bars because I'm too short to get on a barstool. So and I don't, you know, I'd have a beer or two, but then you can't drive. So he was just friendly. That was the bottom line. He was friendly.
[00:22:22] Bob: And it's hard to meet people, it's hard for everyone to meet people, right?
[00:22:26] Debbie: Well, I mean like my kids would say, "Well don't you meet somebody at church?" Well it's mostly widows, I mean the church I attended, there was very few single men.
[00:22:37] Bob: Plus texting can get very romantic, Debbie says. And Joshua proves that he listens to her. Really listens to her. She hasn't felt this way in a long time.
[00:22:50] Bob: Just so people understand, 'cause not everybody has had a relationship like this, texting can get pretty emotional, right?
[00:22:55] Debbie: Oh yeah, it can quite sexy, you know, like he would say, "It's a rainy day," and "I wish you were here. I wish we were just watching a movie together," or something. Or one time I said something about which angers me and really upsets me, is he said something about dancing in the kitchen. And he was a great one for remembering stuff that I told him. You know, and "Oh, we're going to dance in the kitchen," and he just remembered things that I told him that were very minute in passing, you know, but things that you hoped would occur or would happen, or so he would say, "Oh we're going to dance in the kitchen," or "we're going to," I had a two-week timeshare in Aruba, and "Oh, we're going to, I want to go to Aruba for our honeymoon."
[00:23:46] Bob: Remember, Debbie has known Joshua for a long time, for two years including the time before things got romantic, so she trusts him when he makes an unusual request back in 2018.
[00:23:57] Bob: Okay, so back to Joshua, do you remember the first ask that he made?
[00:24:01] Debbie: Yeah, it was $800 for a nanny for his son. She needed something and I sent it, I got the cash, and I sent it through Walmart and supposedly it was his cousin that picked it up and delivered it to the nanny. I mean I even looked at the cousin's house on Zillow or something, on Google Earth.
[00:24:25] Bob: Hmm. What were you thinking when he asked for the money?
[00:24:30] Debbie: Oh, I mean we argued for I think two days or something, you know, like I, I just, you know fought it and fought it, and then you know, "Oh, I need it, and nobody else has it," and I don't know. I, I can't tell you why. I guess, well I can tell you why. I believed him. Period.
[00:24:50] Bob: Things ramp up very quickly. There's money for passport problems, money for disaster on the rig, money for a lawyer, and all along, promises that they'd soon be together.
[00:25:01] Bob: You skate him a lot of money, even money you didn't really to give, right?
[00:25:04] Debbie: I emptied my reverse mortgage at the end in, I don't know when it was, June, 'cause he was hitting my, I had a lot of tax-free municipal bonds. He went through those, and then uh the last was my IRA. And that was all of that.
[00:25:22] Bob: It was all your retirement money, it was all the equity in your house, right?
[00:25:25] Debbie: He kept saying, "There's $15 million sitting in Georgia, and we're going to go get it, so I'm going to pay you back." He always was going to pay me back. So I just kept doling it out.
[00:25:36] Bob: Joshua convinces her they will spend the rest of their lives together as soon as he can get off that oil rig. She even starts shopping for their dream home.
[00:25:45] Debbie: It just snowballed and, and then there was damage on the rig, and he had to get new pipes and he had, the, the stories they can make up, and I mean at one point I was out, it was my, my late husband's birthday, so that's why I remember. It was September 21st, 2018, and I was out looking at a million and a half dollar houses in the, in the county that I live in.
[00:26:12] Bob: On her late husband's birthday, she's out looking for a new home to start her new life. Then, her son has no idea any of this is happening.
[00:26:21] Ben: No, she wasn't talking about it at all. And yeah, I, I was oblivious to her having any financial problems. Yet she would do her normal, you know, oh this, this drug is expensive, and you know, I had to pay so much money for a medication, or you know, some situation, but it was never like, I can't go on vacation, I don't have any money, right, um, but we never had any kind of indication like that.
[00:26:51] Bob: But by now, Debbie's fever is sky high. At rock bottom, she takes $65,000 from the bank, in cash, and mails it to Joshua. Well, she sent it to Joshua's friends so they can forward him the money.
[00:27:05] Debbie: I sent him like $65,000 in cash in two envelopes, and why, why, I have all the names and addresses of the people that I sent money to...
[00:27:15] Bob: But so you, you sent two FedEx packages that together had $65,000 in cash in them?
[00:27:21] Debbie: Yes, I did. Yeah.
[00:27:23] Bob: Wow, and that was, that was how, when was that? It was towards the end probably, right?
[00:27:29] Debbie: Uh, that was, I think around June.
[00:27:33] Bob: Her money gone, the bills now not getting paid, Debbie turns to her sister, Ben's aunt for help. That triggers the phone call which makes Ben realize what's going on.
[00:27:43] Ben: So she asked my aunt for money, and my aunt, uh you know goes and meets with her face to face, and comes to understand at least what is the current outstanding bills. Here are all the bills that can't be paid. Like my aunt's not aware of the amount of damage that's been done, and so my aunt, you know, a--, agrees to pay some of the bills for the current month, right, just to keep her afloat. Um, and then my aunt uh told her son, my cousin, uh who, you know, I'm close to and he just rang me out of the blue and said, "You need to talk to your mom, she's in a really bad shape."
[00:28:22] Bob: He drops everything and races home to see his mom.
[00:28:25] Ben: When I dropped in on her, she wasn't there. You know, so I, I let myself into the house and saw the bills spread out all over her dining room table, and frankly started, you know, looking through that. Jumped onto her computer, and started looking at her emails, and just gob-smacked, and um, you know, called her and let her knew, you know, "Hey, I'm, I'm here. I came for a visit." You know, "Where are you?" "Oh, I'm, I'm out running some errands, you know, I'll be home in an hour." "Okay, great." Turns out she was actually running around buying STEAM cards for the scammers during that exact moment.
[00:29:02] Bob: Next week on The Perfect Scam, Ben tried to convince his mother to stop sending every last penny to criminals. The kitchen table conversation doesn't go well.
[00:29:12] Ben: And I said, "Okay, well you know, you need to stop." You know, "You need to cut these people off." And "No! No, Joshua's, he does love me. He's going to pay me back." And I could not convince her. She was just convinced to her very fiber, this was love, that these were all good people, and that they were all going to pay her back.
[00:29:35] Bob: As Ben pleads with his mother to stop communicating with these scammers, to stop sending the money, he soon discovers his mother's been hiding even more secrets and has spun herself a web of lies so tightly that she just can't get out. That's next week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:29:57] Bob: If you or someone you know has been a victim of a fraud or a scam, call AARP's free Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Their trained fraud specialists can help you know what to do next and how to avoid scams in the future. 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 Bob Sullivan.
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