Credit card con artist Lisa Reid’s methods are sophisticated, creative and callous. After gaining credit card information from the wealthy seniors she targets, Lisa goes on lavish shopping sprees at high-end retailers, leaving her victims with bills of hundreds of thousands of dollars. But when one of her victims teams up with the FBI, this credit card con queen is finally brought to justice.
[00:00:01] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:03] She changed her voice at any given time. She was able to pretend to be somebody from various countries, to male/female. She could change and pretend to be a victim versus an employee of a credit card company. So it was really, really impressive, uh, the difference in tone or inflection that she would use really to change her voice. It was very impressive.
[00:00:32] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. Almost 20 years ago, I wrote a book called "Your Evil Twin - behind the identity theft epidemic." At the time, many consumers hadn't even heard of identity theft. Criminal imposters were just getting started. Today, it feels like ID theft is everywhere, hitting millions of consumers every year, roughly one in 20 US consumers annually costing 16 billion dollars, according to Javelin Strategy and Research. Fortunately, when it comes to credit card fraud, most consumers are refunded when fraud happens, but that doesn't mean this is a victimless crime, not at all. Imposters can wreck people's credit, cause endless paperwork hassles, and inflict emotional trauma. It's incredible how far criminals will go to impersonate their victims, and today, you're going to hear exactly what that sounds like. Here is our story of the credit card con queen, an actress who didn't play Broadway, instead, she played the financial system.
[00:01:32] I'm at a desk, but there's not a million pieces of paper on my desk. I'm very neat and organized. I couldn't work with a million pieces of paper on my desk. No, I have four bookkeepers now that work for me. At the time I had one other bookkeeper.
[00:01:43] Bob: Judy Heft runs a small bookkeeping company in New England watching carefully over clients' bills to make sure they get paid on time. She doesn't miss a thing. She even does house calls. For some clients she goes to their homes every week, picks up the mail and then brings it back to the office and prepares the bills. She knows her clients. So when something out of the ordinary happens, she usually catches it right away. And this, well, this set of credit card charges flashing across her computer screen, is really unusual.
[00:02:14] Judy Heft: For instance, there was $5000 for, charged at Barneys, there were Saks 5th Avenue charges, out of a credit card and a checking account, and we knew that our clients didn't have those kind of spending habits, that they probably did not go to Barneys, you know, and bought $5000 pairs of shoes. So we reached out to the client to ask them if this was legit, and it was not. Well the problem with the client was, they didn't always answer their phones, when, so what happened was, the credit card company called them to try and see if it was legit, but they didn't answer their phone, and they put the charges through anyway. And so luckily, we checked, we caught these within five days. There was $185,000 worth of charges.
[00:03:02] Bob: This was no ordinary credit card crime, and no ordinary identity thief. The criminal was so deep into her clients' accounts that she managed to take money from the victim's checking account to pay off the credit card bill to free up available credit so she could use the card to buy even more expensive items.
[00:03:20] Judy Heft: If you're buying a $5000 pair of shoes, it's not too hard to rack up $185,000 worth of, yeah, it was, it was all designer merchandise.
[00:03:29] Bob: The imposter has expensive taste and impressive skills. At first, Judy thinks it must have been an inside job. She calls the police who go to her client's home where everyone is a suspect.
[00:03:43] Judy Heft: They had a lot of caregivers in their house. We weren't sure who had access to what. There were a lot of papers laying around in this house. We didn't know, at first, if it was an inside job or not. All the caregivers were interviewed, and it turned out it wasn't, but it was really scary. It was upsetting and, you know, it was such an invasion of privacy. It was devastating. I had known this client for a long time, it's just horrible.
[00:04:09] Bob: At about the same time, a woman we'll call Patty, gets a call from her credit card company.
[00:04:14] Patty: He'd asked me if I'm at Nordstrom’s, and I said, no. And they're like, "You're not at Nordstrom’s, you know, shopping in Florida?" And I said, "No, I'm not, I'm in Connecticut." And they're like, "Do you have your American Express card?" And I said, "Yes." And they're like, "Are you sure?" And I'm, you know, I take out my wallet. And I'm like, "Yeah, I'm looking at it." And um, they're like, "Are you sure?" And I'm like, "I'm positive. I'm looking at it." And they're like, "We're going to call you back."
[00:04:41] Bob: Patty doesn't even have a personal credit card. The single mom in Connecticut is really careful about how she spends her money. She does have a corporate Amex Card through work, however, and now, she feels caught up in a big crime.
[00:04:55] Patty: I t was just shocking. Like it was, like what is going on? It kind of felt like a, don't want to use the word whirlwind, 'cause it's the incorrect word to use, but it was just like, you kind of felt like you were in a haze a little bit, like what's going on? Is this really like happening? And then, obviously, you want to help them because you're just like, okay, obviously you know, I, I, I want to catch this person that's doing this. And then on top of that, like I remember getting super emotional, and I was at, I was at work, and I remember going to the bathroom and I started to cry. Like, what the heck is going on?
[00:05:28] Bob: At the same time, law enforcement officials really want to catch the criminal too. A lot of them. When Judy calls the police, they call the FBI, which calls the Postal Inspection Office for help solving the crime. That's how Lauren Vumbaco gets involved.
[00:05:43] Lauren Vumbaco: We had so many running theories. As you're developing a case it could be this person that had access. It could be somebody that had taken a picture of the credit card, and then the fact it was nobody that had any access to the victim whatsoever, other than via the phone. We were thinking it was an inside job or somebody that had worked at the house, or whatever the case may be, and it wasn't.
[00:06:06] Bob: The crimes are so clever, the dollar amounts so large, it seems like some kind of high tech wizardry must be involved. Someone is stealing the identities of wealthy residents up and down the New England coastline. John Pierpont from the Connecticut US Attorney's Office is on the case too. He says investigators know all the expensive items are being purchased over the telephone with stolen credit cards but the criminal, or criminals, are pretty good at hiding their tracks.
[00:06:33] John Pierpont: She would switch phone numbers pretty regularly, so it was very difficult for us to sort of track down who was doing this, and how they were doing it, because very regularly, once every 30 days, she would get rid of one phone and start using another phone, a different phone number. And so once we identified the new phone number that might take us a week or two, and we were really down to a week or two in the month to try to do whatever work we could with that phone before she would be off to the next phone number, and we'd sort of be back at square one.
[00:07:03] Bob: How is this criminal, this imposter with expensive taste able to dig so deeply into people's personal financial accounts? How does she get around fraud filters? It's not high tech wizardry at all, it's just good acting by one very talented criminal. But if you listen to recordings that banks made of the criminal, well, you can be forgiven if you think it was a whole crime gang. This is Lisa Reid.
[00:07:28] "I made a charge today at Bloomingdale for my daughter. And what happened is I hadn't used the card since a long time.
[00:07:36] Bob: And this is Lisa Reid.
[00:07:38] "I want to give you my new address and phone number please." "Okay, was that what we're needing to do?" "I need it immediately; I'm making a charge at Saks 5th Avenue."
[00:07:46] Bob: And yes, even this is Lisa Reid.
[00:07:48] And I, the last time I used my card was in June. So I think that's where the problem came in when I made the large charge. But if so, I can't be bothered with this shenanigans, and I'll take my business somewhere else. I don't want to be going through this."
[00:08:01] Bob: All that so Lisa Reid can trick banks into sharing information like this.
[00:08:06] "What's my last payment?" "$345.36." "What is my available credit?" "$8,390." "Thank you. Good-bye." "Oh, you're very much welcome, sir."
[00:08:19] Bob: She can then take that information from the bank operator and use it to convince consumers that she's really calling from their bank. There is no really intact, no tech wizardry involved in Lisa Reid's crimes. Her con game is straight forward. She picks numbers out of a phone book, and then calls victims to ask for personal information like credit card numbers. To gain their trust, she plays various roles, like claiming she's transferring the victim to a security expert, and then she changes her voice, tricking victims into letting their guard down.
[00:08:51] Lauren Vumbaco: She changed her voice at any given time. She could, was able to pretend to be somebody from various countries to male/female. She could change and pretend to be a victim versus an employee of a credit card company, so it was really, really impressive, the difference in tone or the inflection that she would use, really to change her voice. It was very impressive.
[00:09:17] Bob: She was a master actress it sounds like.
[00:09:20] Lauren Vumbaco: Yes, yes.
[00:09:22] Bob: Did she have a cast of characters that were sort of her go-to. Did you recognize any patterns after listening to a bunch of these calls?
[00:09:28] Lauren Vumbaco: When she had, she had a similar voice when she pretended to be a male, so that voice was usually very similar. Um, there were definitely go-to patterns when looking back where at times she would be very charming on the phone with the credit card company. Just really trying to engage, and that's what a lot of fraudsters do during their telemarketing schemes is, they have the gift of gab.
[00:09:50] Bob: The gift of gab, like keeping victims on the phone, prolonging the conversation. She keeps probing away at different angles until she finds a way in, Pierpont says. Appearing to transfer people to a third party is a really persuasive technique.
[00:10:04] John Pierpont: And in this way, she really was able, I think, to build some trust and credibility with people who might otherwise be having to provide information because she was disclaiming from the very beginning that she wouldn't be able to receive it. She would actually sort of use a function on her cellphone to do a three-way dialing, and actually dial in the real American Express 1-800 number, so you would hear the, you know, the welcome music, "This is American Express, please hold for a representative." She would then hang up on that three-way call to the American Express line, and then using a different voice, she would say, "Hello, my name is Denise. How can I help you?" Um, and so the victim, from the victim's perspective the call has been fully transferred to American Express, and they're now speaking to a, an American Express representative, and then, of course, the victim would say something, "Well, I just heard there was fraud on my account," and Ms. Reid, pretending to be somebody else, would then be off to the races in terms of obtaining personal, identifying information.
[00:11:03] Bob: Wow, so this is like a, a one-person show where she was playing two characters on the phone, right?
[00:11:10] John Pierpont: Yeah, two uh, sometimes three. You know, we heard, we heard instances where, you know, if someone asked to speak to a supervisor or if someone was hesitant to provide information, you know, she'd offer to transfer them to somebody else, and, you know, she could do a third voice. It was hard to believe listening to some of these recordings that she really was able to use multiple different voices to great effect.
[00:11:31] Bob: When law enforcement starts to close in on Lisa Reid, executing a search warrant of her home in Long Island, New York, she manages to slip through their hands, escaping to Florida, leaving behind a really expensive closet.
[00:11:44] Lauren Vumbaco: So we had to break into the closet to then obviously see all of these items in there. There was definitely over 400 pieces of evidence that we took while executing the search warrant, and dozens and dozens and dozens of pairs of shoes, jewelry, purses, I mean garbage bags full of stuff that we, we had. And I, I believe at the end when we did the estimate of the, it was half a million dollars' worth of items. I certainly do not claim to be a fashionista, or fashion plate, by any means. I was looking at these items with AUSA Pierpont and my team leader at the time and trying to educate them on yes, I know you see a pair of shoes, but these, this one pair of shoes is worth $5,000.
[00:12:32] Bob: Lisa Reid seemed to like to pamper herself with expensive things, but she also bought luxury items for a purpose. They were easier to sell. Fencing one $5,000 purse is more lucrative and less work than selling dozens of hundred dollar items online, Vumbaco says.
[00:12:49] Lauren Vumbaco: She did have some individuals, I'll say clients, that would purchase items from her. I mean she lived off of this. This was basically her job. So then once she receives the cash for the items from whoever she sold it to, she would, you know, go to the post office, buy a postal money order, and pay her mortgage with it, or buy a postal money order and pay, you know, pay her bills with it, not all the time, but she definitely did that as well as use the finances just to live, to, you know, party. She had children. I'm sure she used it, you know, to put food on the table.
[00:13:25] Bob: Down in Florida, having fled for her freedom for now, she can't avoid pulling off more scams. While she must have known authorities were closing in, she commits one more crime. She buys a $50,000 watch using a compromised account.
[00:13:41] John Pierpont: I couldn't tell you, but the idea of buying a $50,000 watch when you're on the lam for this exact thing, I find that very hard to believe as well, but it did happen. That was part of how we were able to sort of hone in on, on where she was in Florida.
[00:13:55] Bob: It was the simplicity, the low tech nature of the crime that stunned Vumbaco.
[00:13:59] Lauren Vumbaco: Yes, that's absolutely, it was, you know we're in the cyber world where everything is blockchain and bitcoin and all of that stuff, and you know, the Dark Web, which does exist, so I'm not saying that it doesn't, and there is a lot of fraud that happens and a lot of crime, you know, that happens with that stuff, but we were expecting like the newest, craziest thing, and it just totally wasn't. And it was definitely a wow moment. When we saw, wow, this person has to be involved, they have to have access to the victims or the credit cards, I mean the theories that we had were just craziness. And then it really came down to somebody looking up some names, cold calling victims, and creating these voices. It was, it was definitely interesting, for sure, and that was definitely a wow moment.
[00:14:50] Bob: Reid pled guilty. There were 50 victims. And most consumers were made whole by their banks, but this was no victimless crime.
[00:14:57] Judy Heft: They weren't out of money that was stolen from them, but they were out of money because I had to put a lot of time into helping them. You know, working with the post office and the, and the police department, and looking through everything. Going through all the credit cards. There was a lot of hours involved in that, so that cost them. It was very stressful, and yeah, they were devastated. They couldn't believe it, because especially in the beginning when we thought it was possibly the caregivers, that was really upsetting.
[00:15:23] Bob: At Lisa Reid's sentencing, Patty shows up. She had declined to file a victim statement, but sitting in that courtroom she feels compelled to speak up. Here's her statement.
[00:15:34] Patty: "Ms. Reid, we are all human and we all make bad decisions. Some more than others. I do not live in a glass house, so I will not throw stones and I do not know anything about your life to judge you, nor your decisions in life. But I do want you to know that your decisions will not only affect you, they will also always affect my son and myself, because I am sole provider for my son. You are free to make any and every decision you want to make in life. But you are not free from the consequences of those choices. You stated that you need a bonafide chance to prove your self-worth, and an opportunity to change the course and the direction of your life. If your words are true, then you will be willing to accept and understand any sentence that this court gives you. I would like you to know one last thing, which is that I forgive you."
[00:16:28] Bob: I forgive you? Wow. I don't think most people would say that. What made you say that?
[00:16:32] Patty: 'Cause I feel like at the end of this, it's like if I'm going to put this fully behind me, I need to forgive her because it's not for her, it's for me. Because if I hold onto what she did, then I am going to just be carrying this burden and this hurt for the rest of my life. And as much as I didn't deserve what she did to me, I also don't deserve to carry that burden either. And I need to let that go.
[00:17:02] Bob: Judy, the bookkeeper, says the story taught her an important lesson.
[00:17:05] Judy Heft: Yeah, I think it's really important to be vigilant. I mean, for instance, I check my accounts online every morning. I look at my credit cards, and I look at my checking accounts just to make sure that everything's kosher, there's nothing there that I don't recognize, and if there is something there I don't recognize, I mean of course you could forget something. I always question it and try to wrap my brains around it, and that's what we do for all our clients. It probably doesn't hurt to have a second pair of eyes on everything. If you don't have a family member that can do it, you might want to hire someone to do that for you, just to, you know, I've seen a lot of fraud over the years. I really have, and it's always good to have someone, you know, another pair of eyes. So I think just realize that bank will make mistakes too, but there's, the hackers are so sophisticated these days. They really know how to get in there and twist things around.
[00:17:54] Bob: It's also important to know you don't have to answer the phone with every call. Even if you think you recognize a phone number, it's okay to let the call go to voice mail and call the person back.
[00:18:04] Lauren Vumbaco: So there are ways that people can manipulate the system just like she did. And that's a pretty low tech, pretty easy way to do it. Spoofing is obviously a little, a little more complex than that, but not even very complex. So you certainly cannot trust the caller ID. I don't know how many times someone has called my house with my own phone number. I mean it happens all the time. So just because the person claims that it's a local phone number, or it's a familiar name, obviously does not mean that that person is who they say they are and doesn't necessarily have good intentions. So I would say, you know, trust your instincts. You can always not answer the phone. You can call the person back if it's a financial institution on the other line.
[00:18:54] Bob: And so the credit card con queen, she's traded in her $5,000 shoes for prison garb. In August 2020, she was sentenced to 90 months in prison after pleading guilty to one count of mail fraud, one count of aggravated identity theft. Vumbaco wonders what might have been.
[00:19:14] Lauren Vumbaco: One of my go-to phrases whenever I'm talking to people, I do a lot of presentations, is I always talk about how, if only these people would put their minds to something good, the world would be such a better place. Like they, they're so good at what they do, and it would just be amazing if they actually did some good with it versus, you know, all this bad or all this crime or fraud or whatever the case may be.
[00:19:39] Bob: If she could do all those voices, she could probably make an amazing podcast.
[00:19:42] Lauren Vumbaco: You're absolutely right, you're absolutely right.
[00:19:48] Bob: If you or someone you know has been a victim of a fraud or 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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