Five days after her husband’s funeral, Janet gets a call. The woman on the line claims to be from the state retirement system calling about a $50,000 life insurance policy belonging to Janet’s husband. But there’s an issue: A few late payments mean that the system can’t pay out the policy unless Janet comes up with $4,450 to pay the overdue balance.
[00:00:00] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:02] I was totally convinced at that point that it was a scam, but I didn't want to embarrass my mom in front of like the broader family. I kick myself, because at the time I'm like, you know, my partner, he was like, "This sounds like a scam. This doesn't sound legit." And I even like defended my mom at that point because I didn't want her to feel embarrassed.
[00:00:22] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan. Major life changes create a big opening for criminals, and losing a life partner is perhaps the most dramatic life change of all. Today's guest, Janet, had been married for more than 50 years when her husband suddenly passed away.
[00:00:41] Bob: Could you just tell me something about your husband?
[00:00:44] Janet: Well, my husband and I, I'll try to condense 52 years of marriage down. My husband and I met when I was um, in my second year of nursing school, and he was finishing his Bachelor's Degree in Psychology. And we got married at ages 21 and 24 while he was in graduate school. We have one daughter. My husband was a social worker, an athletic guy who liked to play basketball and softball, coached our daughter, coached our friends' kids, involved in the community, highly likeable, just an all-around good guy.
[00:01:27] Bob: Kara is the kind of daughter you want your little girl to grow up to be. She loves and admires her parents very much.
[00:01:33] Kara: My parents are great people. My father was a government employee, and my mom was in the medical field, and uh just really enjoyed life, and um, they were retired, um, and had really taken advantage of retirement to travel and see friends and, you know, just sort of uh lived life to the fullest.
[00:01:54] Bob: But that special time for this couple, living a full life in retirement was cut off way too soon.
[00:02:01] Kara: He had had some health issues throughout his adulthood, but they were very well managed, and then early in 2020, he had a series of medical procedures and contracted an infection during the course of one of those. Unfortunately, the infection progressed, and he just wasn't able to bounce back, and he passed away um, just this past October, just a few months ago.
[00:02:23] Bob: He was just in his mid-70s. Everyone in the family was in shock. Janet said her husband had needed a lot of care in those last four or five weeks, so she was physically and emotionally exhausted at the end. That's perfectly normal. In the days following a death of a loved one, people are usually in a fog just trying to put one foot in front of the other. And there's arrangements to be made, lots of arrangements. Lots of details, lots of paperwork. Those closest to the deceased often just show up when they're told to and sign whatever they're told to sign. So it didn't seem out of the ordinary when a call came in from her husband's former workplace. It was a Thursday, late in the afternoon, about 4 pm.
[00:03:08] Janet: They identified themselves as coming from the State Retirement and Benefits Office. And I remember even saying, "Wow, I was about to call you," because my husband had passed away and I needed to know the procedure to get his benefits. I want to emphasize, this was five days after my husband's funeral, and the only thing I could say is I was not in my right mind.
[00:03:32] Bob: The caller says there's some paperwork to fill out.
[00:03:35] Janet: But they said they were from the State Benefits and Retirement Office, and they realized that my husband had passed away, and how could they help me? They can go through the benefits, but the one thing they want to tell me about is, and "This is very important, is that your husband had a $50,000 life insurance policy that's payable to you." And I did say, "Gee, I thought all of that was taken care of when he retired?" "No, this one was still outstanding, and we have talked to Metropolitan Life, and if you pay, the premiums have not been paid for the last two years, but if you pay those premiums, then you will be entitled to the entire $50,000." "Well, how much would that be?" And that was, off the top of my head, about four or five thousand dollars, and I would need to have it in that night.
[00:04:31] Bob: That night? Janet was still figuring out all the forms and other papers that needed to be taken care of, and while this instruction is confusing, she keeps listening to the caller and tries to figure out how she could pay them immediately like that.
[00:04:45] Janet: And I was truly so befuddled, and I was actually near Columbia Mall, and I pulled over and I said, "I honestly don't know how to do this." And they said, "Well you can buy," they were called reload-it cards. I have since seen them all over the place. But at that point, they told me I could only get them at Safeway or Office Depot. And I needed to have those drawn up et cetera. And I said, I went over to the Bank of America at the mall. They were closing. And I could not get more than $500 out of the bank at the time in the ATM. So I, honestly, I was really close to distraught. And they were very persistent and kept saying, well you have to do this. And I kept saying, "But I can be at the bank when it opens, and I'll get you a cashier's check. I have the money." "No, we have to have this done tonight..."
[00:05:47] Bob: As the call progresses, darkness and rain starts to set in, and Janet's options for getting the money to the insurance company are shrinking by the minute. That's when the caller comes up with a bold suggestion.
[00:05:58] Janet: "Well you could do that by going to a casino." I said, "Are you serious?" And she said, "Oh, yes, because they can advance you the cash on your credit card."
[00:06:11] Bob: So she drives to a nearby casino, walks in, pulls out a high limit credit card and tries to make the withdrawal. No dice. The transaction just won't go through. She tries a second card. That withdrawal is rejected also.
[00:06:26] Janet: I then went back out to my car and said, "I can't get the money." "Well, you're going to have to get the money. Have you tried your debit card?" And I said, "Nope." Went back into the casino and against my debit card they gave me, I think it was almost $5,000 in cash, 'cause they told me that the, when I get the reload-it cards, they have to be in increments of $500.
[00:06:52] Bob: Now Janet has the cash, but she can't send that to the caller. So she's instructed to drive somewhere else and buy gift cards that she can drop in the mail.
[00:07:01] Janet: I then took this cash, scared to death that people could see I was carrying all this money, and found an Office Depot, and the manager had to draw these up because nobody knew what I was talking about. And he drew up, I think I had seven of them, something like seven or eight of them, and I took those.
[00:07:22] Bob: So, there's another call and another back and forth, and Janet now has to figure out how to get those gift cards where they need to go.
[00:07:30] Janet: The woman at the State Employment Office said, "Well I'm just going to stay late and help you do this." And the so-called gentleman from Metropolitan Life said, "You have to put these in the mail and get a 8 x 10 envelope. I will get you the address and everything."
[00:07:46] Bob: The caller stays on the line with her now, steering her every move. Even with the cash cards in hand, Janet now has another problem. She's lost her reading glasses.
[00:07:57] Janet: Fortunately or unfortunately, since I was at an Office Depot, I bought large envelopes, bought stamps, and in the meantime, lost my eyeglasses. And there was a Dollar Store there. I mean it gets to be kind of funny. So I go into the Dollar Store, buy a cheap pair of glasses, come out, park underneath a parking lamp so that I could write this address out.
[00:08:20] Bob: The next instruction is to race to the post office before closing time. By now the rain is pouring down, and she's not sure she'll get there in time. It was a harrowing, white-knuckle drive to beat the clock.
[00:08:32] Janet: And I said, "Is there a pickup?" "Yes," and said, "I talked to uh the post office and they do have a late pickup, it's about 9 o'clock tonight." "Okay." I then drive over there and I'm telling you when I say dark and rainy night, it was. It was miserable. I pull up to the front of the post office..."
[00:08:51] Bob: As you're telling me this story, I'm picturing you, God, you know, driving in the pouring rain to a casino with broken glasses, desperately trying to get to a post office. I mean that just sounds like such a horrible scene from a bad movie.
[00:09:04] Janet: It was awful. I was actually, I could feel my heart racing. I was just, like how am I going to get this done? And I'm thinking, now I'm thinking, Janet, this was so stupid. But then you think things like, well maybe Jim just forgot about a policy because he had a life insurance policy through the State, and in my mind, I thought that he had canceled that once he had retired and didn't pay anymore. I don't know.
[00:09:32] Bob: She makes it safely to the post office, but it looks like it's too late. The post office is dark, and it doesn't seem like anyone is going to be picking up the mail tonight.
[00:09:41] Janet: I pull up to the front of the post office. There are two mailboxes. And I look at them, neither one has a late pickup. So I'm on my cellphone, and they had stayed on my cellphone. "I don't understand what the problem is, but there's nothing listed for a late pickup." "Oh, no, we talked to them. I will connect you with the post office." This should have rang so many bells but it, it wasn't. It sounded crazy but, and a woman came on and she said, "Yes, uh we're going to have a late pickup. It will be almost 9 o'clock, and you can put your," and I said, "There's two mailboxes." "Put it in the one to the right." "Okay." Put that in. And I thought this was over, everything was mailed, et cetera.
[00:10:24] Bob: Five hours later, she's finally done. The first call about this insurance policy had come at 4 pm, now it's well after 9 pm, and she's exhausted and ready for bed, hoping she's checked another box, put another dreaded task behind her, but she hasn't. The next day another call comes about a second insurance policy. The policy on Kara, her daughter.
[00:10:49] Janet: A different woman, but identifying herself as from the same department; State Benefits and Retirement. And she tells me about, she was glad that I mailed everything, but they were looking further, and they see that there's a $20,000 life insurance policy on my daughter who is an adult. And again, same thing. Slightly less amount of money, and this could be taken care of this morning and now it's Friday, but we can get this done. And I said, "All right." I knew the routine. And they said, "You can go to a Safeway." When I went to Safeway I could only get, I think it was 2000 or 2500 from that store. And then they said, "What will this be used for?" And I said, "Personal reasons." "Okay." I had to go to two different Safeways because there was a maximum that I hit. Did that, and again, the person said, "Well you've got to mail them to this place." I said, "Well that's different than last night." "I know, but this policy on your daughter goes here," and it was the same gentleman from Metropolitan Life, supposedly.
[00:11:57] Bob: This time, Janet has an easier time getting the gift cards into the mail and sent off to the address the woman on the phone tells her. But while she's on the phone, this second operator sympathizes with the difficult time Janet had the night before.
[00:12:11] Janet: And they told me to put it in the mail, I did. And oh, I know what, the woman said something about the person who called me the night before. I said, "Well she wasn't helpful, and she was so insistent on me hurrying up and doing this." And she said, "And she didn't tell you about the policy for your daughter?" And I said, "No, and she was very belligerent to me." "Well we'll have to investigate that, because she should have told you." She called me later to check on if I had mailed everything. And I said I had, and she said, "Well, I listened to her, the tape of the call, 'cause as you know we record everything here at the State." Sounds reasonable to me. "And I listened, and she did not give you truthful information. She should have told you about the other policy." And this is such a good cop/bad cop routine. They had it down very well.
[00:13:08] Bob: Janet is exhausted. It's Friday afternoon now, and she talks with her daughter, Kara, and fills her in on all the details. The $50,000 insurance policy for her, the other $20,000 insurance policy for Kara. They make plans for dinner and a visit later that night. As Kara listens, something doesn't sit right with her, but there's so much going on.
[00:13:29] Kara: Didn't really think anything of it. I mean he had just passed away; you know, I mean my mom was filling out paperwork and things like that. And then when I talked to her later that Friday, she started to fill me in. And she even said to me that she wasn't aware that my dad had this other insurance policy. Um, that he usually kept very, very good records of everything, but she thought maybe it just slipped his mind, and you know he had been retired for a number of years, and maybe this was something he had signed up for back when he was still working in government, and maybe this just slipped his mind. And so we talked later that Friday evening, and she kind of told me everything that had happened up to that point, and as she's telling me this story, my heart just starts to sink.
[00:14:12] Bob: Kara starts to worry there might not really be an insurance policy. But she decides to bite her tongue for the time being.
[00:14:19] Kara: And, you know, I was trying to be supportive of my mom. You know, she's just lost my, you know, my dad. She and my dad were married for over 50 years, and she was absolutely devasted and heartbroken. And to be honest, I was also really sad. I was grieving my father, also exhausted too.
[00:14:38] Bob: At dinner at her house later on Friday, Kara chooses her words very carefully.
[00:14:43] Kara: She came down to our house to visit us, and we had a cousin over, and she was kind of recounting this story, and because I was hearing it again, I was totally convinced at that point that it was a scam, but I didn't want to embarrass my mom in front of like the broader family. I kick myself because at the time I'm like, you know, my partner, he was like, "This sounds like a scam, this doesn't sound legit," and I even like defended my mom at that point, 'cause I didn't want her to feel embarrassed. And later that night, my partner and I, he and I were talking about it, and I was looking up things on the internet, and I was like, I just don't feel right about it.
[00:15:19] Bob: But the next morning, they have another chance to talk.
[00:15:21] Kara: I work my partner up. I was like, we've got to talk to my mom, 'cause she had spent the night at our house, and I said, "This is a scam." This was a Sunday morning. My mom got up, and we sat in the living room with her, and I just looked at her, and I just said, "This is a scam," like, "This is not real. We've looked into it more." And she started to cry. I'll say that it was probably one of the worst days of my life when I had to tell her this.
[00:15:52] Bob: It was another horrible moment in a month of horrible moments. Something else to add to the grief. Janet remembers it this way.
[00:16:00] Janet: And the next morning I was laying on the bed going, none of this is right. It makes no sense. Something wrong has happened. And I got up, and they're already up waiting for me. And I said, "I don't know what's going on, but I think something bad happened." And they said, "Yeah."
[00:16:18] Bob: While they talk and cry, Janet begins to understand what has happened.
[00:16:23] Janet: There were plenty of times when I read in the AARP newsletter this had happened, and I thought, wow, I wondered maybe these people should have been more aware of stuff. And I'll tell you, when they get you less than seven days after your husband dies, you are the most vulnerable person on the face of the earth. And I was willing to do it. So I gave them roughly 9000 plus dollars.
[00:16:50] Bob: The criminals knew exactly when to call Janet, knew exactly when she'd be most vulnerable.
[00:16:56] Janet: So I was physically and emotionally exhausted when they called and got me at my weakest moment. If they would have called me a week later, I would have hung up on them.
[00:17:05] Bob: But this story isn't over. Once Janet and Kara accept the reality of the situation, well, then they get to work.
[00:17:12] Kara: There was a point maybe about an hour into it where she said, "Are you sure this isn't real?" And I said, "Yeah, this isn't real. This is a scam." I think at that point she accepted it pretty quickly, and then uh just said, "Okay," like let's do what we need to do.
[00:17:28] Bob: First task, make sure the criminals can't get any more money out of Janet's accounts.
[00:17:32] Kara: We called her bank immediately and got put through to basically freeze her accounts. And then we called her financial advisor and alerted him, so that he could also put freezes on the accounts. And then we also just like sat down with her and talked through like the, you know, 'cause at that point then, once we froze everything, you know, she couldn't use her ATM card. She couldn't use her credit cards anymore, because they had been frozen.
[00:17:54] Bob: Next, Kara and Janet go to work to see if they can get any of the money back from the criminals. They aren't optimistic, but because they had this conversation so quickly after the scam, there is hope. More than hope.
[00:18:07] Kara: Yes, we will be able to recover about half of the money. Some of the cards had not been activated yet by the scammers, and so the company that issues the cards was able to put a stop on the cards so that they could not be redeemed for payment, and so I've been working with the card company um, to get a refund issued for my mom so she'll get about half of the money back, thanks to the bquick work.
[00:18:30] Bob: Janet thinks the love and understanding of Kara and her partner were critical in helping this story have somewhat of a happy ending. They gave her strength to keep fighting.
[00:18:40] Janet: Well I was relieved that she and my son-in-law, one, they're very caring, and that they were going to back me on pursuing this, because I remember, I was crying, and I said, "I feel so stupid." And they said, "No, you're not. No, you're not." And then when I was calling the bank and canceling everything and got the fraud division at the Bank of America, and said, "I really feel so dumb and so vulnerable." And they said, "You know, this happens more than you would like to hear about." And when I went to the credit union on Monday to change the account around, they were also very nice and said, "Unfortunately, this happened, and it's happening more." Whatever the scam might be; we're going to turn off your utilities, your grandson's in Mexico, whatever it is, they've got a scam and they’re very slick. But my goodness, without Kara and Mike, that's the reason I went forward with talking with AARP, is that if this happened to me, and I knew how stupid I felt, it's happened to other people. It might not be the same scam, but I think people are too embarrassed to come forward and say, oh gosh, this happened. And people, I think, are taken for a lot more money than I was taken for.
[00:19:57] Bob: Janet's losses could have been much, much greater if she'd kept talking to the criminals. Who knows what they would have asked for next. That's why she felt so strongly about talking to me, talking to The Perfect Scam listeners about this crime.
[00:20:10] Janet: I would like to share that be very leery of anyone approaching you within the first two weeks, mine was the first week after my husband died, within the first two or three weeks, because you're at your most vulnerable and weakened state. You've been physically and mentally exhausted, and you just can't think straight. You just want to believe that this is true, and that will help make everything easier, but you need to step back and look at it and talk to somebody trusted, even if it's to go to your bank and say this has happened to me, or your doctor. I told my doctor, and he said, "I had somebody come in a couple of years ago, and they gave them $50,000, because they believed them." And I think you just have to look at the whole picture and probably trust your gut. Probably if this had been a week later, I would have said, this is crazy, and that would have been it, but I was too vulnerable. And don't be embarrassed. Report it. Talk about it.
[00:21:15] Bob: Report it. Talk about it. Yes, yes. It's so important that people talk about these crimes when they happen. The criminals are professionals. Only when consumers talk about these crimes can people fight back against these crime gangs.
[00:21:30] Kara: These people knew exactly what to do. They knew exactly how to prey on her emotions, and to get her at a point where she was so vulnerable, and they exploited that. I kept trying to reassure her that she wasn't stupid, she wasn't naive like these people preyed on her. And they're monsters, you know.
[00:21:49] Bob: And there's another benefit to Janet for stepping forward, Kara says.
[00:21:53] Kara: I think in a lot of ways by reaching out to local authorities, she felt like this happened to me, but I don't want it to happen to somebody else. It gave her a chance to be an advocate, not just for herself, but for others who could fall victim to the same kind of scam, and so, as awful as this whole situation has been, it really has helped her get back some of that sense of control, and wanting to help other people.
[00:22:17] Bob: Kara has one critical piece of advice to offer anyone trying to steer a family member through a period of intense grief.
[00:22:24] Kara: I think especially for my parents' generation, they did not grow up with cellphones. If somebody called your house, you answered the phone. And the idea of letting your cellphone just go to voicemail is something that they're not accustomed to, and so just, you know, encouraging your parents to, if they have a cellphone, if somebody's calling them or texting them and you don't know that phone number, don't respond to it, don't pick up the phone. Just let it go to voicemail and just ignore that text or delete it. If they receive an email that seems odd, delete it. Don't respond, don't click on anything.
[00:22:54] Bob: But most critical, understand how grief makes people vulnerable, and know that criminals go hunting for people who are suffering from a loss.
[00:23:03] Kara: To the adult children, of, of these parents, my advice would be to one, be aware that your parents, and even you, are going to be a target. They're going to specifically target your parents especially because they're grieving. They are just not in a good place, and they are very, very easy and very vulnerable to take advantage of right at that moment. And so, warning, you know, those adult children to be on the lookout.
[00:23:33] Bob: Anthony Pratkanis is a world-renowned crime expert and author of the book, "Weapons of Fraud," a sourcebook for fraud fighters. He has a whole taxonomy of fraud types like the projection tactic, the 1 in 5 prize tactic, and altercasting. But one thing he stresses in every situation is to pay attention to quick, unexpected emotion changes. That might be the best trick of all that scammers have.
[00:23:59] Anthony Pratkanis: Pay attention to your emotions, also any kind of quick changing in your thinking and how you’re thinking, ‘cause that’s one of the best clues that you’re being targeted by unwanted persuasion, the kind of thing a scammer will do in a fraud situation. So what that scammer’s trying to do is to manipulate you, and one way to do that is to manipulate your emotions. All of a sudden, for instance in the case of Janet here, she’s feeling deep emotions, she lost her husband, and a scammer can come in with a little bit of bright news, hey, you’re getting all this money. Now those emotions are quick changing. Her thoughts are changing. No longer is it about her husband and the death, but gee, what do I have to do to get the insurance money, going to a casino and so forth. So paying attention to those emotions, changing of thoughts, is your number one clue that you’re being targeted. Now whether you're on Facebook, Twitter, the person calling you on the phone, that letter that you get in the mail, if all of a sudden, you’re feeling emotions, panic, I gotta get in on that situation, I’m feeling afraid, all of a sudden angry and I wasn’t; take a step back and ask why.
[00:25:18] Bob: Janet thinks her criminals got all the personal information they had on her family through an obituary in the local paper. Anthony says it's obvious they profiled Janet.
[00:25:28] Anthony Pratkanis: The fraud criminal in this case profiled her and found out, oh she lost a death. So I’m going to pitch her on a phantom of getting this insurance money. They may profile you when they listen to, in conversation with you, when they’re talking to you, they’re looking for things that, that are your hot buttons. So if you say I’m, I’m worried about the grey wolves, well they’ll come up with a plan, a charity fraud to help the grey wolves. If you’re financially having difficulty, come up with financial schemes. Then the next thing on a phantom is they’ll create a story that sells that phantom to you. Why are you getting it? You’ve won a, a lottery prize; your name came up. In this case, the phantom sold because of the death, the routineness of, of a bureaucracy trying to do its job to get this insurance money, supposedly.
[00:26:24] Bob: But Kara played an important role, a critical role in making sure Janet didn't end up much worse off.
[00:26:30] Anthony Pratkanis: Yes. Janet's daughter showed the, some of the best tools in action. So what happens when you’re caught up in a scam as Janet was, your emotions are being played on, your thoughts are being manipulated, and it’s hard to think. It’s hard to see what’s going on. You’re constantly responding to what the fraud criminal has to say. On the other hand, Janet’s daughter was outside of that social situation, and so she could come in and see, well it makes no sense to go to a casino. What’s up with that?
[00:27:08] Bob: But mainly it was kindness that stopped the fraud and gave Janet a chance to get some of her money back.
[00:27:13] Anthony Pratkanis: The other thing that Janet's daughter did that was really important, is she quietly, subtly brought the issue up that this might be a fraud. In those situations, when you see somebody in a fraud situation, your natural tendency is to lecture that person. Oh, don’t fall prey for that, you’re stupid. That’s exactly the wrong thing to do, because when you’re in that situation, admitting that there’s a fraud happening, and you’re being taken, it plays a lot on your self-esteem, like how can I be that stupid? And by calling a person, so it’s just reminding them that they did something bad. So instead of lecturing them, raise subtle issues like, you know, for instance in this case, well I wonder why they sent you to a casino? That’s weird -- to help them start seeing the fraud. Also help build up their self-esteem. Make sure that they feel comfortable. Make sure that the, the special aspects of their lives are made clear, so they have the self-esteem to face the fact that they had been caught up in this fraud.
[00:28:20] Bob: I talked to the daughter, and she told me just the most beautiful story about how they had had dinner with their mom on a Friday night, and Mom explained what was going on, and the daughter and her husband, you know, looked at each other and said something is obviously wrong, but they didn’t say anything because they were in a large group setting, and so they let it go until the next morning, but I thought it was just so thoughtful and loving.
[00:28:40] Anthony Pratkanis: Exactly. That’s exactly the right approach to take in that situation.
[00:28:45] Bob: Exactly the right approach. We really could learn a lot from Kara and her kindness.
[00:28:51] Kara: And I think it's also like a delicate balance to not overstep. You know, I know that when I went to the bank with my mom, like that morning after, and we were waiting outside to go in, and the security guard asked us, "Do you have an appointment or not?" And you know, my mom said she did not, but she, and I just sort of jumped in to explain like what was going on. And then my mom turned to me and said, "Do you think I can't do this?" And I said, "No." And so I think it's like you have to find that right balance of being there to support your parents, and also like not patronizing them. You know, and I think you just have to kind of find whatever that, that balance is. You know, they're still adults, you want them to feel, I think, empowered and to feel like they can advocate, but also, I think just being um, a trusted source of support for them.
[00:29:43] Bob: You are so thoughtful about this. I admire that.
[00:29:47] Kara: Thank you.
[00:29:49] Bob: What advice would you give to uh someone who's just gone through a loss?
[00:29:53] Kara: Good enough is okay. Um, and to take it a day at a time.
[00:30:11] 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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