[00:00:01] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:03] I was numb. It didn't even feel like a punch, it felt like an out of body experience, like I couldn't believe what I was seeing. And then, you know that expression, "Lies are like rats, when you see one; it means there are a thousand others hiding." That's what I knew to be true, but I was too scared to admit that at the time.
[00:00:23] Bob: Welcome to The Perfect Scam. I am your new host, Bob Sullivan. I'm really excited to be here. I'm an independent journalist. I've been writing about technology and computer crime and things like privacy and viruses and hackers for the last 20 years or so. I've done a lot of stories on online scams as well. And I really, really care a lot about making sure that people are more careful with their money, and that they understand the stories behind criminals and the things that they can do to manipulate people. And I can't think of anyone better to be heading down this road with than Frank Abagnale who has devoted most of his adult life to helping people learn to be more careful with their money. So Frank, very delighted to have you.
[00:01:06] Frank Abagnale: Bob, and I'm very delighted and honored to be working with you on The Perfect Scam. I have followed you for 20 years as well. You're one of those great uh journalists that know a lot about what you write about and uh you have the same passion I do. We just want to help uh people and protect people from losing their money or giving information to the wrong people. And we know that education, which I believe is the most powerful tool to fighting crime, if you can teach people how these scams work and alert them to these scams, most people then recognize them when they come up. And that's one of the great things that AARP does, and The Perfect Scam podcast does.
[00:01:45] Bob: And we know that there's this common thread among all the stories that we're going to tell you, which is, people who are victimized often said to themselves, this could never happen to me. Well, it, it can happen to anyone and, and the stories we're going to tell you on The Perfect Scam will show you that. So, let's get started.
[00:02:02] Frank Abagnale: Yes.
[00:02:03] Bob: I know there's a lot going on in the world right now, and there's a lot of scams related to what's going on in the world. But have, can you talk of what, what you've seen as the result of COVID and the vaccine and, and all the other things that people are doing right now to take advantage of what's in the news? And I know early on in the pandemic, there were a lot of fake cures being sold online, and I've still seen that, but the new thing, Frank, I think it's going to be around the vaccine, right? There's going to be people who say, you know, enter your credit card here, or give us this information there, and, and you can get online for the vaccine. What kind of things have you seen about that?
[00:02:37] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, a, a lots of those things are telling you that you have to pay a fee upfront and then you can get on the list. I tell people all the time, you can't pay to put your name on a list to get the vaccine. You can't pay to get early access to a vaccine. You don't share personal and financial information with someone's calls, texts, or emails you promising access to a vaccine, uh for a fee. And I remind people all the time, 'cause many of these calls supposedly from Medicare pops up on their caller ID as Medicare or US Government. Medicare will never contact you for a Medicare number or personal information unless you've given them permission in advance. Medicare will never call you or sell you anything.
[00:03:22] Bob: Hey, so here's one um, silver lining to the pandemic. Uh, I don't know if you have them in your neighborhood, but I sure have them in, in mine. We call the COVID puppies. Everybody's getting a puppy. Everybody's getting a dog or a cat or a pet to, as companionship during this time. But as often happens, right, there are these puppy pet related scams that have to do with COVID, right, but what, what do, what do puppies have to do with COVID, Frank?
[00:03:47] Frank Abagnale: Interesting that you tell me that, because I just got a call from a woman who is actually a grandmother and said that her granddaughter had lost $300. She was looking for me to help her because she had got involved in trying to buy a dog through what she believed was a legitimate person, a middle person who was working with a breeder. And she paid the money and then she had to pay money because they said, well, you have to pay for all the shots. And she sent them money for that, and then, of course, the dog never showed up, and now she can't get a hold of the person, the number no longer works. Again, this is doing something, doing business with someone where you haven't taken a moment to verify that this person is legitimate. So just because I see an ad or I see a come on for a breeder, uh, I need to check that out. And sometimes, you know, some of these scam artists get very sophisticated. They'll spend a fortunate making this elaborate website that you look at, and it has, "We've been in business for 25 years," and "These are all our people that referred us, and recommend us, and written about us." That doesn't make it real. You have to just kind of do your own checking and make sure, whether you go through the Better Business Bureau, you call the local Chamber of Commerce, uh you do some before again you, you hand out any money, before you part with your money. But it takes a little work.
[00:05:11] Bob: An elaborate website? That doesn't make it real. You're so right. Thanks, Frank.
[00:05:16] Frank Abagnale: Absolutely.
[00:05:17] Bob: Speaking of elaborate stories, today we're going to share one of the most elaborate tales we've ever told on The Perfect Scam. It's the story of reality TV show producer, Jonathan Walton, and the Irish heiress who moved into his building and changed his life forever.
[00:05:34] Jonathan Walton: I've worked on shows uh, Booze Traveler for the Travel Channel, American Ninja Warrior for NBC, but the biggest show I've ever worked on...
[00:05:42] Bob: Like so many people living in LA, Jonathan Walton is hard at work establishing himself in his television career. He's a barrel of laughs kind of guy, a gentle giant. You can tell he'd make guests comfortable when they have to sit in front of a TV camera. Our story takes us back to the year 2013, as Jonathan is about to start living his own reality TV show. He's such a good storyteller, I'm going to stay out of the way for the most part and let him tell it.
[00:06:12] Jonathan Walton: I had just finished up on Shark Tank when a new neighbor uh came into my life and you know, she said her name was Mair Smyth. I live in a nice apartment building in downtown Los Angeles, and she had become a neighbor. I met her because we lost our big, gigantic Olympic-sized swimming pool, uh, through a legal dispute with a neighboring building, and the residents in our apartment building were mad. So I started organizing everybody to try and get our pool back, you know, to try and bring a lawsuit or make a, form a tenant's association to get our pool back.
[00:06:44] Bob: I've actually been to this complex. A sprawling high rise in LA's Bunker Hill neighborhood to visit a journalist friend of mine who lives there. It's nice, but it would never be mistaken for Beverly Hills. Still, it is LA, and if you throw a stone, you're likely to hit someone trying to make it big. Bunker Hill is where Jonathan's battle with the Irish heiress begins, not with a shot fired, mind you, but with a simple offer of help.
[00:07:09] Jonathan Walton: I start talking to residents and organizing a meeting in my apartment, and the most vocal resident by far is a new neighbor. You know, she says her name is Mair Smyth. She says she's from Ireland. She says her boyfriend is a big time lawyer and a politician, and he can help get us our pool back. And so she kind of comes to this meeting with all the other residents, and she takes charge.
[00:07:33] Bob: She's funny, she's outspoken, she has short, dark hair, piercing blue eyes, she takes charge of the meeting. She stands up and she says, "We're going to get our pool back." All the tenants love this woman. Most important, Jonathan trusts her. He is immediately drawn to her as they set out to fight on their cause together. Quickly, their relationship progresses far beyond the pool dispute.
[00:07:57] Jonathan Walton: She wants to get to know us. She paints herself as new in town, so she takes my husband and I out for dinner at this really expensive restaurant, Drago Centro, and the bill comes to like almost $600. And she pays the bill. Like she immediately comes off as a woman of means, as a woman of wealth.
[00:08:15] Bob: Pretty soon, Jonathan and Mair are best friends. They text almost every day. He's involved in her life. And Mair, it turns out, has some pretty great life stories to tell.
[00:08:26] Jonathan Walton: She tells me that she comes from a wealthy family in Ireland, uh, and she has this Irish inheritance coming. She says there's a 25 million euro estate being divided up, and she's going to get 5 million euros. When she tells me this story, I believe her because by then, she had laid out the breadcrumbs of her wealth.
[00:08:46] Bob: There's wining and there's dining and lots of gifts. Mair even convinces Jonathan that her family holds an important place in Irish history.
[00:08:55] Jonathan Walton: She had, in her apartment, she had a framed, um, picture, she said it was the Irish Constitution, she pointed out, and she said her great uncle is one of the signatories. So, you know, when someone points out that, you just take them at face value, like who would lie about something so specific?
[00:09:12] Bob: Their intimacy was cemented when Mair found a way to deeply connect. First, it was a common enemy over building management and the pool. But now, there was a deeper common enemy that bonded them. Family issues.
[00:09:25] Jonathan Walton: She quickly realized I was gay. I confided in her that, you know, part of my family had disowned me for being gay. I hadn't been home for Christmas at that point in almost seven years, and I was kind of raw from that. So she pounces, and she says, "Well my family disowned me, too. They're trying to get me disinherited, so, you know, I'm out here by myself in Los Angeles, you know, fending for myself." So I immediately bonded with her. Here we are, two discarded souls living in Los Angeles, you know, and she quickly became like a sister to me. I was as close to her as any gay man can be to a woman. I loved her. We would end our phone calls with, "I love you; I love you." You know, she was like family.
[00:10:03] Bob: Mair seemed to have a lot of free time. She said she worked at a travel agency, a luxury travel agency just for fun, so she didn't have to do much. That also helped explain her expensive tastes.
[00:10:16] Jonathan Walton: It was fun. I loved her. She was funny. She was so kind and giving. She was always trying to help people, I thought, I believed that, and I subscribe wholeheartedly to this Hindu philosophy, "In the joy of others lies their own." And she struck me as a person who was always bringing other people joy. We had a blast hanging out with her.
[00:10:35] Bob: They didn't just hang out in LA's hotspots. Mair loved to travel, and she took friends along in fancy vacations too.
[00:10:43] Jonathan Walton: She took us to this house she said one of her clients rented for her in Palm Springs. It was a Palm Springs home and a pool, and she took us out to dinner there, and it was a lot of fun, and she paid for everything. I would offer to pay, but she would always say, no, no, no, no. I have a lot of money. Let me pay.
[00:10:59] Bob: Fourteen months pass with all the expensive dinners and shoes, and "I love yous." Jonathan now believes Mair is his best friend. She has other plans. So often there is a small hint along the way that something is wrong, a shy queasy feeling from somewhere deep inside that, the kind of little voice we're all too quick to ignore. The first time the idea of a scam popped into Jonathan's head was more subtle, more subconscious than most.
[00:11:29] Jonathan Walton: So, she's working at Pacific Islands Travel, and she's fighting with her family to get her inheritance, and she says her family does a lot of business with Pacific Islands Travel. She's brilliantly laying out the elements of her con so much so that she gets me to tell her what the con is. Listen to this. At one point she tells me, "Listen, my barristers are warning me that there's a clause in the will, if any heir is ever convicted of a felony, they forfeit the inheritance." So, I immediately put two and two together. You know, I used to be a TV news reporter. I've read countless stories in the news about husbands who knock their wives off for a million dollar insurance policy. So here we are talking about 7½ million US dollars, so I quickly warn her, I'm like, "Listen, your family, they might set you up to make it look like you stole and get convicted of a felony, so they'll keep, you know, their inheritance for yourself."
[00:12:24] Bob: Mair protests. "No, that could never happen," she tells Jonathan. But he couldn't be more primed for what's about to happen next.
[00:12:33] Jonathan Walton: They were already threatening her in emails and text messages, she was showing that they hated her. Lo and behold, I get a collect call from jail. It's those automatic recordings, "This is (inaudible), and you have a collect call from the Century Regional Detention Facility in Los Angeles. Will you accept from inmate Mair Smyth?" It was her. She tells me, you were right. She's crying, uh, "I got arrested. My family set me up to make it look like I stole $200,000 from the travel agency. Oh my God, what am I going to do? Help!"
[00:13:04] Bob: Jonathan says he remembers getting so emotional at his desk at work that he started yelling into the phone. "I told you this would happen!" Coworkers are staring. He didn't think twice about what to do next.
[00:13:16] Jonathan Walton: I bailed her out of jail immediately. It was $4200. And she paid me back the next day.
[00:13:23] Bob: In that first ask, that first bit of money was kind of a test, a confidence builder. Since Mair paid him back the next day, Jonathan didn't really think much about the money. He just helped his rich friend in a pinch and that was that. A few more months of fun go by until the stakes suddenly get much higher.
[00:13:44] Jonathan Walton: I get her out of jail, and I'm determined now, I'm a knight in shining armor, I'm chivalrous. I'm determined to help her get her inheritance. Help her clear her name. I know the family set her up to make it look like she stole money, and I'm going to help her, you know, fight this and get her inheritance, you know. I'm a hero, I feel like.
[00:14:01] Bob: And things go back to fun and games again. Mair even moves out into a swanky new $6,000 a month apartment, but Jonathan still goes over for meals often. Then one day when Jonathan expects to be served one of Mair's great breakfast omelets, well, something else is on the menu.
[00:14:20] Jonathan Walton: I get into her apartment, she's in the corner convulsing, crying, shaking. I'm like, "What happened? Are you okay?" And I'm hugging her.
[00:14:29] Bob: Mair says her family has cut her off, managed to freeze all her bank accounts, and she doesn't have access to any of her money. Her Irish family is trying to intimidate her, get her to give up her inheritance.
[00:14:41] Jonathan Walton: I felt horrible, like the family, they're winning this round, like we got a, I'm not going to let that happen. So I start loaning her more money until she can get her inheritance. So I loan her, you know, almost 6,000 to pay rent in that building. By the end of the month, her accounts were still frozen, so I, I loaned her more money to move out of that building, and move back into my building where it was, the rent was like, you know, 3200 a month. And by then, I'd loaned her like almost $10,000, and I wasn't worried at all, because a) she'd already paid me back before, so I knew she was going to pay me back again, and b) we were so close now to defeating this evil family and getting her inheritance.
[00:15:19] Bob: It all made sense to Jonathan. Those text messages, the emails she showed him, they played a big role in gaining and keeping Jonathan's confidence. In the con game, we sometimes call this third party verification. You've heard it before. Don't believe me, just listen to this person, or listen to that website, or that review. Our minds are trained to trust third parties, and technology like text messages and emails makes it very easy to fake third party verification.
[00:15:47] Jonathan Walton: Well, she already painted a picture that she was the black sheep of the family growing up. She was unconventional. They were like a hoity toity, you know, Irish royal type of family, and she was always the black sheep doing weird things and wanting to live in the United States, and they hated her for that. And then, when the, the great uncle died leaving the 25 million euro estate to divide up, her cousins who already hated her, if they could factor her out of it, they get to keep her 5 million euros, which was 7½ million dollars. Now how many times have we seen a, a husband kill a wife, or a son kill their father for a couple of million dollars in inheritance, or an insurance money? You know, like it happens all the time.
[00:16:26] Bob: The buildup to the big ask has been so meticulously crafted. The trap so expertly laid. Mair has been showing Jonathan emails and text messages all along that say she's on the verge of getting her big payout.
[00:16:39] Jonathan Walton: Yeah, so we're $10,000 in, and as the months go on, she appears to be winning the case. Then one day she comes to me and she says, "Listen, um, I'm so close to getting my inheritance," and I believe her, because I've been seeing the progression of these emails and text messages from her barristers in North, in Ireland and from her lawyers in LA.
[00:16:56] Bob: But, there's just one thing. To make the case go away, once and for all, Mair says she'll need to pay court costs of ... $54,000. That sounds like a lot, but...
[00:17:10] Jonathan Walton: Up until that point, my only experience in court was like fighting a traffic ticket 10 years prior. Like I'd never been to court. I don't know anything about the justice system, I know lawyers are very expensive, so when she tells me she needs, you know, $54,000 in court costs, you know, to pay lawyers and whatever, like that figure makes sense to me. I'm like oh. I give her $4,000 cash, and I let her charge my credit cards $50,000.
[00:17:39] Bob: Remember, Jonathan loves Mair, like a sister.
[00:17:42] Jonathan Walton: I mean think about your best friend, someone you swear you know. This is someone anyone would do for anyone they love; you know.
[00:17:49] Bob: At first, money seems to have solved Mair's problem, and things go back to normal, but it doesn't last long. Soon, Mair calls Jonathan with even more dramatic news. She's going away. To jail.
[00:18:03] Jonathan Walton: She's crying again. She tells me, "Listen, the judge in my case considers me charging your credit cards to pay my thing money laundering." And I'm like, what? She's like, "Yeah, apparently, because it's not my credit cards, it was illegal for me to use your credit cards to pay my court thing and my legal thing. So he's going to punish me with a slap on the wrist. It's not a felony, it's a 30-day jail sentence just to teach me a lesson. It's not a felony, I'm going to do 30 days. As soon as I get out, I'll get the inheritance, everything will be fine."
[00:18:40] Bob: It's all kind of a blur. Jonathan says he was working 60 hour weeks at the time, and didn't really know anything about money laundering. So he doesn't question the jail sentence. But he is surprised with Mair's next, very insistent request. "Don't visit me in jail," she asks.
[00:18:56] Jonathan Walton: She calls me collect from jail, every day, and I'm determined to visit her in jail. And she's like, "No, no, no. I don't want you to see me like this. I'm so embarrassed, I can't believe I'm in jail. No." I'm like, "No," we're crying in the phone. I'm like, "No, I'm coming to see you."
[00:19:13] Bob: That decision turns out to be the turning point for Jonathan and Mair. Up until this point, Jonathan's impulsive kindness was used against him, but now, finally, his kindness, the fact that he can't not visit his friend in jail, well that turns out to be his most powerful tool.
[00:19:31] Jonathan Walton: So, a couple of weeks into her stay in jail, I go see her. That's when I discovered the first lie. I selected her as the inmate I wanted to visit, and up popped her, her screen, and it said clear as day, she was in jail for grand theft felony. Felony grand theft. And I just remember reading that on the computer monitor and just a heat rushing over my body like, what the, like that is a huge freaking lie. She said this was not a felony. She said it was a slap on the wrist. And immediately I'm thinking, you know selfishly, like if this is a felony, she's not going to get her inheritance, so I'm still believing there's an inheritance. I'm just believing she lied about the felony, right. So...
[00:20:16] Bob: It was worse than a gut punch. Looking at her jail records suddenly snapped Jonathan back into reality, a very dark reality.
[00:20:26] Jonathan Walton: I was numb. It didn't even feel like a punch, it felt like an out-of-body experience, like I couldn't believe what I was seeing. And then, you know that expression, "Lies are like rats; when you see one, it means there are a thousand others hiding." That's what I knew to be true, but I was too scared to admit that at the time. So...
[00:20:45] Bob: Jonathan's mind was swirling, so he did the only thing he knew how to do. He went into TV producer research mode. He hunted down every court record he could find about his Irish heiress friend.
[00:20:57] Jonathan Walton: I took the day off of work, I went down to the courthouse where they were prosecuting that case, the Pacific Islands case, and I stood in line at the criminal court, and I pulled every record from that case. And one by one, I discovered every single thing she told me about that case was a lie.
[00:21:12] Bob: The 30 days in jail, that was no slap on the wrist. That was part of her plea agreement. And the $54,000 that she borrowed, she needed that for the plea agreement too. In essence, Mair took money from Jonathan to pay for the money she had taken from the travel agency. Jonathan was crushed. He was overwhelmed by anger and shame and guilt and most of all, feeling hurt, betrayed by his best friend. All the things anyone would feel.
[00:21:45] Jonathan Walton: I was devastated. I went home and I just collapsed in my husband's arms and, and cried and sobbed, and here I am, these are the decisions I made, I depleted, you know, all our money. Like, how could I do this to us?
[00:21:57] Bob: So many con artist stories end like this. The veil of secrecy is lifted, the con artist is finally exposed, and then slips into the night, gone to seek out other victims. But Jonathan's story is different. Very, very different. He has a trick or two up his sleeve. He's worked in television. He knows how to act, too, and he's about to turn the tables on Mair.
[00:22:22] Jonathan Walton: I knew that I had to pretend everything was fine, so I could buy more time to investigate further, and try to see where the rabbit hole led, you know.
[00:22:31] Bob: Next week on The Perfect Scam, the confrontation.
[00:22:34] Jonathan Walton: So, unpleasant stuff.
[00:22:37] Mair Smyth: Okay.
[00:22:37] Jonathan Walton: You've been lying to us the whole time about everything.
[00:22:42] Mair Smyth: What, about what?
[00:22:43] Jonathan Walton: (inaudible) the whole time. That was a lie. That last four grand you needed, that came out of nowhere. That was a lie. You've been scamming us out of money this whole time.
[00:22:51] Mair Smyth: I have not, Jonathan.
[00:22:52] Jonathan Walton: You have.
[00:22:53] Bob: That's next week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:22:57] Bob: 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.
END OF TRANSCRIPT
Reality TV producer Johnathan Walton has worked on shows like American Ninja Warrior and Shark Tank. But for Walton, the most vicious shark he ever encounters comes in the form of a new neighbor, Mair Smyth. Claiming to be Irish royalty, Smyth says she is battling her family for a $25 million inheritance. The two develop a friendship, until Walton discovers his new best friend is an international con artist who’s stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars from multiple people, including him.
AARP’s Fraud Watch Network can help you spot and avoid scams. Sign up for free Watchdog Alerts, review our scam-tracking map, or call our toll-free fraud helpline at 877-908-3360 if you or a loved one suspect you’ve been a victim.