Virtual Kidnappers Con Woman Into Traveling to Mexico
Charlotte Robinette receives a phone call demanding she send money to save her daughter
When Charlotte Robinette receives a phone call from kidnappers demanding a ransom for her daughter Kristen, her daughter’s voice on the phone convinces her that the situation is dire. Over the next four grueling days, the kidnappers wear Charlotte down, keeping her on the phone, sending her all over Phoenix and having her wire money to Mexico. Finally, she’s instructed to travel with the remaining cash to a small town across the border, where she’s told she can rescue her daughter. Little does she know, a stop by the U.S. Border Patrol may end up being a lifesaver.
[00:00:00] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:03] There is a scam out there for everyone, and if you haven't experienced that scam yet, it just hasn't hit you and it's on its way.
[00:00:14] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan. Charlotte Robinette has spent about 50 years taking care of people as a nurse, almost as many taking care of her three kids, but one afternoon last year, she was suddenly thrust into what seemed like her riskiest caretaking mission of all, a mission to save her only daughter from kidnappers. She would spend the next four days and nights driving around the Phoenix area, then ultimately driving across the border into Mexico in a sleep deprived, desperate attempt to free her daughter, a trip that landed her in handcuffs at the US Border Patrol. Here's our story, "A Mother's Valiant Rescue."
[00:01:01] Charlotte Robinette: Well, I met my husband in Bible College, and he was kind of going around helping start churches, so...
[00:01:09] Bob: Oh wow.
[00:01:10] Charlotte Robinette: We had a friend that was down here and brought us down here. So, we moved down here then. And of course, all of that fell apart and broke up but we stayed, raised our family and everything here. '76 is when we moved down here.
[00:01:27] Bob: Yeah. So what did, what did you do while your husband was setting up churches while you were in Phoenix?
[00:01:34] Charlotte Robinette: I did nursing.
[00:01:35] Bob: You did nursing.
[00:01:35] Charlotte Robinette: Yeah, I, I pretty, I pretty much supported us, 'cause af--, right out of Bible School he went to college in Southern Colorado. He went to college for about a year and a half, 'cause we were helping a little church up in Creede, Colorado. And then uh, we went from there to Oregon, because my dad was attending a church there, and he wanted us to come out there. And he was going to be a co-pastor out there. And it, it worked out okay, but not real good. So, that's when we were in contact with our friends from Arizona. So that's why we moved down here.
[00:02:22] Bob: And so you were a nurse for how long?
[00:02:26] Charlotte Robinette: Oh man. Well, since '72. So, 50 years.
[00:02:33] Bob: Wow.
[00:02:34] Bob: When she wasn't trying to save souls or help heal the sick, she was taking in the neighborhood kids.
[00:02:41]Charlotte Robinette: When my kids were growing up, they were kind of in a different way at school, and, and they had a lot of friends that were either not accepted by their parents or accepted by the school, and all of these kids would come over to my house. And sometimes they lived with us, sometimes they just stayed for a while. One of them I kept as a foster daughter. Um, anyway, all these kids that I helped raised, you know, they still loved me like their mom. And then my husband's family in, in Denver, even though we were divorced, and he is deceased, they still kept me as their, I mean his mom loved me like his own daughter, and his brothers and sisters.
[00:03:30] Bob: Even now, after all those years, she's still working as a nurse and finding kids to help.
[00:03:36] Charlotte Robinette: I work two days a week.
[00:03:37] Bob: Oh, that's nice. That's a good mix, yeah.
[00:03:39] Charlotte Robinette: Yeah, and it, it's a good job, you know, I take care of a special needs child in their home. So it, it's really good for me, because I know him well, and, and the mom, and we all get along good. And, and it's not real hard work other than the fact that he's pretty heavy.
[00:03:58] Bob: So she's been a helper all her life, but one day she was confronted by perhaps her biggest challenge of all, helping free her daughter, Kristin, from kidnappers.
[00:04:09] Charlotte Robinette: Well, I, I got a phone call (phone ring) and it happened to be a day that I was supposed to work. It was around lunchtime. Because I was just getting ready to pack my lunch for work. I still didn't have my scrubs on, I had my civies on. And I picked it up and all of a sudden it, it just says, "Moooom, please help me. These guys, they've taken me." And it sounded exactly like her. 'Cause I've been around her when she is crying like that. And then the guy grabbed the phone, and he says, "Okay, we've got your daughter here. And, uh, you do exactly what we say." You know, and, and of course, I offered up her name, I said, "Kristin?" So, I said, you know, “What are you doing?" and all of that. And they said, "We want you to go, how much would you pay for your daughter's life?" This went on for a little bit and then I said, "Let me hear her." And he wouldn't let me talk to her. He says, "No, that's the last you're going to to hear of her. You can't talk to her, she can't talk to you, and unless you do what we say, then we are going to kill her."
[00:05:22] Bob: They were going to kill her. Charlotte doesn't have any time to think.
[00:05:29] Charlotte Robinette: I was sitting in my garage. It's kind of my sanctuary. I come out in the garage, and I smoke and do crossword puzzles between my tools and stuff. They wouldn't let me call work. I said, "I have to go to work." So finally, he said, “Okay, we'll put you on speaker, and we'll have a three-way conversation and just tell them that something's come up.” So I was a no call/no show at work. And this is something that I never, ever do.
[00:06:00] Bob: They tell Charlotte she has to go to a local store and wire some money to an address in Mexico or they'll kill Kristin. And when she gets into her car, they also tell her she can't hang up. They listen to the entire drive, monitor her every move.
[00:06:17] Charlotte Robinette: They kept me on the phone constantly, either on Bluetooth or on speaker. They made me tell them every store that I was passing, every street that I was passing.
[00:06:30] Bob: It feels like chaos. Charlotte can hardly understand what the callers really want, but she doesn't dare not follow their instructions. And the demands keep coming.
[00:06:41] Charlotte Robinette: So naturally, it put me in a freak-out panic mode. So, then they really kept pushing me for how much money I had in my bank account, and he put the big bad guy on, started really threatening and intimidating me. So, I had to go to my bank and pull out all the money that I had in my bank. And then he made me get all the money out of my savings. And, of course, it was in August, it was hotter than heck and but, but they would only take so much money. You know, I couldn't just wire them all of that money. Each place, like, you know, any of these places that wire money to Mexico, they'd take about $700, or whatever.
[00:07:34] Bob: So she drives from place to place wiring the maximum amount of money she can following their instructions, trying to save Kristin's life. But even all the money in her bank account isn't enough. They want her Social Security checks too.
[00:07:50] Charlotte Robinette: But then he really got on me; "You're holding out on me." Well, it was the day that I got my Social Security check. So, anyway, then I had to go to the bank and get the rest of that out. So that gave me another day of going from place to place. And then I spent the next three days going from place to place, these little Mexican carnicerias and stuff like that, and writing, wiring money to Mexico with these different addresses.
[00:08:25] Bob: All the while, they keep her awake, keep running her ragged, keep making her worry about Kristin.
[00:08:31] Charlotte Robinette: They would not let me sleep, and this went on for like all day. Then they wouldn't let me sleep at night. I had to stay up all night while they were on the phone. And then the next day, same thing, you know, going from place to place. And then finally, on the fourth day, and all of this time I had, all I had to eat was like a sandwich and a snack, and, and, I had some water and stuff to drink. So, I, I was just, I was really running on adrenalin.
[00:09:07] Bob: The implied threats are menacing.
[00:09:10] Charlotte Robinette: Every time I'd ask about Kristin, "Don't ask about her. You're going to make me mad. Got her right here," you know. And then he'd say, "Well, I don't want to kill her, we really aren't here to kill anybody," and, and then the bad, the heavy, when he was on there, he says, "You know, this, this little piddly amount of money, you know, we, we usually do millionaires, and, and, you know, rich people, and you know, but this little piddly amount of money is hardly worth killing somebody. So, you'd just better do what we say." You know, and just all of this intimidating stuff that they say, you know, "You can wipe your (bleep) with money, but you can't wipe your (bleep) with a dead daughter."
[00:09:59] Bob: Very, very menacing.
[00:10:01] Charlotte Robinette: And uh, and then he'd say, "Well we have her," the one guy, he was like you know, "We, we have, I gave, she's in the possession of a couple of my girls, I didn't put her with guys." And, uh, after the third day, you know, of course a lot of it I, I couldn't eat, I, I had no appetite. But he says, "Well, your daughter is starting to eat a little bit, too, you know, she's kind of calming down a bit."
[00:10:30] Bob: Right as Charlotte's exhaustion is hitting its worse, as she in a tired haze, they send her on a road trip.
[00:10:38] Bob: So for four days they wouldn't let you sleep?
[00:10:41] Charlotte Robinette: The last night they let me sleep for about oh, four or five hours. The one guy that was mostly doing all the talking, he says, "Okay, get in your car. We're going to go for a drive."
[00:10:51] Bob: They tell her to take the last of the cash she has withdrawn, and head south, a few hours south, past Tucson to the border crossing at Nogales, to Mexico, to a bank where the money can be directly deposited into the kidnappers' accounts. And once in Mexico, they control her every move.
[00:11:10] Charlotte Robinette: I went in through the gate, went to their bank, did the deposit with the rest of the money, and, and each time they made me tear up the receipts and everything, and they were listening to make sure they heard the papers tearing.
[00:11:24] Bob: Finally satisfied she's destroyed the evidence, and she's given them the last of her cash, well, the criminals let her keep $50 for gas money to get home, Charlotte heads back to the border crossing at Nogales when somehow things get even worse.
[00:11:40] Charlotte Robinette: So then when I got out of the bank, I was waiting in the long line to get out of Mexico, and they asked me at the gate, "Do you have any weapons?" I said, "Yeah, I have one in my purse." And all of the sudden they just jumped up and they just, on the line they said, "She's got a weapon."
[00:11:58] Bob: Border Patrol agents stopped her to do a full search. This is no 5-minute pull-aside. All the while, Charlotte's thinking, she has to get out of this situation, back to Phoenix where she'll get instructions on how to free her kidnapped daughter.
[00:12:12] Charlotte Robinette: And then they got me out of the car, handcuffed me, and then they said, "Do you have any other weapons?" And I said, "Well there's one in the console." So, they handcuffed me, took me to the back, frisked me. They didn't strip search me, but they, they hit and touched everywhere and made me squat and everything. They had the sniffer dogs all over my truck and all over me. "What are you doing here?"
[00:12:41] Bob: She doesn't dare say anything to the border agents about what's going on. She doesn't dare do anything to anger the kidnappers.
[00:12:49] Charlotte Robinette: Then they cuffed me. Brought the dog over, sniffed me up and down and then they took me back into the office and they took my, confiscated my truck.
[00:12:59] Bob: And you're sitting there thinking, you're trying to rescue your daughter, and you can't even tell them what's going on right?
[00:13:05] Charlotte Robinette: Yeah, well I figured they probably heard what was going on, because my phone was on Bluetooth or speaker. My phone was on speaker, so I figured they were hearing.
[00:13:15] Bob: Adding all of that in my head, I mean you're exhausted, you're in handcuffs, you're, you're being interrogated by a border patrol, you're worried about your daughter's life. I mean how would you even try to describe the feelings that you, you had at, at that moment?
[00:13:29] Charlotte Robinette: I just became kind of numb. I, I, I just, I don't know, all I can describe it is, is just kind of a numb feeling, like what, what next? What could be worse? You know, what, what else is going to happen.
[00:13:50] Bob: Finally after what seems like an eternity, border agents let her go with a warning. She can focus again on Kristin, but when she gets back in her car, she realizes the phone line has gone dead. The kidnappers must have hung up during the border search. Charlotte is frantic now, driving on side streets in Nogales, Arizona, on the other side of the border trying to reach the kidnappers, and she just can't.
[00:14:17] Charlotte Robinette: I tried to call these guys back and they wouldn't answer. So I was getting real scared, so I thought, well, I'll call my daughter, because if they have her, and I call her on the phone then they'll be able to talk to me. So, I called her.
[00:14:32] Bob: Charlotte nervously dials her daughter's cellphone number, and (cellphone ring) she gets another huge surprise ... from Kristin.
[00:14:42] Charlotte Robinette: She says, "Hello?" I said, "Kristin, are, are you okay?" She says, "Yeah, I'm fine." I said, "Where are you?" She said, "I'm sitting right here at my house." I'm like, "Oh (bleep)," you know. Everything just sort of fell apart. And I was, I was mad and relieved both at the same time. I was so relieved that, that she was okay.
[00:15:07] Bob: Kristin was fine. She was home the whole time. She was never at risk. She wasn't kidnapped. The whole thing, the whole four-day nightmare, the handcuffs, all of it was just a story told to her by criminals. Exhausted, broke, far from home, mad and relieved, it's hard to put into words all the things that Charlotte felt at that moment as she tries to catch her bearings in Nogales.
[00:15:39] Bob: That moment when your daughter answers the phone, and you're trying to figure out, how do I make sense of this? Uh, is, you know, is, was she kidnapped or not. I mean, what is that like?
[00:15:52] Charlotte Robinette: Oh, it was, it was such a relief. It was such a relief to hear her voice that she was okay. And then I told her what happened, and of course she was very sympathetic and everything. So, I was angry and relieved at the same time. (Laughs) It was like, I, I just wanted to fall down and cry and pass out or something. So anyway, my daughter, she said, "Would you like to stop by on your way home so that you can hug me and see I'm okay?" And I said, yeah. So I, I went to my daughter’s, and they wouldn't let me drive home. They, they kept me overnight.
[00:16:37] Bob: While she got to sleep that first night in her daughter's home, Charlotte figured she still has reason to be concerned.
[00:16:44] Charlotte Robinette: I was also frightened because, you know, if they know where I live, you know, and, and we, we were talking and I, I don't remember if I gave them my address or not. I don't think so, but, because after it was done then I was afraid that they knew where I lived, and they might come over here or something. You know, but I, I'm not sure that I did give them my address, I think that I just told them I lived in Glendale, but then I got to thinking, they got their money, what, what do they want with me now? You know.
[00:17:20] Bob: And while she was thankful her daughter was fine; the previous four days had created a lot of problems. And they made some of Charlotte's existing problems only worse. It wasn't the first time she spent money down to her last dollar.
[00:17:36] Charlotte Robinette: They got about $11,000. That was it. Yeah. I had been trying to save up because I had lost everything when I was with another man, and we ended up driving a truck all over the nation, and that ended up taking all of my IRA. And so I was just trying to get back on my feet. I managed to get good credit and all of that stuff, and a good place to live, and then that just dwindled it down. Now I'm trying to get up some savings again, little by little, and that's why I still have to work two days a week. Just so that, that I can get, because my Social Security, I could probably make it on that, but I wouldn't have any play money.
[00:18:31] Bob: Charlotte had bills to pay in the aftermath of the crime, but remember all those orphans and neighbors she had taken care of through the years, well many of them decided it was time to take care of Charlotte.
[00:18:44] Charlotte Robinette: And thank God for my son, because he opened up a GoFundMe account. So between them and all of these kids I helped raise, they raised enough money that I could get my bills paid.
[00:18:57] Bob: Wow. That's amazing.
[00:19:00] Charlotte Robinette: Yeah, I mean I, I realized just, you know, sometimes you forget, and then I realized just how much I was loved. Or am loved.
[00:19:12] Bob: So you know that's, sometimes people say there's a silver lining, uh, to me that sounds like much more than a silver lining, I mean, that's, you know, you went through an experience, but you came out the other side knowing how loved you are by all these people. Uh, that, that seems so beautiful to me.
[00:19:28] Charlotte Robinette: Yeah. And, and the shock of it was none of them blamed me. A couple of them said, well, they said, “Mom, I would have done the same thing if it was my child! Don't blame yourself.” And my daughter she's, "Mom, I know you, I know you are going to beat yourself to death over this,” and she said, “don't do it.” And, but that is the hardest thing not to do. But it just, I, I really can't believe that I was actually able to do all of that. And not fall apart or faint or do something. I mean I; I just had a lot of strength it seems like.
[00:20:11] Bob: And obviously a lot of love for your daughter.
[00:20:14] Charlotte Robinette: Oh yeah.
[00:20:15] Bob: But the incident haunted her, still haunts her.
[00:20:20] Charlotte Robinette: And oh, I, I mean I, I don't know how long it was before I got enough sleep, because I laid awake, and I pictured it, and dreaming and all, I was dreaming of all these places that I was going to, these little Mexican places. Western Union, I even went to a couple of those. I went to some Walgreens. And, and I drove pretty much all over the western part of the city. And they, they'd ask, you know, "What are you driving?" And I'd tell them. "Okay, we see it," you know, so they made me think that they were following me. So it was, it was just, it's, it's hard to really describe the feeling that you have. (chuckles)
[00:21:06] Bob: Yes, it's very hard to describe those feelings, the intense fear brought on by this kind of crime which experts call virtual kidnapping. Marti DeLiema is an Assistant Research Professor at the University of Minnesota, and she has spent her career studying the feelings people like Charlotte have during these kinds of crimes. Marti says many, many people think they'd never become a victim of a crime like virtual kidnapping. They are dead wrong.
[00:21:35] Marti DeLiema: Yeah, I think that it really goes against the identities that we build up for ourselves as people who are savvy consumers. Um, and people just don't want to admit that this is something that could happen to them. Fraud is one of those things where we all recognize it's out there, it's happening, but we ourselves think we're invulnerable. It's others who are at risk, so when it happens to us, we do whatever was can to kind of distance ourselves from that feeling of being vulnerable.
[00:22:04] Bob: And you know, back to your example, if you're stuck on the side of a road and it's 90 degrees out, you're going to take help from anybody.
[00:22:10] Marti DeLiema: Right.
[00:22:10] Bob: You're not going to ask...
[00:22:11] Marti DeLiema: If you're in Minnesota, it's more like it's negative 20 out, but yeah, you will take, you will do what it takes.
[00:22:18] Bob: You're not going to ask for a business license from someone who says I can help start your car.
[00:22:22] Marti DeLiema: Right, right. I can run and go get gas, just give me a 20 right now, I'll be back in a flash.
[00:22:27] Bob: Her core message, anyone could be a victim of a scam.
[00:22:32] Marti DeLiema: I think that there is a scam out there for everyone. Um, and if you haven't experienced that scam yet, it just hasn't hit you, um, and it's on its way. So you know, I think scams are marketed to different groups of people, and there's so much gray area too, you know, like all these, if you think about like natural juice cleanses, and clear your body of toxins. Well clearly those are marketed at maybe young women or young men, and some groups would be like, I would never think that something like that as legitimate. Um, and then other people, it's a complete other set of, of scams and deception or line of products or services that, that can get you. Um, I always think that if I was stuck on the side of the road and my car broke down, I know nothing about cars, I could easily fall for a con in that situation. And I'm a person who studies this. So again, there's a scam out there for each and every one of us, so we're all vulnerable to something in some way.
[00:23:32] Bob: A key element in many virtual kidnappings and a big part of what happened to Charlotte, was the criminals efforts to keep her awake, and to keep her on the phone.
[00:23:42] Marti DeLiema: I think it shows just how much effort they themselves are putting into this con. Um, you know, the fact that if she's not sleeping, they're working around the clock in order to extract as much money from her as possible, and the criminals are going to be set on not breaking the ether, because they know that the moment that Charlotte hangs up the phone, or the moment that she has a time, a minute just to clear her mind, is the moment that things might not seem all, all right anymore. Um, the important thing about this scam is that she already thinks that there's a criminal activity going on. She already thinks that these are bad people, and that's very different than many other scams where the criminals make you think that they're there to help you avoid some other threat or consequence from other, from truly bad people like we think about um, the Social Security Administration scam or others like that. So what's interesting is that Charlotte really does think she's dealing with bad people, but she thinks they're kidnappers, not scammers, and they don’t want to break the ether, so they're going to keep her on the phone for as long as possible, um, because they know the minute she hangs up, uh she's, she's going to come, kind of come out of that fog.
[00:25:03] Bob: Marti says it's important not to underestimate the role fear plays in a scam like this.
[00:25:09] Marti DeLiema: This scam was effective because of the impact of fear arousal. Um, fear is really what made um, Charlotte stay in that ether. Um, and fear is what absolutely overrode her, her rational decision-making to think, wait a second. This, this is just not plausible. Um, so, so again, you know, fear is something that's really hard to manage when we're in that, that state, and scammers know that, so, so they're going to try to get you in that emotional state right away and keep it going. Um, because that is critical for their scam to be successful.
[00:25:52] Bob: Maybe Charlotte's caring personality made her a good target for the criminals. But Marti says, really, any parent is a target for a virtual kidnapping.
[00:26:02] Marti DeLiema: I think most parents would do whatever it takes to, you know, care for their, care for their children. Um, you know, they probably got her at an off, at a minute or a moment when she was off guard, and then it kind of snowballs and it's again, this idea of she's already kind of committed to this idea that her daughter is in danger since she's going to keep kind of continuing with the behavior to do what it takes to, to protect her daughter. Um, but we see people kind of across the spectrum fall for the virtual kidnapping scam, so it's hard to say whether you know that innate loving, caring personality makes you more predisposed to the scam.
[00:26:42] Bob: She advocates for something called The Thinking Ahead Roadmap, making a plan for dealing with late in life finances at an early age. While the roadmap is generally about financial planning, it could help with scams too.
[00:26:56] Marti DeLiema: Absolutely. So, so you can imagine that if, if Charlotte, you know, had another person on her accounts that would receive alerts every time there was a major withdrawal or a big transfer, um, that person would be getting a little notification, um, and, and i--, ideally that person who Charlotte would, would have picked and trusted would give her a phone call and say, hey, I'm concerned. What's going on? Why did you just move, you know, $1,000 into this other account, or $4,000, where did it go? And then if Charlotte said, you know I, I really can't tell you, this is really serious, something's happened to my daughter, that, that might be enough to break the ether and protect the rest of Charlotte's finances. So that's really the key is just getting that extra checks and balances, and, and more people just to support you in your own decisions, and then when you, if you completely lose the ability to do, to manage your own money, that they can carry your wishes forward. It really gives you, as the individual, more control over your future um, finances.
[00:28:01] Bob: I love this idea. It's pretty easy to set up warning text messages with your bank. Most people can do this on their own, set up financial accounts to send alerts to loved ones for transactions over a certain amount. What a great way to keep tabs on someone's financial accounts to see if there's a string of unexpected activity. As for what Charlotte learned from this incident, for one thing, she learned you can text and talk at the same time. That would have been helpful during the initial moments of this crime, and with many crimes really.
[00:28:34] Charlotte Robinette: Well my friend told me, he says, "You know, you can text while you're talking on the phone." And I said, "I wish I would have known that."
[00:28:43] Bob: Well, but you didn't.
[00:28:44] Charlotte Robinette: But when you know, you're not used to technology. We just got these phones, not, you know, not, shortly before all this happened. So, I'm unfamiliar with these smart phones.
[00:28:54] Bob: And that's one of the reasons she's decided to share her story. She wants other people to be familiar with the technology and with virtual kidnappings.
[00:29:04] Charlotte Robinette: Yeah, I, the main reason I talk about it is because I want the word out, and the reason I reported it to you is because I read about it the AARP magazine about the scams. This wasn't one of the scams though, and I thought, this is one that needs to get out there.
[00:29:21] Bob: Charlotte's life is returning to normal, and she is starting to build back up her savings again, and she still spends most of her time caring for other people.
[00:29:31] Charlotte Robinette: I'm not dumb but I am very gullible and trusting, and I believe people.
[00:29:38] Bob: I'm going to use a different word. I'm going to say that you are caring. I mean, obviously, you've collected families, your whole life, not just your own, but other families, other kids, your, your husband's, your ex-husband's family. So, you care a lot about people. And, and that's what they used against you is the fact that you're caring.
[00:29:56] Charlotte Robinette: That's true. They found my weakest point.
[00:30:00] Bob: Which is your strongest point, so the one thing I hope they don’t take from you, I hope that, you don't, you don't become any less caring because of this experience.
[00:30:10] Charlotte Robinette: Well the, like I said, it was a bad experience, but good came out of it. I, I, you know, just finding how much I'm still loved and cared about.
[00:30:27] Bob: If you have been targeted by a scam or fraud, you are not alone. Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Their trained fraud specialists can provide you with free support and guidance on what to do next. Thank you to our team of scambusters; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; Producer, Brook Ellis; Associate Producer and Researcher, Megan DeMagnus; and, of course, our Audio Engineer, Julio Gonzalez. 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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