Scammers Target Brain Cancer Patient, Part 1
In part 1, Matthew searches online for relief from a fatal illness, but finds crooks instead
Matthew, a successful Chicago investment analyst, is diagnosed with a rare and fatal form of brain cancer, which he fends off at first. Four years later, though, the disease takes a turn for the worse and his life is turned upside down. Partially paralyzed, suffering from brain fog and in a great deal of pain, he goes looking for relief online. What he finds are the worst kind of internet criminals lurking on the dark web, looking for people just like him, suffering in their darkest hours.
[00:00:01] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:03] Justin West: She noticed these payments, these transfers to something called Coinbase. And there were dozens and dozens and dozens of them, hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of transfers to Coinbase. And she saw that his bank account had been drawn down to next to nothing.
[00:00:22] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan. And let me say upfront that I will struggle to get through today's story without choking up a bit. I hope you'll forgive me. Matthew West was diagnosed with a rare and fatal form of brain cancer four years ago, but the disease took a turn for the worse this fall. Partially paralyzed, suffering from brain fog, and in a great deal of pain, he went looking for relief online. And on the other end of the keyboard, the worst kind of internet criminals were looking for someone just like Matt. His older brother, Justin, so close to Matt that Mom calls him Matt's second mom, is a Perfect Scam longtime listener, and he reached out to me to talk about the family ordeal on LinkedIn recently which I encourage any of you to do. Justin wanted to share his story because he feels it's just so important that people know how far criminals will go, how low they will go, to find vulnerable people. And I do too. Here's what happened to Matt when he went looking online for help during his darkest hours and what can happen in the Dark Web.
[00:01:32] Justin West: My name is Justin West. I'm a plastic surgeon. I was born in California. I have one brother, Matthew West, who's my younger brother. My father, Jan and John... my father was a surgeon, my mother was a nurse. My brother is about 2½ years younger than me, so we were very close growing up. Grew up in Southern California, went to college in Southern California, and then ultimately, I ended up going to uh, the East Coast for medical school.
[00:01:53] Bob: When I talked to Justin, he was surrounded by packing boxes. He was packing up his family in North Carolina to move back to California so he can help his mom, Jan, who cares for Matt fulltime. That's the kind of family we're talking about here.
[00:02:08] Jan West: Well Justin is 2 years and 8 months older, but from the day Matt came home, he, they just bonded immediately, and Matthew always complained that he had two mothers because I mean he still does. "I had two mothers," because Justin was very, is very protective. He's very much like me. He is a smother mother. And he was very protective of his brother always, and he included his brother in spite of their age differences, he always included his brother, so Justin's friends adopted Matthew as a friend as well. Yes, I was always surprised that Justin had no problem with Matt tagging along and neither did his friends, Justin's friends. He always fit in. Matthew fit in anywhere. And he could keep up with anybody.
[00:02:56] Bob: The two brothers are very close, spent a lot of time together as children, but in some ways, they're opposites.
[00:03:03] Justin West: Matt was always a little bit more, sort of a more solitary individual, very highly intelligent, really smart and funny, whereas I would spend all my free time with friends, Matt, you know, he was a little uh more of a recluse, but very popular. Matt's a really good-looking kid, and all, you know, the uh girls always liked him and, but he was never into sports. I played a lot of sports growing up; he did not. I always wanted to be what my father, you know did. You know, I always wanted to be a surgeon like Dad, and Matthew could not have been less interested in being, you know, like his dad.
[00:03:32] Bob: And Matt, well like a lot of little brothers I can say from personal experience, he marches a bit to the beat of his own drum.
[00:03:41] Justin West: When Matt hit junior high school, he um, the, my mom was dead set on him playing sports, and uh she thought it would be very helpful for his social life, and Matt was very manipulative, and so he knew the one sport my parents would never play, let him play was football because in our house, that was considered to be too dangerous and not a good idea. So he told my mom, "I will play sports, but I will only play football." And she called his bluff and let him play. And Matt ended up being really good at it.
[00:04:09] Bob: Matt did a lot of little things to get a rise out of Mom.
[00:04:13] Jan West: Matt did not refer to me as Mom, Mother, Mommy. Matt referred to me as Jan. (chuckle) You know it was a, it was an edgy thing with his older brother, you know, he had to find his niche, and I think that was part of it, calling me Jan.
[00:04:31] Bob: And like a lot of brothers, they didn't call each other by their given names.
[00:04:36] Justin West: Yeah, so my dad used to call Matthew, Matty Moo. And so we would, that became Moo or Moo-Moo, and you can imagine as a kid that was probably fine, but as he got older being called Moo-Moo or Matty Moo. And then Matt was really into the Wu-Tang Clan, um, and gosh probably high school and college, and so Matty Moo became Moo-Tang, which he liked a little bit more. But that was uh, that was kind of his thing, and then Matthew growing up had a little bit of a, a little bit of a lisp, and you know I'll, I'll never forget when he was little, he used to call me um, he couldn't say Justin very well, he called me Duffin. You know it was just this very sweet, I don't know, as a big brother I just found it really kind of cute and sweet, and I felt very protective of, of him and he kind of grew out of that and was a pretty eloquent speaker, but yeah, we had, it was, it was the Matty Moo and the Moo-Tang.
[00:05:27] Bob: Justin took his role as leader of Matty Moo and the Moo-Tang as big brother very seriously.
[00:05:34] Justin West: So he went to Stanford, and Matt was a National Merit Scholar, very smart kid, went to Stanford, and I think he graduated in '99. And he uh, when Matt got there, he kind of turned into a little bit of a hippie. Matt grew his hair out long. He wasn't, he was interested in, in literature, and basically anything that didn't have a really obvious endpoint that resulted in a job. I'll never forget my mom, you know, coming to me one day, uh when I was home for college saying, "You know, Justin, you're going to be taking care of Matthew the rest of your life, because he doesn't seem to, he's interested in learning, but he doesn't seem to... nothing that he's doing seems to be pursuits that are going to translate into work." And I said, "That's not a problem, you know, I'll take care of Matt forever. He's my, you know, little brother."
[00:06:15] Bob: "I'll take care of Matt forever." It's a beautiful sentiment, but well as things turned out, Matt was able to take care of himself and his family very well, very soon. A couple of years after school, Matt starts working in finance. Becomes an analyst for a real estate investment trust, a REIT, and did very well. He worked for Sam Zell, one of the world's most famous real estate investors.
[00:06:42] Justin West: He ended up working for Sam, I think, gosh it was about maybe 8 or 10 years ago, so Matt, he had a job where he was a, a, a REIT analyst in California in Newport Beach, close to where we grew up, and from there he ended up in a hedge fund in Manhattan, but when he left Manhattan, he ended up in Chicago working for one of the companies that's owned by Sam Zell, and you know, Sam is sort of a mogul in the uh, in the REIT industry, and um, Matt because as fairly close with, with Sam to the extent that, you know, somebody at Matt's level can be close to somebody at Sam's level. Just had a really good uh career trajectory uh with that group. Loved his work. Loved everything about REITs. Was very successful in this industry. You know Matt went from being somebody where my mom said, "You're going to take care of this kid for the rest of your life," to, I think Matt was a, you know Matt was a millionaire before he was 30 years old. He was very successful. Is very successful.
[00:07:36] Bob: Matt was charming and charmed. Everything Matt touches seems to turn to gold. He dabbles in film and well, even that works out for him.
[00:07:46] Justin West: He actually went and started working on the set of a movie. He worked on "The Replacements" with Gene Hackman and Keanu Reeves.
[00:07:53] Bob: At one point, he even takes the money he's made and spends six months living outside the country.
[00:07:59] Justin West: He's had a really fascinating life. He's, in uh Central and South America, he has stories about being held up by gunpoint, you know at, in, I think he was in Ecuador when that happened, I think it was Ecuador, and he, he's surfed some of the most beautiful coastlines around. He has lived on the beach for a dollar a day, uh you know, eating fish tacos right out of the sea, and fully off the grid, no phone, no contact. I mean he's had a really, he's taken some really fascinating journeys in life.
[00:08:26] Bob: There was another journey coming, however. A journey Matthew and the West family never expected to take.
[00:08:33] Justin West: I mean I remember where I was when Matthew called to say that he had brain cancer. He was in Chicago, I was in California, and he had called the day before saying he had had some headaches and he was going to go to the hospital. My wife is an ophthalmologist, often gets consulted when people ended up in the hospital with vision changes and sometimes, they have a cluster of symptoms that would include headaches, and so she just said, uh, "Make sure he gets a CAT scan before he leaves the ER. Sometimes the ER doesn't want to do it." Uh, we said, "Okay, let's just do that just to be on the safe side." And he called us that night, and he said, "Oh, they told me it was a migraine headache." Went home, and the next morning they called and said, "You need to come back for more imaging. There's something there." So we kind of prepared him. We said, "Okay, this is what you might find and so, you know, your odds of it being something dangerous are very small. Don't worry about it." And then he called back later that afternoon with his diagnosis, and it was just soul crushing.
[00:09:24] Bob: Matt has brain cancer. Glioblastoma. A very deadly form of brain cancer. The family is told that most people only live about 8 months after their diagnosis.
[00:09:35] Justin West: When Matt got diagnosed, there's this, the standard of therapy for, for brain cancer is if, if you can, if you are a surgical candidate, you have surgery. Unfortunately, Matt's tumor is buried so deep in his brain that it would be unsafe for him to do it, and they said, "Well we could try to resect, but he would almost certainly end up paralyzed." Whatever amount of time that Matthew was going to have, he didn't want to spend it figuring out how to adapt to be being paralyzed overnight. So then you can do uh radiation and chemotherapy, uh and that's sort of the mainstay, and then what people do is wait to see what happens. And that cancer always comes back. That style of treatment made no sense to me. In my capacity as plastic surgeon, I do a fair amount of breast reconstruction, and most of our breast cancer patients um, when they have aggressive cancers, they'll have chemotherapy before their surgery, then they have surgery, and then they continue them on maintenance uh, therapy. So I asked them, "What's the maintenance we're going to do? Can't we just keep him on something instead of just doing a single treatment and then waiting for it to come back?" Which it inevitably does. And they said, "That's not how we do it." So we started connecting with people in the cancer community, and I, you know, read as many articles as I could about trials going on in the United States and around the world. And ultimately, we found a program in China that was doing CAR T therapy. They have it in the United States, but they had a fairly advanced version of it in uh, China, and unlike the United States, you can, you can pay to basically get access to therapy in China. So we put Matt on a plane. He did well, he was there for about 25 days, which is a very long time to sit in a hospital in a foreign country, but uh, he was treated very well. He did well with the treatment, and who knows, maybe that's partly why he's still alive today with the diagnosis that he has.
[00:11:21] Bob: Matt, remember, Matt succeeds at everything he does, beats the odds, and two years later, he's living, he's still working, and he's still able to play a little guitar. Here's a recording of Matt sending a birthday wish to his niece, Dorian, who had just received her first guitar as a birthday gift.
[00:11:41] (clip of Matt) Dorian, happy birthday. Welcome to the guitar family, so I thought I'd introduce you to a little birthday jam. Better than Happy Birthday, even better. This one's by the Beatles which is a band you may not be familiar with, but your parents can tell you about them. Pretty great. And uh, the song's also featured prominently in John Hugh's flick, the classic "Sixteen Candles." Um, so, with plenty of errors and without further ado, here we go. Let it rip. (plays Beatles song)
[00:12:22] Bob: Thanks so Justin's research and connections in the cancer treatment world, Matt gets excellent care.
[00:12:29] Justin West: He continued his job in Chicago, and then uh, he was going back and forth between Chicago and Los Angeles because we found some oncologist in, in Southern California that we liked, and we had a couple based out of the university that he was really close to in Chicago. Ultimately, he um, we ended up getting him, Matthew became the first person in the United States to start this trial for a drug that was reserved normally for patients who progress, whose tumor has grown, and then they start it. So I formed a relationship with the company that manufactured that medicine, and over a series of weeks was able to convince them to not make Matt wait until his tumor grew. But we had to assign a doctor for that treatment. So that was in California. So Matt kind of was traveling back and forth between Chicago and California to get this, to get this additional medicine, that also probably has contributed to him doing well for so long.
[00:13:20] Bob: The drugs are helping but they aren't a cure. Both the brain cancer and the treatments bring on painful symptoms.
[00:13:29] Jan West: See with, with the diagnosis of cancer, okay, it's difficult, but brain cancer is really difficult, and Matthew started out with blurred vision, headaches, and neck pain. That's how he was diagnosed, and he's half blind, but he's compensated for all of that. He has a lethal mutation, and there were a few patients with this lethal mutation who were put in a study, and some of them, very few of them, did very well on this, in this study on this new drug.
[00:13:58] Bob: Still, for Matt doing well, it doesn't mean what it would mean for most of us. And last fall, things take a turn for the worse.
[00:14:07] Bob: With all these treatments he's undergoing, I mean is he, is he still having headaches? I mean is he getting nauseous all the time?
[00:14:13] Justin West: Well, unfort--, it's a lot worse than that, unfortunately. So the evolution of it was, is people, first of all, get really sick from the therapy. Radiation for any patient is, is challenging, but for your brain, it's particularly bad, so you go through this fog for about 6 to 12 months to recover just from the treatment. He is on a huge medication regimen. He takes, I mean, you know, probably two dozen medications a day. He, his headaches are pretty well managed, uh, but what's happened over the last six months is that he has lost a tremendous amount of strength on the left side of his body. So it started off with what are called paresthesias where he would get sort of pins and needles and just sort of pain on the left side, and over the last couple months that has, unfortunately, evolved to weakness, and in the course of about a two-month period, Matt went from walking his service dog several times a day to basically being limited to either a wheelchair or a walker. So the cancer is, unfortunately I think, catching up. He is, uh, you know, he is at year four, which most people don't get to, so you know, every day that he lives it kind of brings him closer to that, that point where he's probably at the end his journey. So we're, we're in this very awful phase of his disease where we're watching it actually impact him. I mean there was a time we could go out to dinner and people would have no idea that Matt was sick, and now it is profoundly obvious.
[00:15:41] Bob: It's been really painful for Mom to watch Matt's struggles, to watch the changes in recent months.
[00:15:47] Jan West: When you have brain cancer this, this cloud of fear, this umbrella of fear is always hanging over you, always this tremendous amount of fear with brain cancer. And Matthew probably knows more about brain cancer than a lot of physicians because, unfortunately, he does a lot of reading in that area as well. So he's got this fear, he's got this continued pain from the neuropathy on the left side. He's had, he's gone through so many losses; he can't drive, he can't surf, he can't play the guitar because he's lost his left fingers and hand. So he's suffered a lot of losses and, and fear, anxiety, depression, loss of dignity; you're very vulnerable under this umbrella. He's extremely vulnerable. And I think what happened when he was diagnosed with the progression that he feels that now, you know, he's been given a death sentence, which he was told when he was diagnosed. It'll be four years Father's Day that he was diagnosed, and he was told that he had a death sentence, and that he would live 8 to 12 months. And like I said, it's going to be four years. But during these 3½, almost 4 years, he has been overwhelmed with the anxiety, depression, pain -- constant pain, and always been vulnerable, become more vulnerable and sensitive because of it. But with the diagnosis in October, progression, I think he started searching for relief.
[00:17:20] Bob: Like everyone does day, Matt starts searching for relief online.
[00:17:26] Jan West: I know there have been several articles on psychedelics and palliative care, and I think he developed a keen interest in this because, this has never been verbalized, but I think that he probably figured that, you know, that death was inevitable. So I think he started searching for help. How is he going to prepare for this, the finality of it all. And I think he was looking, you know, for some, for end control for end-stage cancer.
[00:17:56] Bob: There are plenty of robust conversations happening right now in the medical community about pain management and cancer patients.
[00:18:03] Bob: So at one point, he does what I think anyone would do. He, he goes online himself looking for, for ways to be more comfortable, right?
[00:18:11] Justin West: Absolutely. So when he, when last, when six, six months ago when the pain started kicking in, he um, he started getting online, and he started reading about pain management and cancer, and found psilocybin as a, as an option. There's also in places, legitimate places like Johns Hopkins has, have looked at it for the management of depression that's associated with terminal cancer. So Matt started reading about it, and I think he, the first interaction that he had, he started looking at uh, somebody's Twitter feed that was talking about psychedelic mushrooms, and he, uh my, my sense of things is that it started off with contacting somebody who was purporting to sell psilocybin through their Twitter account. So he started messaging this guy...
[00:18:58] Bob: Justin and Jan have no idea about Matt's research, but they find out pretty quickly.
[00:19:04] Justin West: The first time that we knew that there was something wrong was about maybe three or four months ago. I was home visiting, and Matt, he could, he got up to go to the bathroom, this is when he was still walking without assistance, and you could just hear the vomiting from across the room. And we walked into the, well ran to the bathroom, and there was, the walls were just covered. And he was clearly sick. He looked really nervous. And it hit him in about three or four waves over about 45 minutes, and a lot of chemo medications can cause nausea, but we'd never seen this response from him. So we weren't really sure initially what to make of it, and he wouldn't, you know, I, I sat down with him, said, "Matt," you know, "Did you, did you eat something new? Did you, did you drink something new?" You know, "Tell me about, you know, has anything changed about your meds, your diet?" You know, "Let's talk about this." And eventually it came out that he said, "I," he said, "it's, it's chocolate bars." And I said, "What? How the heck does a chocolate bar make you sick?" So I went through his closet and found a box of chocolates that were labeled as having psilocybin in them. And uh, apparently psilocybin can make you, makes a lot of people quite nauseous. And so it, it turned out he had, I think there was maybe two bars that he had eaten, and it had made him quite sick, quite quickly. So that was the first indication that we had that there was a problem.
[00:20:21] Bob: Matt had bought the chocolate bars from someone he met online. Justin has no way of knowing what's in the chocolate bars, but at this point, he's more than willing to help Matt try anything that would make him feel better. But, whatever they do, he wants to make sure it doesn't interfere with his other treatments.
[00:20:39] Justin West: It's far out of what I do, but in the course of looking up what Matthew has elected to do on his own, yes, I've certainly come across quite a bit of, quite a few references whether it's, you know it's people who are pushing to legalize it the way people did for marijuana, uh, you know, so you've got big academic institutions that are studying it, and I, I don't know if, which, which side is pushing it, if it's, if it's the recreational user who is, whose interest is pushing the academics to look at it, or if it's the academic data that's coming out that pushing the end user to say, hey, here's justification for this use. But certainly, people are, you know there are published uh papers that are, that indicate that psilocybin, uh, for some patients can be helpful, just like that there is, you know, with CBD or THC. So, I think it's not, it's, I don't, you know, there's no judgment here. I think that with, with a terminal disease, you know, I think that every patient has a right to look for whatever sort of means of ameliorating that fear and that anxiety and that pain. The issue that I kind of discussed with him, and that what concerned me is, when somebody's on so many other medications, it's hard sometimes to, to do it in a way that's well organized. And so taking too much, you know, overdosing, is, then making yourself sick and then not tolerating your cancer drugs, that was the main thing. The main concern was, is it going to change his ability to continue to take his cancer drugs which had, to that point, worked really well. But yeah, there's tremendous interest, I think, now, and whether it's psilocybin, ketamine, people are looking to all kinds of drugs that are typically considered recreational drugs and finding medical uses for them.
[00:22:13] Bob: As Justin and Matt continue talking, it becomes clear that vomiting is not the only new problem Matt has. He's afraid. Really afraid of something else.
[00:22:24] Justin West: At some point, and I said, "Matthew," you know, "if you want to do this, I can, let me, let me look into ways I can do this for you, you know, clinically by as a physician, let me help you do this and see if there's, there's legal ways of obtaining it." And in, in the course of talking to him about it, he kind of finally let out that he had, that there was an issue with his, with his buying the drugs that it had come across the, the desk of a police officer, and he was in a lot of trouble.
[00:22:48] Bob: A lot of trouble? A police officer? Justin and Jan don't believe it. It must be some mistake. But Matt, severely debilitated from cancer, from all the treatments and already predictably paranoid is inconsolable. He believes he's in terrible trouble. And a few days later, trouble does arrive.
[00:23:09] Jan West: All of the sudden we got a notice from his bank, and I opened it, and it said that he was overdrawn. And that never happened. And there was no reason for him to be overdrawn.
[00:23:21] Bob: Jan drops everything to investigate.
[00:23:24] Jan West: I took Matthew to the bank because I had no power of attorney. And, and while I was there, I asked the guy for copies; could I have a few months' copies of his statement, and that's where I, it blew my mind to see all this money going out. And that's when we started getting access to his accounts and finding more and more information. And we were in shock.
[00:23:46] Bob: Matt, paranoid and terrified that he's going to be arrested had made dozens of transactions, sending money to a cryptocurrency account. Justin and Jan start trying to put the pieces together.
[00:23:58] Justin West: They asked for the last few months of his statements just to see what the transaction history was, and my mom started looking through it, and she noticed these payments, these transfers to something called Coin Base. And there were dozens and dozens and dozens of them, hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of transfers to Coin Base. And she saw that his bank account had been drawn down to next to nothing, and that then prompted her to start looking into his, Matthew uses a Vanguard account to manage his assets, and she realized that uh, most of that money had, had disappeared.
[00:24:33] Bob: Where is the money? And why is Matt so convinced the police are coming to his house? That's next on The Perfect Scam.
[00:24:46] 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; Researcher, Haley Nelson; Associate Producer, Annalea Embree; 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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