Matthew, a one-time wealthy investment star, has a rare and deadly form of brain cancer. In part 2, on a trip to the bank, Matthew’s mother, Jan, is shocked to discover that her son’s bank accounts are nearly empty. Even worse, Matthew is convinced the police are coming to arrest him at any moment. Jan, who lives in California, and Matthew’s brother, Justin, who lives in North Carolina, have to work across the country to unravel what has happened and find a way to put a stop to the scam.
[00:00:01] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:02] He would say, "You don't understand, you don't understand. I'm in so much trouble, you don't know what I've done." The fear was so tremendous. I don't... it was a combination of fear of dying, and then fear of going to jail, and fear of what he's done.
[00:00:17] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan. When we left brothers Matthew and Justin West, and their mom, Jan, they had just discovered that Matthew's bank account is nearly empty. And Matthew, suffering terribly with a rare and deadly brain cancer that has already made him paranoid is convinced the police are coming to get him. You can hear all the details in part 1 if you haven't listed to that yet. As we pick up the story now, here's Justin in North Carolina working with his mom in California trying to figure out what's going on.
[00:00:52] Justin West: I was coming out to California that Sunday, so I asked her just to pull all the documents that she could, and when I had got to the house on Sunday, I um, I, I started going through, I looked at his, the Chase uh statements, and I talked to him about it, and I said, "You know, Matt, I need to help you figure out what's going on here."
[00:01:11] Bob: Matt, Justin's little brother, is a loveable, creative man who enjoyed financial success working on a real estate investment trust. But about four years ago, Matt was diagnosed with glioblastoma and given perhaps 8 months to live. Justin and Jan searched the world for new treatments, and Matt has so far beaten the odds. But in the fall of 2021, the disease takes a turn for the worse, and Matt, already struggling with deadly pain and brain fog, becomes partially paralyzed. Desperate, he goes looking online for anything that might ease the pain. After research, he connects with a set of people who say psychedelic mushrooms can help and offer to sell Matt some. But as far as Justin knows, all Matt has managed to buy is a set of chocolate bars that made him very ill, and gave him a lot more heartache.
[00:02:05] Justin West: I started looking at his Chase account, and this Coinbase account and realized that for about a three or four month period there were dozens and dozens of transactions in which he would sell stock, move it to his Chase account, and then move money from Chase into Coinbase, and then Coinbase into dozens and dozens of different Coinbase accounts. And then I started going through his, his texts and found people who were demanding money for him, and it, it was coming from a whole host of different names. They were all intertwined in some capacity.
[00:02:37] Bob: Looking through the phone, it becomes clear that most of the transactions have nothing to do with buying drugs, however. Instead, Matt believes he's buying himself out of trouble.
[00:02:48] Justin West: One of the texters sent him a photo of a Long Beach Police Department Officer, saying that this is who I am, and I, you know, we've caught your shipment and you need to send money now or face prison time.
[00:02:59] Bob: Justin reads message after message, and it's one nasty threat after another. A set of criminals has attacked Matt in his weakened, confused state and told him he's in a lot of trouble, and he's got to pay big money to avoid going to jail. Desperate, Matt has sold his investments and made the payments using cryptocurrency. Once Matt shows Justin the photo of the cop, Justin zooms in and determines the threats aren't real. The name on the badge doesn't match the name on the text. It's a stolen photo of a cop. There are hours and hours of texts and transactions to sort through.
[00:03:37] Bob: I, I can't imagine what's going through your head as you're reading these messages.
[00:03:41] Justin West: Uh, well, I, I was, I was angry as, as, you know, one of the main things. I mean around this time, that's when Matt's body really started to change, and really started to look like a sick patient, and then I'm reading these texts from all these different people. Probably the saddest part was um, Matt was sharing with these people that he was a cancer patient, and these people would, would give a one-line response. Yeah, yeah. Send the money, can you send the money? And I thought, you know, these people, they would, it was very clear through the texts what Matt's story was, that he was a person dying of brain cancer, that he had no idea what was going on, and these people were just pushing and pushing and pushing for more and more money. I mean it's, it's nauseating. It made me feel sick.
[00:04:30] Bob: Justin keeps on reading, trying to get a full understanding of everything that's happened.
[00:04:35] Justin West: This is all being put together through texts that I'm kind of finding and tweets that I'm finding, so I spent hours going through his phone trying to understand the landscape of what had happened and to the best of my knowledge, he originally reached out and made a purchase. The way it sort of ramped up was he made a purchase and was told it was a certain amount of money. And then, I think it was about a thousand dollars to get a shipment of mushrooms, and then the person texted him back and says, "Well, it's on the way, but you need, we need to pay off the, we have to pay off a tax that, that makes the police kind of turn the other way." And then, "Well, the police, they got the money, but you know, there's going to be an additional tax for the import/export tax." They got more money out of him by basically saying that he had to pay these additional taxes and he had to pay off police, and he, oh, they brought up Interpol at some point and said that an Interpol officer will be coming to your door in the next 24 hours if you don't send money.
[00:05:26] Bob: Mom tries to reassure Matt he's not really in trouble. No one is coming to the door to arrest him. But Matt can't be convinced.
[00:05:34] Jan West: Then when I asked him about, you know, his fear of going to jail and he was adamant that I, I was so naive that I didn't realize how much trouble he was in. And I said, "You're not in any trouble," you know. "They can't get past your mother."
[00:05:48] Bob: It does no good. She can't calm his fears.
[00:05:51] Jan West: I remember when he was first diagnosed, they talked about paranoia being part of brain cancer, all kinds of strange symptoms that a lot of patients experience with any kind of brain cancer. And I think the paranoia became much more severe recently with the new drugs. They all cause extreme fatigue, confusion, depression, and some of them cause hallucinations. And you know, in trying to explain this to him, and explain to him that he had done nothing wrong, and that nothing was going to happen to him, and that we would protect him, and he would say, "You don't understand, you don't understand. I'm in so much trouble, you don't know what I've done." The fear was so tremendous. I don't... it was a combination of fear of dying, and then fear of going to jail, and fear of what he's done. Um, you know, he's done something horrendous, and now his parents are finding out about it, and his brother.
[00:06:41] Bob: By the time Justin adds it all up, the payments Matt had made to criminals are breathtaking.
[00:06:48] Justin West: Yeah, my understanding is that he only ever got the hundreds of thousands of dollars he spent on this, I think he got one box of chocolate out of it.
[00:06:55] Bob: So he paid almost a half a million dollars and got one box of chocolate with, with maybe mushrooms in it, maybe something else, right?
[00:07:03] Justin West: Yeah, which makes the Willy Wonka Chocolate Bar look like a pretty good deal. Yeah, he spent about $450,000 in different transactions, and those are must the ones I've been able to find. I, I've still not been able to figure out what disappeared through Apple Pay and there's MoonPay and there's a couple other transactions, that he's not able to use anymore, but I just haven't been able to access them. But yes, what I've, from what I've put together through his Coin Base transactions is about $450,000.
[00:07:30] Bob: It all happened so fast. Mom had no idea any of it was happening.
[00:07:35] Jan West: I was unaware of the text messages. I was unaware of his communication. Like I said, Matthew is very bright. He spends hours on podcasts every day. I had no idea that he was communicating on the, on the dark side. I, I had no way, he's very bright, he's like, like I said, he's very knowledgeable, he's handled our investments all our life. Matthew was manag--, until recently, Matthew was managing his life reasonably well. He's been extremely, very highly functional until October maybe, when he was diagnosed with progression.
[00:08:12] Bob: Once the family pieces together what's happening, they immediately take away the tools criminals use to harass Matt, but it's not exactly the perfect solution.
[00:08:21] Justin West: I ended up taking his phone. You know, we weren't sure what to do, so the first thing that we kind of, the first conclusion that we came to is that it was important to stop the, you know, the flow of money because we didn't want him to dry his accounts down to zero because like I said, some of that pays for some of his ongoing care that insurance, his health insurance plan doesn't cover. And so we took the phone away and took his laptop away which took away his immediate access, but the problem with that is, you know, Matthew spends most of his day on his phone, or like a lot of us, on his phone or computer. It is how he, you know, he listens to music, he, you know, listens to news feeds, listens to podcasts. He, so not having that means you're sitting in a room and all you get to think about is this impending doom of this diagnosis that you have. So we knew we had to give him something back, so we got him a new phone so that he couldn't uh get on to these apps and spend the money and communicate with these scam artists. So he is um, it, it's been now probably maybe two months since we can, can, you know, talk to him about it, and I would say he's talking about it less, which is good. I feel like he is, he's not totally over it, but because he's not receiving these texts on a daily basis from them, or these Instagram messages or these uh Twitter messages, that I think that uh, it's gone, it's helped a little bit with his anxiety to not have it in his face every day.
[00:09:42] Bob: Meanwhile, Justin starts doing some research to see what he can do about the money and the criminals.
[00:09:48] Bob: I know you did some sleuthing, uh to sort of try to I guess at least understand things if maybe not catch the bad guys. So where did that end up, and do you know if anyone else is investigating in any way?
[00:09:59] Justin West: So, I, I put together a, a Word file based on the, the texts that I went through and the Coin Base transactions, and one of the first calls I made honestly was to a, the AARP, um, because I listen to the podcast, and um, you know, they've got the hotlines to report fraud, and they get an expert on the phone and walk you through it. So I had a really nice call with a gentleman who they connected me to when I called to say, this is the situation that we find ourselves in, what do we do? And uh he said, "Well, two things, uh, file a police report, and um, get on the FBI's website, and open a, a file for him."
[00:10:36] Bob: So Justin does that, but he doesn't get very far.
[00:10:39] Justin West: I called our local police department a couple times, and they initially didn't seem that interested. They said this is an online thing, this is an FBI issue. But ultimately, I got somebody to say, okay, if you want to come in and file a report, go ahead. So I brought Matt's phone and the summary of, of transactions, and um, and then ultimately emailed them this, this big file. What they, I got a call back about a week or two later from one, the investigator who was assigned to it, who basically said that the, all the phones that were used for the texts were sort of the uh, like voiceover internet, you know they're not, you know, real phones that are easy to track. The interesting thing of it, they commented on, was um, of all the names that were used, there was a name, Hen--, Henry Cooper, and Henry Cooper was one of the people texting my brother, and he was claiming to be a Long Beach Police Officer. And they said that Henry Cooper is actually a name that had been used uh, in, in several other scams that they were able just to find through whatever search portal they have access to. And I said, "Well, do you think they're connected?" They said, "Well, we think it's just that people use it probably from outside the country 'cause it, it sounds like a very American name." So I, I thought that was kind of interesting. But no, they, they basically said because these are all Coinbase transfers, they said there's really no getting them back. And that there's nothing for us to, to do.
[00:11:54] Bob: So, Justin takes it upon himself to run down the cryptocurrency transactions.
[00:11:58] Justin West: I did spend hours and hours in putting every single transaction onto the, I think it's the IC3 website for the FBI. I have not been contacted by them. I thought the amount of money might be of interest if assuming that the program that they have totals everything, because it's not a small amount of money to lose, but once they dig in and realize that um, that most of the fields are blank because I can't tell them the names of these people they went to, because they're not real names and we don't know what the bank is, all we know is it's a Coin Base account, and there is no, the whatever 14 or 18 digits that go into a Coin Base account, I suspect that there probably won't be any follow up there, because they'll probably just consider it lost money. So, I don't see that it has a whole potential to um, to solve.
[00:12:41] Bob: I want to get you talk for just a minute about this is one of the issues that makes me really angry, is how hard it is to create a sort of safe internet for people in your brother's situation, right? I mean, it's hard to, I find it hard to, to download and own songs that I like, right, 'cause you've got to use a service, and so...
[00:12:59] Justin West: Yeah.
[00:13:00] Bob: You know, just taking the phone away is not real, a realistic option in the connected world we live in, right?
[00:13:05] Justin West: No, it's not. I mean for better or for worse, this is the new reality, and, you know, taking away his, his phone and laptop is, it's like taking away his freedom. You know this is how we spend our lives now, um, you know, we don't, he doesn't watch TV. I mean very few people have a traditional radio. This is how we, how we interact with the outside world, and you know, he has friends that he, he texts that are important to him. So I don't know the answer to it, and when I look at him and what's happened to him, you know, it makes me wonder, you know, what, what's going to happen when my kids have devices and, and they're online and what, what, you know, what are the risks that they run. I guess the truth is I've not researched it yet, what are safe mechanisms to put in place for your, either your aging parent or your aging relative, or your unhealthy loved one. How can you protect them from, whether it's fraud or any other bad scenarios, I, I don't know. I don't know that we're putting a lot of time into figuring out what that platform looks like.
[00:13:58] Bob: No time would be the answer that I would give you. Um, it's a crusade of mine, and when you start to think about how wide that universe is, you started to, to list them, you know. Um, children, um, people with addictions, um, people who've just lost their loved ones which end up a lot in this podcast. I mean plenty of people are in situations, you know, I would say all of us are in a situation where we're not of sound mind, at least temporarily. And the doorways to our, our, our houses are so wide open, you know, it's, I find it infuriating. Um, so that's why I'm so glad you're telling me this story.
[00:14:33] Bob: Justin, Jan, and Matt try to focus on whatever good news they can find day by day. And there is some good news lately.
[00:14:41] Justin West: Matthew's cancer is, it's, it's stable. His, you know, every month when you're a brain cancer patient you get an MRI and in these last few months when all this bad news has been coming up financially, his tumor's actually doing well, and that's what I choose to, that's what we all have chosen to focus on is that, you know what, the tumor's okay.
[00:14:59] Bob: This is the part of The Perfect Scam podcast where I often ask people going through these kinds of crimes to offer advice. In this story, that's hard. I'm sure you can see why.
[00:15:11] Jan West: In terms of giving advice, my, I'm a nurse. This is my son, my focus was his physical care, and I never worried about his finances because he was enormously successful. And yes, I watched my accounts all the time, you know, I watched them daily, and there was nothing in my account to worry about or to take notice of, and I certainly didn't think it was my business to go into his accounts. I think he would have taken great offense to that. Um, it would made, it would have made him more paranoid.
[00:15:40] Bob: Justin has a lot to say about how challenging the situation is.
[00:15:44] Justin West: When Matt was diagnosed, a couple of things that did come up; we knew that at some point we would have to figure out how to take control over Matthew's financial decision making. Matthew has always managed my parents' retirement and his own, and we knew at some point his brain would be impacted on it. We just by the, the disease enough to say hey, we have to sort of take control and we'd have to, you know, become executors of a trust of some kind. The tough part is we, we just, we never got to that. We talked about it, but we never sat down with Matthew, and I think that the reason that we didn't is when you're fighting cancer, I think you need the most stable, emotional platform, and I think that what I've noticed in my career is the patients who say I'm going to beat this, they don't always beat it, but they do better than the people who give into it. And so, taking the attitude of we're going to beat this thing I think is partly why Matthew is still here four years later, and to sit down and say we're going to take away your financial control over your life was sort of a, a way of saying right off the, out of the gates, hey, we're going to lose this. And so if I have a regret, it is that we didn't proactively help change his, put in some financial protections in, with him when he was still lucid and understanding of what was going on.
[00:16:58] Bob: Well, I want to go back to what you were talking about with your decision not to have that difficult conversation. And I'm completely in agreement with you. I think you did the right thing. You, you have to be 100% positive with people in this situation, and that's that.
[00:17:11] Justin West: I think just being a little bit more actively involved in, I, I think we could have very easily had weekly meetings or monthly meetings to say, okay, let's go over your finances, let's make sure that everything's in order.
[00:17:24] Bob: Matthew's mom is still reeling from the entire episode.
[00:17:28] Jan West: I never wish this journey on anybody. Anyway, thank you. I hope I helped somebody.
[00:17:33] Bob: Sharing your story always helps somebody, Jan. I can't thank Justin and Jan enough for taking the time and emotional energy to tell this story to us.
[00:17:43] Justin West: Well, I appreciate you responding. I've been listening to this show for a long time, and I, I think that uh, I've learned a lot in listening to it, but uh, yeah, it's, it's been hard to talk about as a family, but I felt like this story was important. What happened to Matthew I thought should be shared if it can help another family out there to avoid a similar situation. And I've heard you say that so many times, and I think, well that's, okay, sure, but not me, and the fact is, it happens to, it can happen to all of us, all of our loved ones, all of our family members, and you know, no, no one of us is above this sort of situation, unfortunately.
[00:18:16] Bob: If you are listening to this story and have a similar situation in your family, we wanted to offer you a few more resources for dealing with it. So we turned to attorney Elizabeth Gray. She's based in Virginia and has a lot of experience helping people with brain injuries navigate their financial lives. She's part of something called the Special Needs Alliance.
[00:18:36] Elizabeth Gray: I'm an Elder Law Attorney. I've been practicing since 1996. And Elder Law confuses a lot of people, especially the disability piece, but under the umbrella of Elder Law, special needs was a, a sub area and in the early 2000s it sort of took off as its own area, and the Special Needs Alliance was formed by attorneys that routinely practiced in the area, um, and it's by invitation only. So you have to have a certain number of years of experience, and you have to have done certain things as a Special Needs Alliance attorney, and then you get the invite, and you can join.
[00:19:21] Bob: Like many experts in the special needs area, Elizabeth got involved for personal reasons.
[00:19:28] Elizabeth Gray: I got started when my sister had a child that was autistic, and I wanted to be able to help her, so that's sort of how I got into this. And then my child ended up getting hit with a soccer ball and had a brain injury, and that's sort of how I, I got onto the Board of Brain Injury Services, because I wanted to be able to learn as much as I could about brain injuries in particular. I work with a lot of people that have some sort of disability like a, a brain injury or autism or Down Syndrome, or something where they are requiring public benefits because they won't be able to earn income the way you and I earn income.
[00:20:20] Bob: And so is, is most of your work, you know, advocacy to make sure these people are, are getting, you know, the, the services that they deserve?
[00:20:28] Elizabeth Gray: That's correct. A lot of the people that come in are parents, that they're not given a, a guidebook on how to assist their children, and they're worried about what happens when they die, because they're the walking/talking encyclopedia of their kids and all that goes away once they pass away, and how do you protect these people who are so vulnerable after you die?
[00:20:56] Bob: Well, first of all, let me just say, I so admire the work that you do. This seems like such important work, and I'm sure it's something that, that uh is not, it must be really hard, but I guess it's probably really rewarding too, right?
[00:21:07] Elizabeth Gray: It is. It is. I tell people that Elder Law attorneys are really the only attorneys that actually get people that hug you after they meet with you.
[00:21:16] Bob: Brain injured people are a clear target of internet criminals, she warns.
[00:21:21] Elizabeth Gray: I've had several cases this year alone with people doing the romance scams.
[00:21:28] Bob: That's terrible, and I don't need you to divulge any personal information, but could you just describe them a little bit more for me, because it's becoming so common.
[00:21:36] Elizabeth Gray: It is. The most recent one is a woman who was a financial planner when she was working, and she retired, and she met, she went onto one of these dating sites, and met this guy named Richard, we'll just use that as a name, and uh she's given him over $300,000.
[00:22:00] Bob: The lengths criminals go to when they find a victim can be truly shocking.
[00:22:06] Elizabeth Gray: I had a case where the scammer sent a pizza to the gentleman's house and had a cell, one of those portable uh, or disposable cell phones in the pizza box, so that the guy could call him. Who would have thought some--, anybody would do something like that?
[00:22:26] Bob: So just to get a phone to the victim, he, he hid it in a pizza delivery box.
[00:22:33] Elizabeth Gray: That's right, there were, I don't believe there was any pizza in there. They just showed up at the door thinking that the person would take the pizza box and open it up and see this phone.
[00:22:42] Bob: Her best advice, families should consider putting assets into something called a Special Needs Trust.
[00:22:49] Bob: So can you talk a little bit more about what a Special Needs Trust is. I feel like that's a term that a lot of folks probably don't know.
[00:22:55] Elizabeth Gray: It's a trust, and a trust is really just a container for assets that allows the individual to maintain eligibility for means-based public benefits, but it has the money in sort of a fund and the trustee can manage it on behalf of the person with the disability.
[00:23:17] Bob: So that does two things. There for one, it puts the assets in a category that doesn't jeopardize the eligibility for certain services. Is that correct?
[00:23:25] Elizabeth Gray: That's correct.
[00:23:27] Bob: And, and the other thing it does is it, it might prevent um, someone with a, a brain injury from making a bad financial choice, right?
[00:23:33] Elizabeth Gray: Absolutely, absolutely.
[00:23:36] Bob: So how do you find a professional to help, I asked Elizabeth.
[00:23:40] Elizabeth Gray: It's talking to people, other parents. If you know of a lawyer, they could give you a referral to an Elder Law attorney. The Special Needs Alliance has a "Find an Attorney," um, link that there you can look up attorneys in your state. I would just try to find the professional team that you need to support your loved one with special needs.
[00:24:05] Bob: I was, I was just looking at your profile on the Special Needs Alliance website, and there's the "Find an Attorney" link right there. That works for the whole country?
[00:24:12] Elizabeth Gray: Yep.
[00:24:13] 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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