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Woman’s Inheritance Wiped Out in Crypto-Dating Scam

Niki Hutchinson joins a dating app to make connections but lands in a new type of romance scam

spinner image illustration of a woman leaping up a bar graph and leaping off a red bar with cryptocurrency on top
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spinner image quote: I said, "I don't even know where to begin with cryptocurrency, it's just so volatile." And he said, I could teach you.
Full Transcript

(MUSIC SEGUE) 

[00:00:01] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.  

[00:00:04] Niki Hutchinson: He was the one that eventually brought it to me saying like, "Have you thought about investing?" And I'm like, "I don't even know where to begin, with cryptocurrency, it's just so volatile, I just, I don't know how comfortable I'd be doing it by myself." And he's like, "Well I could teach you."    

(MUSIC SEGUE) 

[00:00:24] Bob: We've talked a lot about romance scams through the years, but there's a new variation on this old theme that we want to make sure you know about. So today, you're going to meet a remarkable young woman who'd finished college, got a job working remotely in social media and moved in with her dad, and that's not so unusual, but it's where they moved that you'll find interesting. They moved and well, they kept on moving.  

[00:00:48] My name is Niki Hutchinson, and I am currently residing in Tennessee. I'm a fulltime RVer with my dad.  

[00:00:55] Bob: You're a fulltime RVer.  

[00:00:57] Niki Hutchinson: Yes, yeah, so there's no like set location for me at this current moment. So we are currently in this, it's a Fleetwood Bounder, so that's the brand and everything, and we have like a Class A kitchen, bed, so it's kind of a, it's just become our home, and it's one of those things, we've never RV'd before in our lives, but my dad retired last year and wanted, that was his dream. And so I kind of was going to help him along for at least a year to him to get acclimated to it, and it's been really enjoyable.  

[00:01:30] Bob: Niki and her dad have left behind a regular street address. They are what some people call digital nomads. They live in an RV fulltime at the moment bouncing from state park to state park.  

[00:01:42] Niki Hutchinson: Right now we're in Manchester, Tennessee, so we're in this park called Old Stone Fort Park, and it's, it's really beautiful. It's got beautiful waterfalls, so if you ever are in Tennessee, you should definitely make your way out here.  

[00:01:54] Bob: I'm sold. When you open the RV door in the morning, what do you see?  

[00:01:58] Niki Hutchinson: Well, as soon as you open the door, you will see beautiful trees, obviously it's now fall, so the leaves are changing, which is really nice, and right now, currently in Tennessee, it's in the 70s, so it's a good, a good time to just kind of you know ride bikes. We're close to water and a waterfall, so we actually go fishing in the mornings. And then sometimes parks have playgrounds or tennis courts, so my dad and I will play tennis, and we'll just do, you know, walks together, and it's just really beautiful, and I love to take photos as well, so that's something I really enjoy doing in these parks. 

[00:02:36] Bob: Niki, you have probably already guessed, has a unique relationship with her dad.  

[00:02:41] Niki Hutchinson: I mean I don't think a lot of people have the opportunity as well as, you know, when you're younger you just want to do your own thing. So it is nice to have my dad around since he wasn't around when I was in high school, because my parents were divorced. So it's just been nice to catch up. 

[00:02:56] Bob: Are the two you pitching a TV show about your experiences?  

[00:02:59] Niki Hutchinson: (giggles) Well, I mean I would love that, honestly, that would be so cool. So maybe in the future I can maybe do YouTube videos, but that is definitely something I think not a lot of people get to see, I guess, a daughter and dad duo in an RV, so I do think that's a little bit unique, and we have a really good friendship, so I'm really blessed to have him in my life.  

[00:03:20] Bob: It's good they are close, because they need each other right now. Niki's mom died two years ago, and her grandmother died just recently.  

[00:03:28] Niki Hutchinson: So my grandmother, who she lived in the same house as where I grew up in, so we always had a very close bond at the time, so yeah, it was, it was really hard because obviously I lost my mom in 2020, and so lost my grandmother was really hard, but I just know they're in such a better place, and so for that, I'm very grateful. 

 [00:03:49] Bob: Living with her dad in an RV wasn't the master plan, but well, that's where our story begins. Soon after Niki's mom passes away, about two years ago.  

[00:04:00] Niki Hutchinson: COVID was happening, and so once I graduated college, I moved back home to Tennessee to take care of my mother's assets and to take care of the house. At that time, my dad moved in to also help me, because obviously, I never thought I would lose my mother at such a young age, and so it was all new to me. But fast forwarding a little bit, we decided to sell the house back in 2021, in October, and so with that, my dad and I split the profits. 

[00:04:31] Bob: The agree that Niki will use some of her proceeds from the sale, a little more than $500,000, to help start her career. A lot of the money will be used to help pay for long-term care of Niki's grandmother who was starting to get ill at the time. And the rest will help Dad realize a lifelong dream. He was turning 65, so he would retire and use some of the money to buy that RV he'd always dreamt about. But first, father and daughter, they decide to rent a place in Florida for the winter. So while Dad does his RV shopping, Niki plans a two-week trip to California to see friends, and to explore the idea of moving there permanently for a job as a social media manager.  

[00:05:14] Niki Hutchinson: Making graphics and anything pertaining to social IG, TikTok, all that stuff. I was planning on visiting the studio that I work for and also just like getting to feel for the area because I went to school out in San Francisco, but my best friend lives in Southern California. And we kind of talked about you know potentially moving in together as roommates, and it just kind of felt natural to be out there and just trying to find some grounds of where I can lay my roots essentially.  

[00:05:46] Bob: Okay, so you're there for two weeks and you know, you're checking out everything, including, you know what kind of social life you might have if you move there, right?  

[00:05:53] Niki Hutchinson: Correct, yes, again, that was during COVID, so it was still kind of like in between of like people are going out, but people are still, you know, communicating through apps and stuff, and that's kind of where I downloaded a dating app kind of not so much looking for a romantic relationship, but open to the idea, but more so, just finding connections. 

[00:06:14] Bob: A few days after arriving in California, the connections roll in.  

[00:06:19] Niki Hutchinson: Yeah, so I'm going on Hinge, I make a profile, having good conversations with different people, talking to boys and girls, just trying to make connections with people and that's where I met this guy named Hao, and that's kinda where everything starts. 

[00:06:34] Bob: Niki was adopted from China, at 18 months old, and she doesn't remember anything about it, but she does know where she was born, and it's stunning, Hao was born there too.  

[00:06:45] Niki Hutchinson: On his profile he says from Anhui, so I kind of just brought up like, "Oh, yeah, I'm adopted. I'm from Anhui," and he's like, "Oh, I'm from Anhui." And I said, "That's crazy that you're from Anhui. I haven't met anyone from Anhui." And he's like, "You could be my long-lost sister." So I thought, wow, what are the odds in meeting someone from the Anhui Province, but he said he was in LA and his occupation was like a family business job. And I was like, "Okay, that's cool."  

[00:07:10] Bob: Intrigued, Niki keeps chatting with Hao, but she's not that intrigued.  

[00:07:15] Niki Hutchinson: He was very flirty at first, and personally, for me, I just don't, you know, I'm not that type of person, just be flirty at first, so I was pretty much like just wanted to get to know him. I kinda told him pretty straightforward of like, let's just start out as friends, and see where it goes. And again, this was all via Hinge communication. We eventually moved over to WhatsApp, and that's where thing really change in terms of dynamic of just me having a clear idea that I don't see anything romantic with him, just because the way he texted was very formal. It felt very much, I would say, like being taught English in school. It felt very formal in that sense. And I kind of knew that ahead of time in terms of just like, okay, well if he's from China, you know, there's obviously going to be some sort of language barrier.  

[00:08:05] Bob: Niki's only got a few more days left in California, and she's still hoping to make friends there. So the conversation switches to more friendly topics like hobbies. 

[00:08:14] Niki Hutchinson: He rattled off a ton and it ended with investing in cryptocurrency. I was like, "Oh that's really cool that you know cryptocurrency. I'm still trying to learn." And so he's like, "Oh yeah, I've helped my friends before." I was like, "Oh, that's really cool." And then we kind of dropped the subject, and he was the one that eventually brought it back up to me saying like, "Have you thought about investing?" And I'm like, "Yeah, I've kind of, I, I've thought about investing, but I don't even know where to begin, and you know, with cryptocurrency, it's just so volatile, I just, I don't know how comfortable I'd be doing it by myself." And he's like, "Well I could teach you."  

[00:08:53] Bob: By then, Niki and Hao have shared a lot over chat. He knows that her mother has died, for example, and he knows her grandmother at the time was getting sick. Hao says he normally only helps very close friends with their investments, but he's ready to make an exception for Niki. 

[00:09:08] Niki Hutchinson: I feel sad for you for what happened to your mom, and, and stuff, and how you're taking care of your grandmother." at that point, he was like, "Well, let me teach you." And I'm like, "Okay, well when do you want to do it?" He said why don't we do it that night, and that was probably third or fourth night of meeting one another, and so I was like okay, well this would be, in my head, a great time to see him in person in terms of like a, a video chat, that's what I, I thought was going to happen. I thought he was going to like be on a chat with me and tell me like tips and tricks of crypto. And so, he's like, "I can teach you this night." And I was like, "Okay, that's fine." Again, I was in California, so I had my friend next to me on the couch, and so I texted him and said, "Okay, what's our like game plan? Like are we going to use FaceTime, Zoom, Google Meet?" And he's like, "What are you talking about? We can chat over WhatsApp." And I was like, "I thought you were going to teach my crypto." And he's like, "Yeah, I can teach you on WhatsApp." And I was like "Well why don't we just like hop on a quick call?" you know, and he's like, "I'm shy." And I'm like, okay, I'm super shy, too, so I'm like, "It's okay, like I'm shy too. It can be a quick one." And he's like, he was adamant at first, and he was like, "Okay, fine, a quick one." And so, you know, I'm preparing myself because I'm nervous to meet any person, especially a guy, so I was like, "Okay, cool." And so um, he calls me via WhatsApp, and my best friend actually is recording my conversation over on the couch, because I couldn't record it, apparently on WhatsApp you can't record video calls. And so I'm prepared to see this guy's face, and what I see is an eyeball. And I'm just like, "Hi." And he's like, "Hi," and I could tell he had a very thick accent, and I was like well, "It's so nice to meet you." And he's like, "It's nice to meet you," in a thick accent. And I was like, "Well, I'm super excited to learn crypto," and he hangs up on me. I mean the call is literally 10 seconds, 

[00:11:08] Bob: The call is 10 seconds?  

[00:11:11] Niki Hutchinson: And I see is this eyeball, a little bit, I'm like, okay, this guy's really shy.  

[00:11:15] Bob: Just an eyeball. But here's what that call sounded like from Niki's point of view.  

[00:11:22] Niki Hutchinson: Maybe he's just, you know, really odd and really shy, so I was like, okay, that's fine. So he texts me back immediately saying, "Oh my gosh, you're so beautiful." And I was just like "Okay, yeah, it was really nice to meet you." Like I didn't even talk about the comment he wrote, and so he was like, "Well I really want to teach you cryptocurrency right now, and like how to invest." And I was like, "Okay." And that's where we started to, or where I started to learn how to invest in crypto.  

[00:11:47] Bob: Hao walks Niki through every single step of the process. They start off very small.  

[00:11:53] Niki Hutchinson: There's the link to, you know, make an account with crypto.com," so I was like, "Okay, yeah, I, I've heard of it. I've never made an account." So he walks me through it, he says, "Screenshot everything and I'll walk you through it." So I screenshot everything, send it to him via WhatsApp. He marks it and writes where to click and stuff. And from there, he's like, "Okay, now you need to set up your investment platform account," which is where you would, you know, buy and sell cryptocurrency. So I was like, "Okay." So he sends me the link, again he's like, "Don't worry, I will walk you through it," and I'm just, you know, going through the motions of screenshotting, making an account and everything. So once we have all of that taken care of, he's like, "Are you ready to invest?" And I'm like, I told him, I said, "I'm super nervous, like I've never invested before. I don't even know how much to put in." And, and like I was very hesitant even to put in money, but he was like, "Don't worry," like "I will walk you through. Let's start small." He suggested like, you know, put in $200 to see how it goes. And I was like, okay. Obviously, 200 still is a lot of money, and I was like nervous about that, but I was like, okay, well I do have a nest egg now that I have some money. And I was like, okay, I'll put in 200, see how it goes.  

[00:13:08] Bob: Within a few minutes it looks like she's already made money on her investment.  

[00:13:11] Niki Hutchinson: He's like, "Oh my gosh, you made like," I think I made maybe $50 or something, 50 to 80 dollars. I was like, I was really confused, and I was like, I don't get this, like is this really how crypto works? I was still skeptical, but still like open-minded in that sense, and he's like, "That's really amazing that you got, you know, you made $80." And I asked him like, "I don't even know how you knew when to buy and sell, like how do you know?" And he's like, "Don't worry, I'll teach you that later." I'm like, "Okay."  

[00:13:40] Bob: Right away, Hao suggests Niki started investing more in crypto.  

[00:13:44] Niki Hutchinson: You know, he's like, "Well, how did you like it?" I was like, I told him, like "I don't know what I did, but I mean I guess I did good." And he's like, "Yeah, you did great. You should invest some more. Do you want to do another 200 or 100?" And I was like, I was telling him like, "Well I still have student loans to pay off, and like I don't know if I want to invest anymore." And he's like, "It's the right time. You need to do it now." You either got, he would say, "You've got to seize the moment." And that was like what he told me a lot through these conversations of buying and selling. And I was just like, in social media and news, crypto was so big, and people were becoming millionaires and making good money off of crypto, and I was like, wow, well if, if I'm doing well, and he knows what he's doing, then I'm like, this seems to be working and I was trusting this platform. And so, I started investing more. I think that night, even though I was really nervous, I was like sweating while doing it. He got me to like put in a $1000, roughly $1000 that night.  

[00:14:43] Bob: Still nervous, she invests in more crypto, but it looks like she's making money. Not all the time, mind you.  

[00:14:51] Niki Hutchinson: I did see some red numbers where I lost maybe 200, but I gained it all back with the buying and selling that he was helping me from. So yes, I lost some, but I also gained some, and I think that night I maybe made 200, 300 in profits in terms of what I put in. So he would always tell me like, screenshot what I made, and like show it to him to make sure, you know, you're making profits, and that's what I did, and he's like, that's awesome. You made $300, and I was just like, still in shock. Like I, I don't understand it. I still don't understand how it really works, but it's just a weird concept to know, like you made profits through buying and selling. 

[00:15:31] Bob: at this point, Niki is hooked. Even after her trip to California ends, she keeps chatting with Hao and keeps investing with him. And that stakes just keep getting higher.  

[00:15:42] Niki Hutchinson: Yeah, so eventually I go back to Florida. We were also making trips back to Tennessee every other weekend to check on my grandmother, so I was making, eventually bank transfers in Tennessee as well as Florida, to make these huge wire transfers into crypto.com, and then move that money, or move that cryptocurrency over to this platform.  

[00:16:06] Bob: And that's when Hao brings up his very big dreams for Niki.  

[00:16:10] Niki Hutchinson: I was still like very skeptical, even though I was making profits, I was still telling him, like "I don't know how much I can invest anymore." Like I'm, I just, I get scared, like I obviously never had this money, so I'm like, "I just don't want to, you know, waste it on this investment even though I am seeing profits." And he's like, he kept saying like, "You're doing great, like I calculated everything that you could potentially be a millionaire by the end of December." And I told him, I said, "That's crazy," like that I don't understand that. And he's like, "Well, you're doing really well. I think you should invest. Right now cryptocurrency's so hot." And so I was like, "Yeah, I am seeing it in the news and stuff." He was like saying, "Well why don't you invest some more?" And so I, you know, what was a couple hundred became thousands, and then eventually he started telling me like, "I want you to get to these tiers." He wanted me to reach 10k, and then eventually it led to 50k, to 75k, and just all the way up to, he wanted me to eventually get, by the end of December, to 400k.  

[00:17:14] Bob: There is no way Niki can invest $400,000 in crypto even if she puts in every last dollar that her mom left her through the house. But Hao has a plan for that.  

[00:17:27] Niki Hutchinson: You know, at this point I invested a lot, at least invested 100k because I was seeing profits go up and at that point, I saw like, I, I think I made 80k in profits at that time. And so with that being said, like, he was like, "Well," I, I kept telling him like, "I just don't feel comfortable putting in any more money," and he was the one who suggests like, "Well do you have a 401k?" And "Do you have like; can you take out a loan and stuff?" And I'm like, "Oh my gosh," like "I'm only 24. No, of course I don't have a 401k. Um, I don't have any type of that." And he, and he was like, "Well, can you take out a loan?" And I'm like, "I have student debt, like there's no way I can take out a loan," and especially how big he wanted. He wanted me to take out a 50k loan. I was just like, uh, that's impossible, I can't do that. Hao asked me, he's like, "Well, have you thought about getting your dad involved and, and investing, because you're making really good profits." And I was just like, absolutely not. Like my dad's 66, well now he's 67, but at the time 66. And I was like, "No, no." Like, "He doesn't know crypto. Like I'm still learning crypto. I don't feel comfortable with him getting invested in it." And he's like, "Well you're doing really good. I believe that, you know, you can share with him what you're doing and see if he's open to it." And I was just like, "I just don't think he would do it, and I don't want him to like, I just don't want to like pressure him into putting in his own money into this platform." 

[00:18:57] Bob: But Hao keeps insisting that she just talk to her dad about her investments, and eventually, she does. 

[00:19:04] Niki Hutchinson: You know, I had the conversation with my dad in terms of just saying, like he knew about it, my dad knew about it because he was helping me drive to banks to wire transfer my money, so he knew I was doing cryptocurrency. It wasn't like I was hiding anything. And so we were in Florida, and I just brought it up of like, "Hey Dad, I'm doing really well in crypto." Like, I wanted to show him my profits. And again, I could have my numbers a little wrong, since it's been a while, but I think I invested close to 200k and so I made around, I would say 180k in terms of profits, which is really great. Again, still super like a weird concept to me. And so he saw the profits and he said he was really proud of me that I was investing, and that the investment was going well, and so I just was like, "You know, you could come in with me if you want, but I'm not going to pressure you," like, "there's, if you don't feel comfortable, no worries about it." And he was like, "I'll think about it." 

[00:20:04] Bob: It doesn't take very long. A few hours later he says... 

[00:20:08] Niki Hutchinson: He was like, "You know what, I see you're doing really well, and I want to invest with you. Can I just go in with you on the same platform," instead of him making his own account and stuff. And I said, "Yeah, of course," like, "What we can do is do what we did last time is split the profits that we make, and we'll hopefully have more than we, we had prior to the house." 

[00:20:28] Bob: So, Dad and daughter throw in their investment dreams together.  

[00:20:33] Niki Hutchinson: This now was early December. I would say end of November, early December is when I got my dad started to help invest in it. And so I think at his time, he had like roughly 180, because he did pay for his RV in cash.  

[00:20:47] Bob: And it seems to pay off, quickly.  

[00:20:50] Niki Hutchinson: We were seeing profits, and by the end of December, we reached 1.2 million, And that was a crazy concept to me. Both my dad and I were just like, in awe of like that type of number. We like, it just didn't seem real.  

[00:21:08] Bob: The account says that they have more than 1 million dollars, so much that Hao says maybe it's time for some profit taking.  

[00:21:17] Niki Hutchinson: Hao texted me close to the end of December, he was like, "Are you ready to withdraw?" And I'm like, "Yeah, I don't how to withdraw, like I know you told me you've done it before." And I was like, "Can you walk me through it." And he's like, "Yes, of course." So he told me to go to the platform, go to customer service, say that you'd like to withdraw, and then that's where I got hit with something that I never thought would happen... 

[00:21:42] Bob: Something she never thought would happen. Withdrawing money is not so simple.  

[00:21:48] Niki Hutchinson: The customer service person said, "You can withdraw your money, but you have to pay your taxes first before you can withdraw." And the taxes were close to 380k. And my heart dropped, like my stomach dropped, everything dropped. I didn't know what I was reading at that point. I was freaking out because my dad and I invested pretty much everything into it. All our house money. And it, it was just a weird, because he never told me; Hao never mentioned you would have to pay taxes before you can get your money back.  

[00:22:24] Bob: And she remembers asking him about withdrawals earlier.  

[00:22:27] Niki Hutchinson: And so I go back to Hao, and I screenshot what the customer service person told me, and Hao pretty much says, "Oh, it looks like you have to pay 380k." And I was furious, in terms of just like in panic mode, I was like, "You never told me about this. I thought you've withdrawn before." He said, "Oh, I've never withdrawn before. My money's still in the platform." And I was just like, "You told me that." And he's like, "I've never told you that." And so I was freaking out because I'm like, oh my gosh, did he not tell me that? And looking back, he did tell me that. I have it in text messages. But it was just a scary feeling because I'm like, "We don't have this money. We barely, my dad and I barely had $1000 combined at that point, and it was about to be Christmas, and we didn't have any money really, and so I was like, "I can't pay these taxes. I don't know what to do." And he was like, "Stop freaking out."  

[00:23:19] Bob: Over text messages, Niki tries to make sense of it all. And she's desperate for help. But help doesn't come.  

[00:23:27] Niki Hutchinson: I was like, I don't know what to do, like I can't get This type of money. He's like, "We'll figure this out together. I'll see if I can help pay your taxes." I was like, "No, I don't want you to do that." And he's like, "Don't worry about it, I'll help you." And I'm like, "I don't know how I'm going to even pay like, help pay for it." And he's like, "Well, has your dad got a 401k or do you have rich friends?" I'm like, "Oh my gosh, like no! My dad does not have a 401k, he has a fixed income from Social, and he's retired, so no, he doesn't have that. And like, rich friends? Like I'm not going to ask my friends, plus none of my friends are like wealthy enough like that to ask for that type of money." And he was like, "Well, I don't know what you're going to do," is what he came back with.  

[00:24:11] Bob: And then, Hao zeros in on the last thing that Niki and her dad have of value. He's like, "Well have you thought about selling your RV?" And I was just like, "Are you kidding me?" I'm like, "Of course not. I'm going to tell my dad to sell the RV." And he was like, "Well I think that's the only way you can get your money, like pay some of the taxes." And I'm like, "No, that's not happening." And in a theoretical world, if we did sell the RV, it wouldn't cover the price of the taxes, because cars, RVs, anything depreciates once it's off the lot. And so, I told him, I was like, "No, there's, that's not an option." He was like, "Well, I don't know what you're going to do, but we'll try to figure something out."  

[00:24:56] Bob: Right then, a clock starts ticking on Niki's options and other dark thoughts start ticking in her mind.  

[00:25:03] Niki Hutchinson: Mind you, on top of this, the taxes, they also said you had 15 days to pay it off or your account's frozen. So I was freaking out because now there's a time limit to paying these taxes off. And so that's where I started second guessing on like, is this thing legit? Like this doesn't sound right. I thought, yes, you've got to pay taxes on crypto and stuff, but I thought you could always pay it from the profits that you made. And so I went to customer service. I said, "Well why can't I just pay the profits that I've made and use that as my taxes," and they said, "No, you can't do that." And so I was just like, okay, I don't know what to do.  

[00:25:43] Bob: One thing she knows she has to do at this point, she has to tell her dad. All the money from that house sale, it's all been put into cryptocurrency, and Niki has no idea how to get any of it back.  

[00:25:57] Niki Hutchinson: And so, at that point, we were still in Florida when I found out about these taxes, the day after we were supposed to drive up to Tennessee to go see my grandmother to check on her, and also to see my other grandmother for Christmas, and this was before Christmas, this was just like a little Christmas dinner, and so I was freaking out. Like my dad and I, driving up, I was dead silent. I, now I’m usually singing, my dad and I are both singing, we're chitchatting, but I was just on my phone just trying to figure out what to do, texting Hao, trying to figure out what we can do and I just knew in the back of my head, I was like, I don't know what I'm going to tell my dad, like I don't know how he's going to react, and the worst feeling I felt was just guilt. I, besides me losing the money, my fear was the fact that he invested his money as well, and that was something that he was going to retire off of, that's where I was freaking out, because I was like, you know, yeah, it's my money, and it's money that I don't have, but the fact that I got my 66-year-old dad to invest in this and trust me, was really hard, and I was scared because I was like, I don't know, I, I just didn't know what I was going to say.  

[00:27:09] Bob: Eventually, Dad opens the door for this most painful of conversations. And he has a most unexpected reaction.  

[00:27:18] Niki Hutchinson: And so once we made it out to Tennessee, we were in our, our little hotel and he just knew something was up, he could tell by my energy and how I wasn't eating, I wasn't talking, and he just said, "What's wrong?" And I just said, "Nothing." And he's like, "No, there's something going on, tell me what's wrong." And then that's when I just broke down. I broke down crying and sobbing, and I, I couldn't barely speak because I was just hyperventilating at that time. I'm just like, "I, I think we're in a scam." And he's like, "What are you talking about?" And I'm like, "These, this platform wants us to pay taxes that we can't even pay." And he's like, "Well how much are these taxes?" And I was scared to tell him the number, but I told him it was like 380k, and all he did was hug me. He said, "It's going to be all right." And I was, I wasn't expecting that, but I knew my dad loved me, so I was just so grateful to have him, you know, because that can make or break, you know, families, especially money and stuff. And so, you know, losing my mother, I was scared to lose my dad, and so it was just a hard conversation to have and the fact that he hugged me and said, "We're going to figure this out."  

[00:28:33] Bob: We're going to figure this out. So that's what Niki does next. She reads about crypto scams online.  

[00:28:41] Niki Hutchinson: I started doing research, it was crazy to read a thread or an article that aligns almost perfectly with what I had, you know, gone through.  

[00:28:53] Bob: Even still, Niki waivers between surrendering to the idea that her money is gone and trying to somehow get it back.  

[00:29:02] Niki Hutchinson: It still felt like, well if I paid these taxes, would I get my money back? And it was that weird, you know, in-between of like, is this real? Is this legit, or is this fake? And so I battled with that, I was like, maybe if I pay these taxes, we will get our money back if I plead enough to the, you know, the platform. But at the end of it, I was like, there's no way, there's no way, especially when they started, you know, doing research on my own about these taxes that people have paid them, some of them have paid them, and they don't get anything back. And so I was like, I can't, I can't do that to my dad, and I can't do that to myself where if we take out a loan, you know, and it's not going to happen, there was just no way, so it was the hard pill to swallow to know that, you know, I put my dad and myself in this position thinking that I was benefitting us, like I was, I, I truly believed that I was helping my dad never have to worry about money ever again. And you know, for me to start my career in California and stuff, so I had plans. We both dreamed of things of like what we were going to do and stuff, so having that reality check of like this isn't real, your money's probably never coming back was really hard. 

[00:30:20] Bob: At first Niki is in a very dark place about it all.  

[00:30:23] Niki Hutchinson: Everyone, you know, functions a different way, but I felt like I had no one to speak to. Like I, I felt like I was so alone and isolated, and I, physically and mentally, like I was in Florida where none of my friends were. It just my dad and I, and you know, being in my room, I didn't know what to do. I felt so alone. And so that's when I started doing more research of trying to figure out what can I do if I'm in a scam. And so, I actually found this organization, the Global Anti-Scam Organization, that has a community for people who have been victims, and so I reached out to them and talked to one of their customer service representatives, or like their volunteer chat I should say, and they said, "Oh, we have a, you know, a WhatsApp group that has all victims that understand you, that you know, truly understand this feeling." And so I joined, and it was the first time I didn't feel alone. And that was really pivotal for me because I think that's when I found them. I found them January 2nd, because January 1st, I actually called a suicide hotline, literally at midnight, because as much as I wasn't feeling suicidal, because I knew I couldn't do that to my dad, I couldn't do that to my grandmother, I couldn't even do that to myself, but I felt very much alone and I didn't know anyone who wouldn't judge me to, you know, have a conversation with. So I called them, and I spoke to a woman, and I truly believe that I was meant to, you know have that moment, because she made me feel not judged, she didn't make me feel ashamed of myself or make me feel stupid, and it was such an amazing experience, which is why I feel confident enough to have these conversations now, to share my story to, you know, just to have this open space for victims to feel like they can share something that's very a vulnerable and sensitive topic, and so, you know, speaking the truth is very hard, and I know like victims get a lot of shade for it, but I think most times we're, we're in a vulnerable place where these predators come and take advantage of you. So if, if I can help someone with that through my story, that's, that's a great and amazing feeling. 

[00:32:46] Bob: So that's why Niki agreed to talk with us, because maybe someone won't feel so alone if they go through a crime like this.  

[00:32:56] Bob: You know, imagine someone listening to this podcast who has just been through what you've been through. What kind of things would you say to them?  

[00:33:03] Niki Hutchinson: Gosh, I'm just trying to, you know, I'm reliving that feeling, so it's like so many emotions right now overwhelming me. I would love for those people to start sharing their stories because I think it helps so many people not to feel alone, because I know that feeling. I, I went through that feeling of thinking that I was so stupid and naive, and even like I can never share my story with anyone because I'm scared of judgment, and stuff, but I think opening up has helped me heal actually, opening up about it and finding the silver lining and finding the learning in this situation is so great. And so if I can help anyone or if anyone's experiencing this, is to be okay with, you know, failures, because that is a mistake and it wasn't your fault, most times it's not our fault, it's just the people that, you know, find our weaknesses. And most times we're doing the right thing. You know, there's good intentions usually with the why we're doing it, and so if I can make others to feel okay, like, yes, it was a mistake, but it's not going to be the end of the world, then that's an amazing feeling. 

[00:34:14] Bob: And that amazing feeling is the result of Niki's amazing ability to look on the bright side. She's now closer to her father than she ever imagined in more ways than one, living with him in their RV with parks and waterfalls right outside the door.  

[00:34:33] Niki Hutchinson: We were always close. When I was a child, he was a stay-at-home dad. So when he, you know, divorced my mom, it was hard for me to not have him around a lot, so it feels like a catching up in a sense, and I will know for a fact when I get older that I will be so grateful for this time, and these times and moments and memories with my dad, because I don't think a lot of young 20-year-olds can say that, and so and especially I think being a daughter, I think sometimes the relationships are always stronger with mothers, and my dad and I have always been strong, so it, it's a wonderful connection, and I'm so, so grateful.  

[00:35:11] Bob: What a beautiful relationship Niki and her dad have. And what an awful experience with investing and with cryptocurrency. Here to talk more about our relationship with investing is one of the best in the business. You know her from decades on TV as one of the leading voices in personal finance. I was lucky enough to work in television with her for many years at NBC.  

[00:35:35] My name is Jean Chatzky. I think most people probably know me because I was the Financial Editor for The Today Show for 25 years, so we got dressed together. But I've also been AARP's Financial Ambassador for a decade now, and write a column for AARP The Magazine, and I run a company called HerMoney Media which does financial content for women.  

[00:35:59] Bob: What is it like to work for The Today Show for 25 years?  

[00:36:02] Jean Chatzky: I, it was the best job. It was, it was incredibly fun to have a, a, a ringside seat for all of the things that went on in that studio over, over 25 years. And, and I was really, really pleased to be a part of it.  

[00:36:19] Bob: And those were a big 25 years. I mean we're talking about the dot com bubble, the housing bubble, right?  

[00:36:24] Jean Chatzky: Yeah, yeah, the, the recession, the Great Recession; the, it was, it was a very big, very big 25 years and a very big 25 years in the way that individuals approach their money, right. It, it was really the era where we started to feel this sense of greater responsibility for our own retirement, our own healthcare, health plans, and stepped up to start taking control. So I was pleased to be able to help people do that. 

[00:36:55] Bob: For Jean, understanding financial markets runs in the family.  

[00:36:59] Jean Chatzky: I grew up with a grandfather who was a stock trader and not by profession, by profession he was a film projectionist, but I used to go with him to his brokerage firm and sit there and watch his stocks. He would sit there and watch the ticker go by, and we forget that, that, you know, it wasn't until the '90s that we were able to look at how the markets were, were doing minute by minute on our computers, by putting Yahoo Finance on our home screen, right? It, it really has been a very rapid uptake by consumers in in historical terms, and the fact that now if you want to make a trade all you have to do is sign onto an app, is pretty amazing. 

[00:37:45] Bob: And you know, I was honestly just reminiscing with you, but this is spot on to the topic we're going to talk about today because while I think this is a really exciting development, it gives people an awful lot of freedom to take care of themselves. It's also a pretty dangerous weapon, right. 

[00:37:59] Jean Chatzky: It's a very dangerous world out there, and, and the fact that the financial landscape right now is so fraught with inflation and market volatility and fear. And the fact that we've got an ongoing pandemic, it's just making things worse because, as you know far better than I know, this is when scam artists come out of the water. This is, this is when people look to take advantage of, of other people. And the fact that we've opened ourselves up to all the conveniences that being connected in this digital global world offers us, also gives these thieves a lot of different inroads to get at our money and get at our data. And that's dangerous. And most of us, the vast majority of us don't a) know what precautions to take to protect ourselves, and b) actually take those precautions.  

[00:39:11] Bob: I'm just thinking, even be--, before we get to the scammers out there, you know, the fact that you know I could hang up with you, open an account at an electronic trading house, put all my money into something and, and lose it quickly. I mean, in the past there would have been some speed bumps before I could do that, right?  

[00:39:30] Jean Chatzky: Yeah, you might have had to actually talk to a person on a phone, or walk into a branch, or provide proof that you were who you said you were.  

[00:39:44] Bob: I asked Jean what she thought of Niki's experience.  

[00:39:47] Jean Chatzky: Oh, first of all I thought , I, I thought it was so sad, my heart went out to her, but I thought her father, oh my gosh, what a guy, right? I mean what a guy to, to give her a hug and tell her that they'll get through it and, and not, not throw around blame. He's a lot closer to retirement than she is, and this is going to impact him a lot more than it's going to impact her. So I, I just thought, what a champ.  

[00:40:14] Bob: If you weren't feeling allergies at that moment of the story, I don't know what's wrong with you, but... 

[00:40:18] Jean Chatzky: Exactly.  

[00:40:19] Bob: What a sweet man, yeah.  

[00:40:20] Bob: One of the first things Jean noticed about the story, and about so many investment stories that end badly, is the natural human impulse to keep up with whatever everyone else is doing. At the moment, that means crypto.  

[00:40:35] Jean Chatzky: Anything you can sense FOMO, right, fear of missing out taking hold, you are likely to make really bad decisions. First of all, one of, one of my money rules is that by the time there is a bandwagon, it's too late to get on it, right. By the time that the crowd has rallied around the fact that tech stocks are the thing to be in or dot com stocks are the thing to be in, or tulips, if you go all the way back to the 1700s, are the things to be in, you have missed it. And it doesn’t mean that you can never make money in, in this particular asset or by investing in this particular asset. It just means that you have to be more educated and more careful and move more slowly in order to make sure that this investment makes sense for you. And so, where crypto is concerned, look, there a lot of people who still believe that crypto is going to be part of our future, that, that yeah, we're going through a down period for it right now, but we will continue to see innovations in, in crypto, in Web 3, in the metaverse, and there, there is money to be made there. But it's incredibly risky, which is why my advice to people who think that they want to have a piece of this in their portfolio is, treat it like you would any other very volatile, very risky asset. No more than 1 to 2 percent of your portfolio belongs in crypto, you want a dollar cost average into it, you want to diversify because there are many different types of cryptocurrency, so you can open an account with a Coinbase, which is a reputable marketplace. You can choose different types of currency that you want to invest in. You can put a little bit of money into them every single time you get paid or every single month, much like you do with your 401k. But this is not the place where you put the money that you need for anything over the next couple of decades. This is play money at this point.  

[00:43:02] Bob: Here are a few other things Jean thinks we can learn from Niki's story.  

[00:43:05] Jean Chatzky: We don't invest in things that we don't understand. And if, if you want to invest in them, then, you know, you take time to get a true education before you put your real money on the mark. Number two is you know we don't trust people that we've never met with our money. There are a couple of questions that I get asked every time I got out to speak, and one of them is, how do I find a financial advisor that I can trust. And it's an excellent question because you are looking for somebody that you can put faith into. When it comes to your money, you look for somebody who's a fiduciary, who is, you know, legally bound to put your interests ahead of their own. You look for somebody with experience. You look for somebody with a proven track record, and yeah, you look for somebody that you can actually meet in person, where you can go to the office and meet the other people who are working there. And she didn't do any of those things. You know, she took the word of a stranger who said they were an expert, who said that they could, they could be her guide and, you know, we do this sometimes when we're feeling so at a loss as far as our own abilities, that we, we want somebody to prop us up and give us the easy answers, but falling into those easy answers is, is almost always a mistake.  

[00:44:34] Bob: Anyone who comes into a surprising windfall of money is particularly vulnerable.  

[00:44:39] Jean Chatzky: If you get an inheritance, if you get any sort of a windfall, that is a signal to a) take it slow, but b) get some real professional advice. Windfalls are, whether they are lottery wins or inheritances or whatever, they are once in a lifetime opportunities. And you don't want to blow it. And that means making sure that you have qualified people in your corner to help you figure out what your goals actually are, and then help you structure a plan to meet those goals.  

[00:45:20] Bob: I asked Jean if she had the chance to talk with Niki in the middle of this experience, especially if Jean had doubts about the advice Hao was giving her, what would she have said?  

[00:45:30] Jean Chatzky: Wow, I, I mean I think I would just say, you know, depending again on what I knew, depending on what I knew that the overall crypto market was doing at that time, I, I think it would just say, really? You know, really? I, I think all somebody needed to do was cause enough doubt that she would look at it again. And it's quite possible that the money was already gone at that point. You know that these were phantom games, and that as soon as she transferred the money in, the money was transferred out. It, it seems to me that that, that looks like what happened. It's just sad and it's just, it's just devastating. But it, it, maybe it would have prevented her from making the next transfer into the account, and that would have been, that would have been a good thing. 

[00:46:23] Bob: It's always hard to tell someone that you're worried they're making a big mistake. 

[00:46:28] Bob: You know, I like what you said, because I think we all have friends who are in, say, a dating situation that's obviously not right for them, but you can't tell them he's wrong for you, break up with him. That doesn't work, right. You've got to, you've got to approach it more gently.  

[00:46:40] Jean Chatzky: Yeah. Yeah, well, absolutely, right, if you, if you are, if somebody's dating somebody and you tell them, well this guy is a jerk, and you shouldn't be spending any time with him, and you know, if, if you take took hard a line, your friend is going to turn on you. They're not going to turn on the guy. But if you start pointing out real behaviors that maybe you don't like, or that make you a little nervous, then you can start to get them to take another look at the situation. I might have asked questions: what cryptocurrencies are you investing in? How are they doing compared to the overall crypto market? How did, how did he learn about crypto? How, how did, you know, and, and if she could have realized that there were a lot of things that she didn't know and didn't bother to ask, then, then maybe she would have taken a second look. But it's really hard to say.  

[00:47:47] Bob: We talked a little bit about gender and age dynamics, and how they can play a role in crimes like this.  

[00:47:53] Jean Chatzky: I think age is always representative of knowledge, right, so there's, there's that. But yeah, we, we live in this world where men still run the majority of Fortune 500 companies and financial services firms where we have never had a woman sitting in the Oval Office. We imbue men with smarts that they may not necessarily have. I hope that that's changing. It's certainly not changing fast enough. And, and so I think you're right, I think, I think that is something that, that does happen, and I think the fact that a lot of these scams are originating on dating sites, originating from a, a potentially romantic relationship that maybe isn't romantic, but becomes something else; there's almost this feeling of well, if I, if I like this guy enough to maybe go out with him, maybe I should trust him enough to listen to him as far as my money is concerned.  

[00:48:57] Bob: Many women are insecure about their knowledge of money. But they shouldn't be. And that insecurity can be exploited.  

[00:49:05] Jean Chatzky: Women are often slower than men to pick up investing. When we do it, we're great at it. In fact, there are a lot of surveys that show that the returns that women earn are better than the returns that men earn, particularly because we tend to be more buy and hold investors. We don't, we don't trade around as much, and trading around tends to actually cost you money. But the fact that it takes us a while to get there is costly, because if you can get yourself investing at a very young age and keep yourself invested through your working life into retirement, that's, that's really how you do, how you do best. I like the idea of just getting going, and simultaneously learning on the side, and, and by learning, there are a number of different things you could do. You can start reading the Wall Street Journal. You can start reading the money section of USA Today, you can start reading any number of, of blogs online or websites. You can, you can turn on CNBC for a half an hour a day and start listening to that as, as your background noise.  

[00:50:18] Bob: You've already mentioned lots of research shows that women are more patient and, therefore, do better at investing, but maybe a lot of people hearing that will be surprised by that.  

[00:50:26] Jean Chatzky: Maybe surprised because they haven't taken a look at, at the research or, or surprised because the research is, is relatively new. You know the, the unfortunate fact for older women investors is that we have been under the thumb of, of a gender wage gap that has persisted for decades. That means that we have been able to funnel less money, fewer dollars into our retirement accounts, and that when we get to retirement, especially when you combine the smaller balances in our, in our 401ks and other retirement accounts with the fact that we've taken breaks from the workforce that have potentially cost us in Social Security credits, we're going to have less money for retirement, and we're going to need to make that money last a longer period of time because we're going to go on and outlive our spouses by a good five years. And that's really scary, you know, that is really, really scary for, for a lot of women.  

[00:51:34] Bob: That fear can be a tool for criminals too.  

[00:51:38] Bob: I do think that again the environment that you're describing is one that scammers can easily prey on, right? I'm, I'm in my 50s, I've got to catch up. I've gotta do something drastic, and that scammer can walk right into that.  

[00:51:49] Jean Chatzky: And drastic is, is, I mean at any point in your life, unless it's a, unless you're deciding to make a drastic and positive change in your savings rate, I would say drastic investing moves are never, never the order of the day.  

[00:52:04] Bob: What would Jean say to Niki now?  

[00:52:06] Jean Chatzky: I would say, Niki, you know, you are so fortunate that you're young. You're, you've got time on your side. And most people who become financially successful and financially secure do it the boring, old-fashioned way. They put money in a retirement account over time, they keep adding to it, they buy in markets of all shapes and sizes. They, they keep working and, and eventually you'll get there, and the good news is you are never going to do this again.  

[00:52:37] Bob: And what would Niki say to someone who is going through the same kind of crime that she lived through?  

[00:52:42] Niki Hutchinson: I would say for someone who might be going through that particular situation that I've been going through, just be careful, slow down, be cautious. I really now don't trust anyone in terms of like if they're, you know saying they'll help you invest. Go to a real financial person advising that. Or at least meet this person, you know, I know you can still be scammed by in person, but like just take it slow. Like don't, don't feel rushed, and especially with cryptocurrency, I know like social media and stuff, and just how it works is so volatile. If there is an instinct where you're like, oh, this doesn't feel right, but I'm doing well, I would just trust your gut and, and your gut usually steers you clear, because there is little moments of red flags I should have trusted my gut, and I didn't, but now, you know, looking back, I'm like, okay, I needed to believe in myself more instead of trusting this person that I just met.  

[00:53:41] Bob: And how is Niki today?  

[00:53:44] Niki Hutchinson: I'm feeling a little bit relief. I know that's a strange term, but I feel relief in terms of I can feel like I can finally share my story freely in terms of feeling, you know, the first couple of times I felt very painful going through this story, but now I can be objective and, and learn from my mistakes. Another word is, oh gosh, just sorrow, I would say. It was just such a painful experience, and I would never wish my worst enemy on this feeling. And then I would guess, gosh, I'm trying to think of other words, because I just have so many mixed emotions. I would say, sorry, I am trying to figure out good words for this.  

[00:54:27] Bob: It's complicated. 

[00:54:28] Niki Hutchinson: It is, it very much is.  

[00:54:30] Bob: I was once told the most genuine feelings are the hardest ones to put words to.  

[00:54:34] Niki Hutchinson: Yeah, I mean it, I wish there was a word to explain everything, because it's not, it's, you know there's good and bad, really, and I think a lot of people could just spew the bad, but I think there is resilience. I, I don't know if that's a good feeling, but there is resilience and I feel like I've grown from this experience, and it shows how resilient I am. I would saying healing, another one. I want to try to be positive because I think it's a part of my chapter, and it's always will be a part of me, but it's not going to define me, this doesn't define who I am. 

[00:55:10] Bob: You have a remarkably positive attitude.  

[00:55:13] Niki Hutchinson: Thank you, thank you.  

(MUSIC SEGUE) 

[00:55:29] 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. 

 

END OF TRANSCRIPT 

After 25-year-old Niki Hutchinson loses her mother, she uses some of her inheritance to start fresh in California. Not knowing anyone, she does what many people do today and joins a dating app to make connections. She develops a friendship with a man named Hao and, in time, he offers to teach her how to invest in cryptocurrency. With some small successes and lots of encouragement from Hao, she dives in and invests her inheritance, plus some of her dad’s money as well. That’s when her friend becomes less helpful.

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