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DEA Impostor Steals Montana Woman’s Life Savings

A call from “Amazon” and an investigation by a man claiming to be a DEA agent put a retiree's home in jeopardy

spinner image illustration on a blanket background of a woman running towards her home but a smart phone with the letters D E A is cutting across the path and blocking her
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spinner image infographic with the words 'He would text me and say, "You've left town. Where are you going? What are you doing? He was tracking me, with my cellphone."
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Full Transcript

(MUSIC INTRO)

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

[00:00:03] Susan Bivins: He said,"So every few hours you have to text me where you are, what you're doing," and sometimes I would forget. Two or three hours would go and I didn't, and he'd send me a text... "Where are you?" He would text me and say, "You've left town. Where are you going? What are you doing?" He was tracking me, I guess, with my cellphone...

[00:00:25] Bob: Oh my God.  That sounds so creepy. 

[00:00:27] Susan Bivins:  I was so afraid.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:00:33] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan. Anyone who's ever spent even a little time in Montana, heck I bet anyone who's even seen it on TV has fantasized about packing up and buying a home in a perfect little mountain village there. I've spent a good amount of time in Missoula, Montana, the first big city after you cross the border from Idaho into Big Sky Country, and I've certainly dreamed about it. Well today's guest lived out that dream a few years ago. Susan Bivins moved from California to Anaconda, about 90 minutes south and east of Missoula, and bought a big, beautiful Victorian home there. Even better, she moved to be near her son and his growing family. She wanted them to be a bike ride away, not a plane ride away. But this dream turned into a nightmare one day when Susan discovered fraudulent charges on her credit card and within a few weeks, she lost very nearly everything she had, including that Victorian home. Let's meet Susan.

[00:01:40] Bob: So I have spent a lot of time in Missoula actually. I love Missoula.

[00:01:43] Susan Bivins: Oh, yeah, it's beautiful.

[00:01:45] Bob: Yeah, I lived in Seattle for about 15 years and Missoula is like a perfect little day's drive away from the Pacific Northwest.

[00:01:52] Susan Bivins: Yeah.

[00:01:53] Bob: I guess I've, I've only been by Anaconda on I-90, right?

[00:01:57] Susan Bivins: Yeah, yeah, you, the turnoff is, we're about five miles from the freeway there. So you see the sign.

[00:02:04] Bob: But you're a peaceful distance from civilization.

[00:02:06] Susan Bivins: It is beautiful here. We have about oh, 5500 people and it's just nice, slow-paced and...

[00:02:14] Bob: But I did look it up on Google Maps, and it does seem like you have your share of like little pubs and breweries and coffee shops too.

[00:02:21] Susan Bivins: Yes, we do. We do have some, and there's a lot of growth coming in; some new restaurants that are coming in, So the town kinda was dying for a few years 'cause they had a smelter business here, smelting the copper from the mines out of Butte and then it, when it closed, everything kind of dwindled, but there's new life coming, and the town is growing. So...

[00:02:44] Bob: Susan moved to Anaconda by herself from the Mendocino Coast in Northern California 8 years ago. But she wasn't alone.

[00:02:54] Susan Bivins: My son came here to finish his engineering degree at Montana Tech in Butte, and he and his wife bought a place here in Anaconda, and I visited quite a bit, and then decided when I retired this was a good place since he was my only child, and they made me a grandma when I got here, so that's always nice.

[00:03:12] Bob: Yeah, that sounds like a very fair exchange. We'll make you a grandma, but you have to move nearby.

[00:03:15] Susan Bivins: Yeah, well I wanted to be the grandma that lived down the street, not the one that lived across the country, so...

[00:03:21] Bob: Yeah, good for you.

[00:03:22] Susan Bivins: That, that was a win-win for me.

[00:03:23] Bob: At the time, Susan had just retired from a long career, a 45-year career as a nurse.

[00:03:32] Bob: And what kind of nursing did you do?

[00:03:34] Susan Bivins: First 20 years I did, I worked in intensive care, and then the last 25 years I worked in quality and risk management.

[00:03:43] Bob: She was able to find the home of her dreams when she moved; the perfect place to begin her second career as a fulltime grandma.

[00:03:52] Susan Bivins: I bought a beautiful Victorian home uh in the nicer section of town which has all the big old Victorian homes. So I bought that and, and enjoyed living there until I had to move.

[00:04:05] Bob: Until I had to move. And that's our story today. Because Susan's life changed overnight one day last May when she was doing a routine check of her bank account.

[00:04:18] Susan Bivins: I noticed a couple of charges actually through my bank account that were made for Amazon, and so I went into my Amazon account and there were two charges; one for $250, one for $254 for medical textbooks which I was not ordering and had not ordered. So called Amazon, went through the whole process with them. Did a dispute and got my money back from them, but at the time when I spoke with Amazon, they said someone had hacked into my account, and they recommended that I change my payment source at Amazon.

[00:04:53] Bob: Straightforward enough, Susan gets her money back and as many of us have after an incident of fraud, she doesn't think too much about it until a few weeks later when she gets a phone call. Her cellphone ring indicates the call is from Amazon.

[00:05:09] Susan Bivins: So I answered it, and the very nice woman said, "We've noticed some activity on your Amazon account again, and we knew you had had trouble a few weeks ago, and were you making these charges?" And it was several thousand dollars' worth of charges, and I said, "No, it was not." She said, "It sounds like somebody has hacked into your account again, and uh I'm going to transfer you to the Fraud Detection Agency with the Federal Trade Commission."

[00:05:43] Bob: Fraud? Again? Susan is frustrated but glad that it seems like Amazon is on top of it. So she waits on the line to speak to someone from the Fraud Detection Agency.

[00:05:56] Susan Bivins: She transferred me. I spoke to a very pleasant man who took the information, gave me a case and file number and said he would be looking into this, but he wanted to transfer it on to a DEA agent who looks into these types of cases. And I, then I spoke with this person who he gave me his name as Randall Jenkins, that he was with the DEA, and he asked me questions, and then said he would investigate and call me back, and he gave me his cellphone number so that I would know it was him when he called me back.

[00:06:35] Bob: Randall sure seems to be taking this case of fraud very seriously.

[00:06:40] Susan Bivins: Randall had a very, I would say a British accent. He was clear, he was pleasant. I said, "How do I know I'm talking to an agent?" And he said, "I will text you a copy of my DEA badge, and this is my badge number." So he sent all of that via the, the cellphone, text message, to me, and so I thought, okay, I'm dealing with a legitimate government agent here.

[00:07:06] Bob: Susan waits for him to call, wanting to put this whole thing behind her and get back to the grandkids, but when the call comes, things get worse very quickly.

[00:07:17] Susan Bivins: At first, he said, my name was being used to open up several bank accounts and credit cards across the country, and that I would be investigated as um, in involved in a money laundering scam, and until he could prove that I was not involved with it, I was, I would be under suspicion. So he, he came off as being, you know, investigating me and now I'm under suspicion and I'm not supposed to tell anybody because you don't know who you can trust.

[00:07:51] Bob: But he was investigating you.

[00:07:53] Susan Bivins: He was investigating me.

[00:07:54] Bob: How did that feel?

[00:07:56] Susan Bivins: That, very scary. I mean I thought I; I knew I hadn't done anything wrong, but when you think a government agent is investigating you and that I could be arrested, he said, "If you're part of this money laundering, we will be sending a DEA agent with a warrant and place you under arrest." So I was terrified. And he said, "Don't tell anybody," and so I did not tell anybody.

[00:08:21] Bob: Already, Randall seems to know an awful lot about her.

[00:08:25] Susan Bivins: He gave me my Social Security number and my date of birth. He had that information. And he said, "Your Social Security number is blah-blah-blah, your date of birth is blah-blah-blah. You used to live in California." He knew where I lived in California. He knew all of that.

[00:08:40] Bob: Wow.

[00:08:42] Bob: But the investigation is going to require Susan to tell Randall a lot more about herself. We need to keep track of you, he tells her.

[00:08:50] Susan Bivins: And he said, "So every few hours you have to text me where you are, what you're doing," and I, sometimes I would forget and two or three hours would go and I didn't, and he'd send me a text... "Where are you?" If I left town and went from Anaconda into Butte to go shopping, he would text me and say, "You've left town. Where are you going? What are you doing?" And so he was tracking me, I guess, under my, with my cellphone...

[00:09:19] Bob: Oh my God.

[00:09:20] Susan Bivins: And knew when I left town. And so I mean this just, ev--, this went on for several weeks of tracking me and knowing what I was doing, and, and questioning and challenging everything that I was doing.

[00:09:34] Bob: That sounds so creepy.

[00:09:36] Susan Bivins: Oh, it was. I was part of a, I have a quilting business, and which he knew about. I was a vendor at an art festival here in Anaconda, and he texted me and said, "What are you doing? I, I can see where you're at a big park where there's a lot of people around." I had to send him a picture of my vendor booth and my quilting and so he knew that's where I was. So I mean it was so terrifying to have him constantly watching me and knowing what was happening.

[00:10:08] Bob: I mean that just sounds like it would make you insane.

[00:10:11] Susan Bivins: It, I was, I was, and I was so afraid.

[00:10:14] Bob: So this kind of daily monitoring goes on for three weeks. Remember, Susan was told she can't tell anyone about what's going on.

[00:10:24] Bob: Wow. It sounds like torture.

[00:10:26] Susan Bivins: It was, yeah, it was really torture, and, and you know, just not being able to share with anybody and my family was here and I wanted so badly to talk to them, but I was so afraid and...

[00:10:37] Bob: So you had to pretend nothing was wrong in front of them.

[00:10:39] Susan Bivins: Right, yeah, I was having to constantly pretend.

[00:10:42] Bob: Finally after nearly a month of being under investigation, Randall calls with good news. Susan is cleared. She's no longer a suspect. But there's still a problem. Criminals are still accessing her financial accounts, and Randall switches from Susan's investigator to her protector.

[00:11:03] Susan Bivins: But they have all this information about me now, so we got to protect you, you know. That's what he kept saying. "We have to protect you from these culprits because they have all this information."

[00:11:14] Bob: And instead of him being kind of like on the other side of the table...

[00:11:17] Susan Bivins: Right.

[00:11:18] Bob: Right now you're, now you're a team.

[00:11:20] Susan Bivins: Now, oh yes, and see, and that's when he became friendly and you know, "How was your day? What was your weather? I'm glad this is, uh you know, we're able to do this for you to protect your money"...

[00:11:32] Bob: And they have to act fast because...

[00:11:36] Susan Bivins: These culprits, he kept calling them culprits, had accessed my information, they were going to get all my savings account, all my money.

[00:11:45] Bob: So Randall comes to Susan with a plan. She has to move all her savings into accounts that the culprits can't access.

[00:11:53] Susan Bivins: So he had me draw out all the money I had in my savings account and go to the local Walmart, which was in Butte, and take it out in cash, and then he would send me codes, bar codes that I was to send through MoneyGrams to protect this money. And the DEA was opening up a US Treasury secured locker that my money would be transferred into, and then once this was all settled the DEA agent would come with a cashier's check for the amount of money that I had put in this locker, and then I could open up another account and have my money.

[00:12:36] Bob: Over the course of several days, Susan withdraws money in stages, $5000 at a time, $10,000 at a time. And carefully follows Randall's instructions, removing money from her savings account, from her retirement account. Meanwhile, Randall says the investigation is making headway.

[00:12:56] Susan Bivins: At various points he would send me information that we're, we're zeroing in on these culprits, and he sent me pictures of when they arrested someone that they, all the paraphernalia that they found when they arrested him.

[00:13:11] Bob: In just a few days, Susan has gone from being a suspect of a crime under constant surveillance to being in a race to protect her life savings from criminals, and still, she can't tell anyone. It's a dizzying time. But she has a nagging feeling that something is wrong, and after one $20,000 transaction, she tells Randall...

[00:13:36] Susan Bivins: I came home, and I was thinking, you know, this just doesn't sound right. And so I texted Randall, and I said, "I think that this is a fraud. You're scamming me. I'm not going to send any more money, and I think I'm going to call law enforcement." And he immediately called me, and he said, "Fine. You're calling a federal go--, a agent a liar?" He said, "I am issuing a warrant for your arrest right now, and there will be an agent within 24 hours to arrest you for calling me a liar." And of course, then that scares the bejeebies out of ya.

[00:14:10] Bob: He said it was a crime to accuse him of, of being fraudulent.

[00:14:14] Susan Bivins: Yeah, yeah. So then I backed off and went, okay. And he said, and then he's, he turned really nice. "I'm just trying to protect you. I want to see your money protected from these culprits that have all this information about you."

[00:14:27] Bob: Before long, just about all of Susan's money has been transferred, and Randall texts Susan a picture of the cashier's check that he will send to her so she can put it all in a new safe account.

[00:14:39] Susan Bivins: And he kept saying, as soon as we get this all done, the money transferred then I will have a DEA agent come with your cashier's check. And then he sent me another copy of the cashier's check with the total amount of the retirement fund and the cash that he had, that I, that was in there.

[00:14:57] Bob: And, and he had you move it in you know, $5000 at a time or so?

[00:15:00] Susan Bivins: Right. Yes. No, the retirement money was wire transferred into a, an account.

[00:15:06] Bob: Oh, I see. So how, how many of these transfers in total do you think took place?

[00:15:12] Susan Bivins: Uh, well one wire transfer for the retirement funds, but the, the cash through MoneyGrams, oh gosh, he had me go twice and $20,000 at each time. So $5,000 increments, so it was, you know, $40,000 altogether, plus the retirement. So you know we're looking at $240,000 um, money total.

[00:15:38] Bob: And when all the $240,000 has been transferred, Randall says it's time for him to send Susan that check. But there's a delay.

[00:15:48] Susan Bivins: He kept telling me that they had everything settled and they had the cashier's checks ready, but he was having trouble finding a DEA agent in Montana to come and give me the check, which yeah, you know, that kinda makes sense, okay. Yeah, they're not on every corner here, because he had told me at one time it would be on Friday, and then he said, "I can't get an agent there till Monday." And then he called me on, or he texted me on Monday and said, "I'm still having trouble getting an agent, but within the week, I will have an agent."

[00:16:20] Bob: But now the timing is bad for Susan. She has a long planned trip coming up with family. And that is making things even more complicated.

[00:16:29] Susan Bivins: I was leaving that week to go on a two-week Alaska cruise that I had paid for and had been planning for two years with family and friends. And so I said, "Well, you know, I, I would like to have the money before I leave." "Oh yeah, we'll get it to you, we'll get it to you."

[00:16:49] Bob: But that doesn't happen. Instead Randall tells Susan to keep in touch during the cruise so he can update her on the status of her money.

[00:16:57] Susan Bivins: And I said, "Well, you know, when you're on cruise ships, you don't always have cell service. And he got real chatty about, "Oh yes," he said, "I took my daughter and wife on a cruise in, in Alaska and oh, we enjoyed it so much, and I know how cell service is, and..." but he said, "Do the best you can. Call me when you're in ports and letting me, or texting me," you know, "where you are." And he said, "As soon as you get back, I'll have the money for you." So I went through two weeks with family and friends and never said a word to them about all of this.

[00:17:27] Bob: Wow, you spent your entire cruise and were able to keep this horrible secret, wow.

[00:17:30] Susan Bivins: Yeah.

[00:17:32] Bob: But just as the vacation is about to end, Susan makes a discovery which sheds a whole new light on Randall.

[00:17:40] Susan Bivins: On a Thursday before we were due back on a Saturday, I checked my checking account and $4600 had been transferred out of my checking account to a, another, it was like a wire transfer. And I had not authorized that. I texted Randall right away and said, "$4600 has been removed out of my checking account. Did you do this?" And he said immediately, "No, we don't have access to your checking account. We would have never done that. The culprits have gotten into your account, and this is why we were trying to protect you." And so I said, "I'm calling the bank and putting a freeze on my account, so no more activity." And at that point I had $200 in my checking account. That was it.

[00:18:26] Bob: Oh my God.

[00:18:27] Susan Bivins: I know. Now I, I mean no money. I had, I had three or four hundred dollars of cash on me on the trip, on the vacation, but I had, didn't have enough money to cover any debit card payments on the thing. So anyway, I called the bank, put a freeze on it, a hold, and said I would be in first thing Monday morning.

[00:18:48] Bob: And it's not until she walks into the bank on Monday morning that the gravity of the situation hits Susan.

[00:18:54] Susan Bivins: So I went into the bank and I told the gal at the bank, who I knew, you know, in small towns you know everybody and, and she was, I just, I broke down and started just bawling and I said, "All my money is gone," and, you know, "I've been a victim of this," and um, she said, "You need to go to the police right now." And she says, "We will reimburse the $4600, so you can open up another account with a little bit of money," because there again, I had not taken that money out. So they covered that. But she explained, "We can't do the other because you willingly took all that money out."

[00:19:30] Bob: Susan goes right to police, but she also keeps chatting with Randall thinking maybe, just maybe, she can help catch the criminal, or get some of her money back.

[00:19:40] Susan Bivins: I told Randall when I got back in that Monday and filled that, that I was going to police, I was, that this was a scam. I was filling out all of the forms and reporting this to law enforcement. And he kept wanting to know what was the investigation? What was the bank doing? Were they finding out anything? He kept texting me and I kept the lines open because I thought maybe if FBI or someone would be able to track him with the communication through the messages. And he kept texting me and wanting to know how I was, and wanting to know, "So sorry this is happening, and those culprits are, are, I mean they're so clever and," you know, and I, at this point I knew he was lying to me. But I just kept, you know, staying online with him to try to give them some opportunities to find him.

[00:20:32] Bob: How long did you keep communicating with the criminal?

[00:20:34] Susan Bivins: Um, probably about 10 days after, and then, and he, then he sent me a text that said, "I'm going to be calling you because I have a DEA agent with your check. And I am making arrangements. You need to answer the phone when I call so that I can get the address correct for this agent to come with the check." And I thought for a minute, is he really truthful? I mean is someone going to come with a check for this amount of money? So I called the FBI office to ask them, what should I do? And the, she talked to the agent, or an agent and then the receptionist came back on and said, "The agent says you need to block his calls, not answering this, this is another scam that he's trying to get more information from you," and so well I did not answer the phone, and I blocked the call at that time. But the last thing I said to him, I did before I blocked it, I said, "Randall, or whoever you are, you should be ashamed of yourself for, for pulling this scam on me." And I said, "I wonder what your mother would think if she knew you were doing this." And then I said, "Karma's a (bleep), and you're going to get yours." And then I blocked it and haven't had any con--, any contact with him since. So...

[00:21:58] Bob: I'm glad you got to have your say.

[00:22:00] Susan Bivins: I did, I had my say and, you know, whether he'll ever, anything will ever happen to him, but whatever, I felt better.

[00:22:10] Bob: In the end, none of that helps, however, because the FBI tells Susan they just can't help her.

[00:22:16] Susan Bivins: Nobody ever followed up or did anything with it, so but I have kept copies of all the text messages, I have all the receipts. I have copies of the wire transfer information, and, and FBI just didn't want them, didn't do anything, you know, they, they said the accounts are closed immediately after they, the money is transferred. And so there, and I, and I said to the guy when he talked to me, I said, "How do you know those accounts were closed? You didn't even bother to find out and, and try to see if there was still someone available that you could go after." He said, "Well, our experience is that, that these, this is how it works, and we just don't have the resources," and that's what he kept saying. "We don't have the resources."

[00:23:01] Bob: That's just so frustrating to hear.

[00:23:03] Susan Bivins: I know, it really is.

[00:23:05] Bob: And now that the reality of her situation has set in, Susan realizes she's got some hard choices ahead of her.

[00:23:12] Susan Bivins: At this point, the only people that knew was the gal at the bank and the local policeman, detective. So I, then I, for two days, I'm trying to think, how am I going to survive? I just have my Social Security income. That's it. There's no other money. And I have no savings. And I knew my house payment was more than what I could make. And so I said, I've got to sell my house, and at that time last summer, houses were selling like hotcakes in Anaconda, and it was a good time for me to sell. But I needed to tell family and friends why I was selling my beautiful house that I loved so much, so I knew I had to bite the bullet and, and tell them. So I called my sister, and I, no, I texted her, and asked her if she would set up a conference call with my two brothers and her and I, 'cause I had something I needed to talk to her, to them about. And I wanted to do it at one time. I didn't want to have to tell, you know, four different stories. And right away she said, "Are you okay?" thinking there was something medically wrong with me. I said, "No, I'm physically I'm fine, but," I said, "there's something I need to tell you about." So anyway, she set it up. I got them all on the phone and shared my story. And they, although my, my older brother is a very um, oh, how do I want to put it, he's very strong-willed and he's very matter of fact, and you know, he, I thought he would be very critical of me. And my sister tends to be a little bit more that way. I'm the trusting one of the family. I believe everybody and I, you know, I'm the caretaker. I'm the oldest. I'm the, you know, being a nurse, I'm the, the caregiver and always taking care of things. Soo anyway, I kinda thought there would be a how, how could you be so stupid, you know, how could you fall for that. And there wasn't any of that. They were all so supporting. The only thing my sister said was, "I cannot believe we spent two weeks together on the cruise and you did not tell me this was going on." And I said, "Yeah. It was, it was really hard." And then I had my son come over and I told him, and he was very supportive, and he said, "Mom, don't, you know, worry. We will take care of you. We will make sure you're okay," and but I did feel I needed to sell the house and get something smaller.

[00:25:35] Bob: The family is incredibly kind and supportive, and Susan is fortunate to have some retirement income, but with her savings stolen, she makes the painful choice to downsize her home and her expectations about retirement.

[00:25:50] Susan Bivins: I went from a over 2,000 sq. ft. house to a 500 sq. ft. house. So but I found a cute little house that meets my ne--, basic needs, and I still am dealing with all of the stuff out of the big house that I didn't have time to get rid of. I'm still dealing with it, but you know my little house, I made a, a good amount on the sale of my big house. My little house is, my payments are very minimal that I'm, I'm able to live on my Social Security. I, you know, made good Social Security from being an RN all those years. And so I'm managing, but I had trips that I still wanted to travel and do. And that I've had to reduce those. I do little trips, but day trips, but none of the, I wanted to go to Ireland and England, and I'm not going to be able to afford to do it the way I wanted to. You know, it's just vacations and, and being able to go and do things that I was still planning on doing, I'm, I'm not. But you know, I'm, I'm living, I'm, I'm healthy. I have good family and friend support and if I can just help one person not be sucked into this, um, you know, that's, that's why I'm doing this.

[00:27:05] Bob: That's why she's doing this, talking to us, also talking to groups about her experience. Susan has actually volunteered to tell her story all around Montana, at churches and at clubs working with the Montana Attorney General's Office and Adult Protective Services. That's part of her recovery, she says.

[00:27:25] Susan Bivins: Once I started talking to people, it became easier, and I realized that it, it's helping me heal, you know. I still have periods of anger, um, you know, I, things are so crowded in my little house and I sometimes just uh, have a little meltdown about having to move things around to get to what I want and can't find something, and, so you know, I have that. But they're less and less, and I went through the whole grieving process, you know, the stages of grief; the, the denial, and the, the anger and the frustration and the hurt and the, you know, everything.

[00:28:01] Bob: Another benefit of giving talks, Susan is reminded that she's not alone.

[00:28:08] Bob: What kind of reactions do you get from people when you give these talks?

[00:28:10] Susan Bivins: Oh, everybody has been so supportive and, and they, they like to share their stories of situations that have happened. None of them, they all start with my, my situation was nothing like what you went through. Things like they get phone calls from supposedly their grandson that's in prison, that's in jail down in Mexico and wire transfer money and then they go, wait a minute. I know my grandson's not in Mexico or just things like that. A couple of, I have had one woman who was anonymous got in touch with me to tell me she had a similar situation and her family, her husband and her family were so angry with her that her husband's divorced her, she's lost her home, her family is not talking to her, and oh, that just broke my heart thinking that she went through all of that and didn't have support unlike me who had really good family support.

[00:29:14] Bob: So, so much more than money is stolen from victims who are attacked by these professional criminals. In Susan's situation, the criminal's story was so believable because Susan's bank account had been hacked. So when the criminal called saying there was additional fraud on her account, that made sense, and this is a disturbing development that criminals who hack into bank accounts have developed an even more insidious and profitable way to monetize that hacked account by going back to victims after the fact. And since victims often get so little help from official channels, that opens the door for criminals to go back and steal even more money from them. More on that in a moment, but first, it is great that Susan is using her experience to help others, and after talking with her, we spoke to Austin Knudsen, Attorney General of Montana about Susan's partnership with the office.

[00:30:11] Austin Knudsen: Well the immediate reaction is anger, right. I mean the fact that this happened to, to, to a person, and an older individual here in Montana, especially someone who's moved to Montana right. We like to be viewed as a, as a friendly, safe place to be, and for Susan to move to Montana and, and become victimized by a, an international scammer almost as soon as she got here that, that's pretty upsetting. We're trying to help her out as much as we can, but yeah absolutely, it's not a huge office that we have over at Consumer Protection, but hers is obviously a, a, a heinous case and you know the, the, the federal response has not been great, and so we're, we're trying to do as much as we can for her.

[00:30:52] Bob: The Attorney General said he is glad that Susan is doing as much as she can to help other Montanans.

[00:30:58] Austin Knudsen: I'm glad that she's doing that, and the fact that she's been willing to, to step up and, and put herself out there and admit, yeah, this happened to me, and here's how it happened, and here's, here's, here's the steps this person took, I think an ounce of prevention here is, is worth a pound of cure, right. Like we, we're, we're trying to recover funds, we're trying to go after these, these bad actors, but the fact is, probably international, probably part of a larger organization, and, and we probably don't have the tools nor the jurisdiction here in Montana to reach them. And so, what we've really got to do here is focus on prevention on the front side, educate as many people as we can. So the fact that Susan is out there telling her story, I, I think that's just outstanding and, and very, very valuable.

[00:31:41] Bob: Can you talk a little bit more about why it is hard to help someone who's in Susan's position?

[00:31:46] Austin Knudsen: Well, it's difficult just legally from the state standpoint. You know, we've got, we've got jurisdiction within the state of Montana we, you know when, when, when a crime occurs within our boundaries or, or to a, an individual located in the state of Montana, generally we have jurisdiction. So I mean even if this individual was located in another state, we probably still would be able to partner with that other state, you know, get a warrant out for, for an individual, get them arrested and get them extradited back to Montana. That's assuming you know who the person is. And that really is the, the crux of the dif--, of, of the difficulty here. We don't know who this person is. He provided a name, clearly not his actual name. Very likely this was a, a person not even located within the United States. We see a lot of these scams come from international sources. When it comes time to actually getting somebody internationally arrested and brought back to Montana, I mean at that point you're talking about the federal government, right. The, the state of Montana we, we do not have legal jurisdiction to put out an international arrest warrant and, and get somebody extradited back to Montana to face state charges. So that's why we're talking with the FBI, right.

[00:32:55] Bob: We've talked a lot on this podcast about the reaction that some local law enforcement officials have when these crimes are reported. "There is nothing we can do. You voluntarily sent the money, so there's no crime," that kind of thing. So I asked the Attorney General what could be done to improve the victim experience.

[00:33:14] Bob: One of the other things that she complained to me about was when she went to her local police, they kind of shrugged it off and you know, she had some information about this person and when she said can, can you investigate them, their response, as she told me was, "You know, this isn't television. We don't, we don’t do that here. Uh is, is there anything that could be done on the, the law enforcement end of things that could make, make things a little bit easier for victims when they come forward do you think?

[00:33:38] Austin Knudsen: Well, I mean that, that, that's a complicated issue, and I'll, I'll talk about this just from my own background, right. Like I'm, I'm a former county prosecutor el--, elected county attorney in a very, very rural Montana county. I, I had a very small rural sheriff's office that I, that I worked with. And not unlike Susan's situation here, you know, An--, Anaconda is not a, not a large, bustling metropolis with, with a huge police department and a huge sheriff's office. I mean they; they don't have a ton of resources. I, I guarantee they do not have any kind of computer forensic division. Almost all of that work in, in almost all of those cases actually comes to Helena here to the, to the Department of Justice for, for our Division of Criminal Investigation to look into. It's, it's a matter of resources for a lot of those small agencies. So I will say and, and this was a big push for, for us during the last legislative session, our, our legislature literally just adjourned last week, that was a big push for, for us to educate legislators. You know like we, it's, it's not 1992 anymore. You know our state population is increasing. We are seeing increased crime. We're seeing more of this you know "high tech" crime, and I think Susan's case falls under that when you're talking about you know wire transfers and money and, and barcoded transactions. We're, we're seeing more of this. And so it was a real challenge for us to educate 150 legislators that come to Helena you know every other year for 90 days that, that a) this is a problem, and that b) we need more resources.

[00:35:16] Bob: I hear all the time that when people are victims of a crime like this, you know, where there's no blood, where there's no car missing, they walk in and they say, you know I, I sent $50,000 to a person I thought I was in love with online. And you know often the first in--, interaction they have with law enforcement is, is pretty negative. Something, something along the lines of, well you know, you sent them money. There's no crime here, that sort of thing. Is there anything more that, that we can do that your office can do to help that frontline interaction go better?

[00:35:45] Austin Knudsen: Yeah, I don't know that we definitely can. And, and we definitely should and, and, and we are taking some steps toward that. I mean I, one of the biggest things we've done here in my office is, is we actually, since I've taken over, we have moved the elder justice and, and the fraud, fraud and scam division actually out of our Consumer Protection Division, because I think just that, right, I mean that the fact that we've got it in a division that isn't overtly criminal, criminal investigatory, I think that sends a message. Right, I mean that, that tells people in Montana when they call the Department of Justice, they're hoping to talk to a DCI agent or, you know, some sort of law enforcement, and, and when they're a victim of a scam, and they get sent to somebody at Consumer Protection, I think that, that automatically maybe leaves a bit of a bad taste. So I mean what, what we've actually done here within the last year of my administration, we've, we've moved all those scam and elder justice positions, we've moved them into our Division of Criminal Investigation. We've actually put them, put that, we call that DCI here in Montana. We've moved them under DCI and, and made them DCI agents and the idea there is you've got agents now who are treating this like it is a crime, because it is. I mean it, it, this isn't a victimless crime. This, this isn't a, this isn't an oh, you just wrote somebody a, a wrong check. I mean this, this is theft. This is theft, this is fraud. Those are crimes in Montana, and they need to be treated as such.

[00:37:10] Bob: I, I would think that uh Montana is in kind of a unique place as well. A lot of people, for good reason, reasons I understand, want to retire to Montana. And so you're, you're getting residents like Susan who move there, you know have, have a decent nest egg, um, and that makes them targets. And so I, I would guess this might be a, kind of a new and important priority for, for people in Montana, no?

[00:37:33] Austin Knudsen: Well, it absolutely is, and I mean that, and the data bears this out for us. I mean we're, we're an aging state. So yeah, I think we're going to keep seeing more of this. It's going to keep becoming a bigger and bigger issue. And it's, it's one that we're going to have to be dedicating more and more time to here at the Department of Justice and, and also at, at the local level for sure.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:37:51] Bob: As you know from this podcast, AARP has invested a lot of time and energy drawing attention to these kinds of crimes. Let's face it, there is an epidemic of scams. And the whole point of this podcast is to get people to take these crimes more seriously. That's also the driving force behind all the work Kathy Stokes does at AARP. And we wanted to talk with her about why these frontline interactions with law enforcement, the experience Susan Bivins had is such a problem, and how it actually enables criminals.

[00:38:24] Kathy Stokes: I'm the Director of Fraud Prevention Programs for AARP, based out of Washington DC. And my team and I, run a program called the AARP Fraud Watch Network.

[00:38:34] Bob: And what is the Fraud Watch Network?

[00:38:36] Kathy Stokes: We're really all about prevention by education, helping people understand, especially older people understand the significant risks that their finances face to an ever growing epidemic of fraud in this country. We also provide support to victims and their families through various offerings as well.

[00:38:57] Bob: Kathy got flat out furious when she heard about the reactions Susan received from her local police. Furious because it's not unusual.

[00:39:07] Kathy Stokes: The fact that she tried to get help and she was so dismissed by law enforcement. This is a crime; she had no way of knowing what she was engaging is in was criminal, yet she gets no support from law enforcement, fundamentally changes her life. I mean she's still; I mean she, she's resilient and you've got to love that, but she lost everything to an almost unrecognizable act by criminals. And the FBI wouldn't even help her. They wouldn't even give her the time of day.

[00:39:48] Bob: The first reaction that she got when she went to law enforcement, something along the lines of well, sorry, nothing we can do. How common is that?

[00:39:56] Kathy Stokes: All too common. I know a lot of law enforcement that are in the financial crimes space, and a lot of them get it. They understand that fraud is a crime, and they'll take the report. They probably won't investigate because there is just this tendency to believe that everything happens overseas, and it would be for a lost cause. But too many law enforcement don't ever even take the report because they say, well, there's nothing we can do about it, or blame them by saying, well hey, you know, what, you gave them your money.

[00:40:29] Bob: There is a spectrum there and I, you know I framed it as, "well there's nothing we can do," but the, the truth is, at least from the sense I got talking with her was that she got that even worse reaction, which is well why, why did you do this?

[00:40:42] Kathy Stokes: Exactly.

[00:40:43] Bob: Not only is there, there no crime, but it, you know, you're a willing participant.

[00:40:47] Kathy Stokes: Absolutely.

[00:40:48] Bob: How common, how common is that?

[00:40:49] Kathy Stokes: That's an, well, you know, common enough that AARP starting about three years ago really started kind of going deep on this, the sense that we blame victims of financial crimes for the, for the crime they experienced, and we ended up doing a, a paper on it, and you know, we found that yep, we do blame, and because we blame, we've deprioritized fraud as a crime. I didn't know myself in 2018 when I became the interim director and then director of the Fraud Watch Network, that fraud was considered a crime. Never even entered my mind because we don't talk about it that way. So of course when you report to law enforcement, you know they immediately, well that's not a crime. You know, call a lawyer.

[00:41:35] Bob: Changing that requires a mental shift on behalf of many people. Law enforcement, victims, family and friends.

[00:41:43] Kathy Stokes: We're trying to get the message out there of empathy, of trying to understand what the intent was of if you're a caregiver for your mom or your dad for example, what was mom's intent when she got a call that made her believe that her grandson, your kid, was in jail for a DUI and he had been in an accident that harmed a pregnant woman who was probably going to lose the baby. Her intent was to protect her grandson, to help her grandson in any way possible so that when that happens and she sends $10,000 thinking she's sending it to, for bail or for a lawyer or whatever, and then realizes it was fraud, understand that she was trying to protect your son. We have to just try to understand what the intent was, understand that and, and I keep saying this, but especially with AI, ChatGPT, all of this, fraud crime is hard to detect quite often anyway, but virtually unrecognizable. We cannot blame people for, for experiencing a crime that you can't even see is a crime.

[00:42:53] Bob: We can't blame people for being victims of crimes that they can't even recognize that maybe even artificial intelligence has designed, and we can't do nothing because there really is an epidemic of fraud right now.

[00:43:07] Kathy Stokes: Well, you know, don't really know how much fraud is out there. We can only have indications based on reports, and we know it's severely underreported in this country, but if you just look at data from the Federal Trade Commission, you look at the reports from 2019 just before the pandemic kicked in, losses reported were at 2.4 billion, but you look at 2022 with the report they came out with recently, and 2022 saw 9 billion dollars in losses.

[00:43:40] Bob: Wow.

[00:43:41] Kathy Stokes: We know that that's the tip of the iceberg. Then the FBI's IC3 comes out several months later, they're only looking at cybercrime, yet cybercrime reported to them was 10.3 billion, even more than what the FTC reported for all fraud.

[00:43:57] Bob: So much fraud that according to Kathy, in some cases law enforcement has decided not to even bother trying to track it. At least one state official told her that.

[00:44:08] Kathy Stokes: They are no longer going to take fraud complaints because they take up too much time.

[00:44:15] Bob: That's almost astonishing to hear. Can you say that again?

[00:44:18] Kathy Stokes: (chuckles) This Attorney General's Office told me that they are so inundated with fraud calls, and it takes uh, so much time that they're warned to stop taking the calls.

[00:44:30] Bob: There's just too much murder going on. We can't deal with it anymore.

[00:44:32] Kathy Stokes: Right.

[00:44:33] Bob: Oh my goodness.

[00:44:34] Kathy Stokes: Take the cop off the street.

[00:44:36] Bob: Even law enforcement agents, well all of us really with the best of intentions can have trouble when faced with a real life victim of a terrible fraud. Why do humans have this seemingly pre-wired urge to blame victims?

[00:44:50] Kathy Stokes: Well I think there, there are a couple of things happening, but we, we've given ourselves this illusion of invincibility when it comes to scams. And we don't believe it's ever going to happen to us. Every victim that becomes a victim never believes it's going to happen to them. We believe that it always happens to somebody else, it will never happen to us. And so we tend to look at the victim as having done something wrong or not known something, or maybe they have cognitive decline, because the other part of this is it's, there are these ageist assumptions that this only happens to older adults who have some cognitive decline happening, and that's so not true. I mean if that were true, then you wouldn't see younger people experiencing the same crimes and losing money.

[00:45:43] Bob: Why and how does this attitude, in some ways, actually enable the criminals?

[00:45:48] Kathy Stokes: We don't take take fraud seriously. And because we have spent decades looking at it as the individual's fault, we don't do anything more than education. This country has relied on, we've got to tell people so that, so that they know about it, so they don't get scammed, and people are still saying that in 2023 when tens of billions of dollars continue to leave our economy. If you're a family member of somebody who has experienced fraud, you'll know that it's not just a, a financial impact, even when the financial impact is ruinous. The emotional impact is so often worse that we also know two and three people who experience fraud experience at least one significant health or emotional impact. So it's the whole person that is affected, it's the whole family that is affected, and we're driving tens of billions of dollars out of our country knowingly and not doing anything about it because well, they should have known better.

[00:46:59] Bob: Fixing this problem is going to take a big, big push by people in many walks of life.

[00:47:06] Kathy Stokes: Well, you know, we have seen our society respond when other major issues have, you know, come to bear. That we see, for example, human trafficking of, of exploited children. Maybe it's time that the uh, that the United States put together some sort of national center where it would be a bunch of data analysts looking at all the data that are out there that very few people are actually looking at to, to pull the cases together and, and create a, an investigation. Have them create the investigative package to pass off to federal law enforcement. Maybe it's time we do something like that, because we're not doing, not only are we not doing enough, we're almost doing nothing. I say this all the time, but I'm never going to stop saying it until we do something meaningful, and that is fraud is at a crisis level, and we cannot educate our way out of it. We have to do something meaningful as a society. It starts with thinking about fraud differently, understanding that it is not the victim's fault. It does not mean there's something wrong with that person. If it's an older adult, it does not suggest cognitive decline. Help spread this message, help people understand that this is a crime, it is the fastest growing crime in this country, and that we have to take meaningful action to begin to put an end to it.

[00:48:43] Bob: We have to take meaningful action to put an end to it. Absolutely. For The Perfect Scam, I'm Bob Sullivan.

(MUSIC OUTRO)

[00:48:57] 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; Associate Producer, Annalea Embree; Researcher, Sarah Binney; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; and our Audio Engineer and Sound Designer, 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

Retiree Susan moves from California to a beautiful Victorian home in Montana to be closer to her son and his growing family. One day, Susan notices some unusual charges from her Amazon account. She takes all the necessary steps to dispute and resolve the charges, but a few weeks later, she receives a call from “Amazon” informing her of additional fraudulent activity on her account. This call and the subsequent investigation by a man posing as a DEA agent, will put everything that Susan has, including that Victorian home, in jeopardy.

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