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FBI and Grandmother Bring Down Crime Ring, Part 1

A grandmother gets a frantic call from her “grandson” saying he’s been in a terrible accident

spinner image illustration of a hand coming out of a smart phone with a quote that says "Grandma, please help! I need $9,000!"
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spinner image infographic with the quote: "He had been on the line advising me, I'm waiting for him to give me more details and there's nothing. He's Gone. There was dead silence.
Full Transcript

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:00:02] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.

[00:00:03] Bob: So you lift up the phone in your ear and then, and you hear nothing. 

[00:00:06] Susan Donald: Nothing. There was dead silence. I'm walking back to my family room to sit down, and there's nothing. He had been on the line you know advising me, telling me, and doing all these details, take this, do it this way. I'm, you know, waiting for him to give me some more details and there's nothing. He's gone. 

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:00:29] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan. Today's story includes some pretty wild emotional swings. A grandmother who's arrested with $180,000. Another grandmother who I'm sure you'll soon agree, is a hero. And a dogged FBI agent who in addition to being pretty good at catching criminals, was once a contestant on the reality TV show, Survivor. But let's start with the hero.

[00:00:59] I am Susan Donald. And I am in San Diego, California.

[00:01:05] Bob: And how long have you lived there?

[00:01:08] Susan Donald: Oh, I was born in San Diego. I, I am the original owner of the home that I live in.

[00:01:14] Bob: So you must really like San Diego.

[00:01:16] Susan Donald: I love San Diego. We have everything very close too.

[00:01:20] Bob: Tell me why.

[00:01:22] Susan Donald: Oh, the weather, of course. The access to anything within 15 minutes; the beaches, the mountains. We have theater, we have the best of restaurants.

[00:01:34] Bob: Susan's husband died three years ago, and she was just getting used to the idea of living alone when she had to deal with the isolation of COVID. But Susan was doing okay with that.

[00:01:45] Susan Donald: I have a nice home, and I love to read, and you know I, it, it wasn't, for a lot of people it was, it was difficult, but I order my groceries, you know I could do everything online or you know so I, I really, I didn't mind it too much.

[00:02:03] Bob: But she was also dealing with another family issue. Her grandson, 18 at the time, was at a rehab center in Texas dealing with addiction issues.

[00:02:13] Susan Donald: This was a new situation with the grandson in Texas, you know, that he was there and you know going through what he was, and doing well, but still, it was a precarious position, you know, and situation.

[00:02:26] Bob: Then one day, still pretty early on in the pandemic, Susan suddenly has something much more pressing to worry about.

[00:02:34] Susan Donald: It was pretty much a slow morning again with COVID, and now that my husband is gone, I was here alone. And it was quiet. So I was just, you know, I enjoy my paper in the morning. I don't think I'd even started it though. I, I was, I, I hadn't been up too long. So it was just a quiet morning where I was relaxing and, and not doing anything.

[00:02:56] Bob: Not doing anything until...(phone ring)...a strange phone call pierces her quiet morning. (phone ring)

[00:03:03] Susan Donald: It rang, oh 9:30 or 10, and I'm not an early riser, so first call. And something I ordinarily don't do is answer phone calls where I can. I do screen my calls. This one said, "private caller" and I, I hesitated. I have a few clients. I was a tax, professional tax preparer, a consultant with the IRS, and I had a few clients that had "private caller" so I thought ah, it could be one of them, so I answered it.

[00:03:33] Bob: And on the other end of the phone is a frightened voice that says...

[00:03:37] Susan Donald: "Hi, Grandma. Um, I, I just, I'm calling you because I was just in an accident."

[00:03:46] Bob: I was just in an accident. It's exactly the kind of call every parent, every grandparent dreads. Frantic, he describes what had just happened. It's not your run of the mill fender bender. Someone is seriously hurt.

[00:04:02] Susan Donald: "I, I was on my way to the doctor. I ran into a woman..." and, and he's panicked and explaining to me that he, he was going to, because of him hitting this woman and her being injured, she was going to, that he, they were going to take him to jail and begging me to do something to help him. And I, I said, "Who... is this you, Brandon?" And that's his, my grandson's name that was in Texas at that time. And he was in a halfway house so to speak for treatment. He had just got out of it and got an apartment. So I thought, oh my gosh, you know, this is horrible. And, and, and but I said, "Your voice sounds different." "Oh I, I, I have a cold, that's why I was going to the doctor."

[00:04:46] Bob: I mean that sounds like a terrifying phone call to get.

[00:04:48] Susan Donald: It was.

[00:04:50] Bob: News of the accident, of the injured woman, of her grandson possibly going to jail, it's all awful to hear. But given his situation, well that makes things even worse.

[00:05:01] Susan Donald: I was just, I went, oh my gosh, that's the last thing he needs is to go to jail. He's doing so well, he's recovering. And now, this is happening. He was scared to death. I mean you could tell, and his voice was, of course, frantic. And begging me not to call his parents. He didn't want them to know. He was, you know, embarrassed. And he would, had been doing so well where he was.

[00:05:27] Bob: Of course, Susan's first impulse is to figure out how she can help him.

[00:05:32] Susan Donald: And so, you know you're, you're, you're a grandparent, and one thing we grandparents do well most of it is, you know, take care of our grandchildren and love them and, and do anything for them that we can. So you know it's kind of a special position you fill as a grandparent.

[00:05:48] Bob: To make matters worse, as the call continues, Brandon explains that he's in even more trouble because the woman he hit was pregnant, and she's badly injured. She might lose the baby. It's all so confusing, but as Susan tried to calm him down, he says there's a chance he can avoid going to jail and get back to that apartment tonight.

[00:06:13] Susan Donald: He said he had a contact that could, you know, could help him avoid going to jail. And would I help him? "My friend has an attorney that can help me, and he can come on the line. Would you, would you help me, Grandma, would you do that?"

[00:06:29] Bob: Susan says, yes, of course, she'll help. And then she waits.

[00:06:34] Susan Donald: There was a pause, another long pause, you know 15, 30 seconds, and this real official sounding person a, an att--, using attorney-speak came on the phone saying, "Hi."

[00:06:50] Bob: The man says he can help Brandon, but only if they act quickly.

[00:06:55] Susan Donald: He had a connection with the judge in the city where I was, how this judge owed, owed him a favor and if I did this fast enough, you know, if we got it in in a few hours we could avoid my grandson being taken to jail. But we'd have to do this really quick because it had to, they had to have the money, later I would be getting back, you know when, you know when he went to court of whatever happened, you know after, after he avoided jail.

[00:07:29] Bob: And he stresses to Susan, "Don't tell a soul." He says...

[00:07:35] Susan Donald: "You can't tell anyone because that nullifies our agreement, and then it won't be effective." I mentioned to him, "Well how do you know my grandson?" "Well my son knows your grandson, and he's such a, he's, he's such a good person. We wouldn't want anything to happen. But I can arrange this. The only thing is, it has to be done quickly."

[00:07:53] Bob: The price for Brandon's freedom would be...

[00:07:57] Susan Donald: He told me, uh, I had to give them $9,000 and again, I only had so much time because of the time gap between here and there, and the courts being open and everything else, so and, and again I couldn't tell anyone or it would nullify the whole thing.

[00:08:16] Bob: Susan doesn't have cash like that in the house, so she dashes off to get it.

[00:08:21] Susan Donald: I get in the car, quickly, because I only have so much time. And go to the, in my case, the credit union. And go in, wait in line, act like nothing's going on, and which was hard to do when you're nervous. And I had you know, enough in my savings that I could just ask them to, you know, withdraw that much money in cash. And...

[00:08:48] Bob: Did anybody ask you any questions as to, to why you needed it?

[00:08:50] Susan Donald: None, none. He had told me if they did, to say it was for home improvements.

[00:08:56] Bob: Did you get 90 hundred dollar bills; I mean do you remember what it felt like?

[00:08:59] Susan Donald: You know, I can't remember. I know it was a lot of money. (chuckled)

[00:09:07] Bob: Had you ever held that much cash in your before?

[00:08:69] Susan Donald: I don't think so. I really don't think so.

[00:09:11] Bob: So you, you walk back to the car, I'm guessing you're probably nervous someone was probably going to rob your money, right?

[00:09:15] Susan Donald: Well, you know, your mind is so much on other, on, on your grandchild and, and hurrying that you don't even, you don't worry about that.

[00:09:25] Bob: And she follows the man's instructions very carefully.

[00:09:29] Susan Donald: I got the money in envelopes, and there was a certain procedure he told me to use once I got the money. I had to use it, put it in a certain kind of envelope and put an address on it and names on it. The attorney's voice was a middle-aged man, you know, that was very calm and nice and, and sounded, you know, very aware of everything.

[00:09:51] Bob: They hang up and she speeds home. The whole trip to the bank takes less than 30 minutes. As soon as she walks in the door, the phone rings again. There's more instructions.

[00:10:03] Susan Donald: He told me that he was going to send out a messenger, and he told me how to wrap the money and what to wrap it in, what to put it in, how to address it, you know to this courtroom and it, you know it sounded very official, and it was this judge and everything else.

[00:10:18] Bob: And by the time she follows those instructions, the doorbell rings. Actually, it's Susan's new Ring doorbell so she can see a woman at the door, but she can't see much. She's wearing a COVID mask. Susan opens the door.

[00:10:37] Susan Donald: She didn't say much. She was kind of there.

[00:10:40] Bob: Susan has strict instructions to stay on the line with the attorney throughout the transaction.

[00:10:45] Susan Donald: And so I did, you know, one hand, you know handing her money. And the other hand holding my cellphone and talking to him. And her being there and me doing that probably took, it was pretty brief, probably 5 or 10 minutes at the most for the whole, if that. And she took it, and he's there at the same time. He said, "Don't," you know, "don't hang up while you're giving it to her." And I said, "Okay."

[00:11:12] Bob: She hands over the package with $9,000 and in an instant, everything changes.

[00:11:19] Bob: She walks out...

[00:11:20] Susan Donald: Yes. She, she never came in. She, we did this at my screen door.

[00:11:25] Bob: And so you lift the phone, I mean a, a second has passed.

[00:11:29] Susan Donald: Right.

[00:11:31] Bob: So you hold the phone in your ear and then, and you hear nothing.

[00:11:34] Susan Donald: Nothing. There was nothing. There was dead silence. I'm walking back to my family room to sit down, and there's nothing. And here, you know, he had been on this, the line you know advising me, telling me, and doing all these details, take this, you know do this, do it this way. I'm, you know, waiting for him to say, okay, fine, this is blah, blah, blah is going to happen. And you know, give me some more details and there's nothing. He's gone.

[00:11:58] Bob: He was gone. And so is Susan's money.

[00:12:03] Bob: And what goes through your mind right at that moment?

[00:12:05] Susan Donald: That it wasn't really my grandson.

[00:12:07] Bob: Ah, what a horrible feeling, right?

[00:12:09] Susan Donald: Oh, it was horrible, it was awful. The other part was, well thank God, you know, he, he, Brandon's probably all right. You know and I, I, of course, I mean I, I didn't even have to call after that, to call and find out if he was all right. I, I just knew it was, it hit me like a, you know a ton of rocks. The whole situation, because for a brief period of time I actually didn't have anyone on the phone or anyone telling me to do anything, and I had a, a chance to think about it and put it together and realize what had happened to me. So I sat for a couple hours just thinking through it.

[00:12:47] Bob: But Susan does have to figure out what to do next. Quickly she starts to think that much more might be at stake for her than $9,000.

[00:12:57] Susan Donald: Just thinking that, you know, about everyone that my family, you know, how I appear. When you're older, it's really important to you that people, you know, uh realize uh, you know, that you're not losing it, that you're not going into dementia or Alzheimer's or whatever. That something that, you know, you're living in your own home, you take care of your own stuff, and it's really important for you to maintain that personality and persona. And you know, just thinking that I had to reveal my gullibility, my what, what can I say, it's not really stupidity because it's, you know, you're not stupid in any respect, but that you'd been taken advantage of.

[00:13:39] Bob: At roughly the same time Susan is sitting there thinking about what to do next, there's another messenger ringing another doorbell just 30 miles up the coast in Oceanside, California, and another person gives $9,000 to a courier, allegedly bail money for their granddaughter who they were told was arrested following a car accident. A pregnant woman had been hit. Only 24 hours later, that grandparent is told the baby has died, and so the granddaughter needs another $42,000 because manslaughter charges are pending. She wires the money. And then one week later, that grandparent wires another $57,000 to the criminals after being told their granddaughter had violated a court gag order. But Susan, after thinking for a bit, decides she's not talking to these people anymore. Instead, she calls her family. And she calls law enforcement.

[00:14:42] Susan Donald: I think I called the police right away before I called my daughter. And she only lives a couple blocks from me. So I called the police, and I was very lucky in that they put me through to someone that you know knew or you know was familiar with some of these scams, and they sent an officer out right away, within an hour or something like that. Very, very nice, you know, very calming, very, you know sensitive to the issue. I really had a good experience. He put everything down, you know, that had happened, and I told him, gave him the details. And he said he was going to have somebody call me later that day, and they did. They sent a detective out and they went around to the neighborhood to see if anyone else had cameras, because she evidently, I tried, I had cameras in front of my house, but she must have parked down the street. We were trying to get a license plate, and he interviewed neighbors and went around and asked for different information.

[00:15:45] Bob: Remember, Susan had installed those video cameras. She had the messenger on video and was able to share that with police.

[00:15:54] Susan Donald: I worked with this detective who kept telling me what they were doing. They were looking for this person and everything else.

[00:16:00] Bob: They were looking for this person. This person who walked away with Susan's money, who police now know is helping a criminal enterprise perpetrate what's often called the Grandparent Scam. Someone calls pretending to be a grandchild, then frightens or intimidates a grandparent into sending money. In this case, through a messenger, a money mule. The crime is skyrocketing and the FBI has issued several warnings about it, but usually stories like Susan's end here. Local police look for a person they cannot find, who has long since left the area. And the money is sent overseas or somewhere beyond the arm of the law. But in this case, Susan has video, and in this case, that evidence ends up in the hands of an FBI agent who is determined not to let this crime become just another statistic.

[00:17:00] My name's Brady Finta. I'm in Carlsbad, California. I'm a retired FBI agent.

[00:17:05] Bob: So how long were you with the FBI?

[00:17:07] Brady Finta: About 23+ years.

[00:17:09] Bob: That is a pretty long rung with the FBI.

[00:17:12] Brady Finta: It as, it was a, some of it flew by, and some of it not so much.

[00:17:15] Bob: Finta is a pretty determined investigator, a determined person, certainly, and perhaps the name Finta rings a bill.

[00:17:25] Bob: People who are long-time reality TV show fans might recognize your name. Tell me why that is?

[00:17:32] Brady Finta: Uh, actually not, not that very often anymore. That was a long time ago, Bob, but yeah, I was, I, I was fortunate enough to be on that show Survivor many years ago, and uh every once in a while, you know, a rabid fan would, would recognize my name or my face, but it doesn't happen very often.

[00:17:51] Bob: What does happen often is what happened to Susan Donald. In fact, so many cases like hers crossed Brady's desk that he doesn't really remember the first time he heard about Susan's story.

[00:18:04] Brady Finta: Well, you know, Bob, I wish I could tell you that Susan specifically or, or any particular victim along these scams landed on my desk or kind of took up a section of our day, but honestly, we have so many victims piled up in the hundreds, and sometimes thousands.

[00:18:22] Bob: And, of course, plenty of these stories never even trickle up to the FBI or a federal prosecutor because they just don't get past local law enforcement.

[00:18:33] Bob: So often I hear from victims that when they call their local police and they say, you know, I gave $5,000 to someone I, I met on the internet, uh they say there's no crime. That this is, you know, you did it voluntarily. So there's nothing I can do.

[00:18:47] Brady Finta: Well, first of all, if you're obliged to give up your hard-earned savings as a result of a scam, as a result of something that is fraudulently offered to you, it is still a crime. I hear the same stories also, where um, a lot of our local police departments say, "Hey, that's, that's not really a crime," or, "It's not a crime that we can do anything about."

[00:19:09] Bob: But even if a local cop takes the crime seriously and tries to pursue an investigation like the police who initially worked with Susan, it feels like there are brick walls in all directions.

[00:19:23] Brady Finta: In so many of these cases, that initial report gets taken, the evidence gets cut--, gets collected, and it kinda stops there. There's not that many places they can go.

[00:19:33] Bob: That must be such a frustrating experience for a cop to have something close to a positive ID even, and then there's just nowhere to go.

[00:19:42] Brady Finta: Yeah, and, and also when, when you are tracking the evidence, following the money, when you start to realize, okay, the money immediately, usually, leaves the area. A lot of times the state and oftentimes the country. And when you realize also that your next stop on that chain is nowhere in your county where you're responsible for investigating, or your city, it is frustrating, but at the same time it's kind of easy to shelf those cases, right, to say hey, we don't, we don't have any leads here in our city, and move on.

[00:20:16] Bob: And another reason these cases get dropped is the dollar amounts are small, at least by comparison.

[00:20:23] Brady Finta: And I'll admit you know in the beginning, I was part of the problem. Right where, where you know the FBI tends to look at fraud cases similar to the US Attorney's Office from a loss perspective, right. So when the case presents itself, hey what is the loss here? Well in this case, the loss wasn't very high, ref--, you know, in reference to the other cases and the other frauds and losses that we have out there.

[00:20:51] Bob: But there's definitely something different about this case. For starters, by the time Susan reports the crime, law enforcement has become aware that someone or several someones was knocking on doors, demanding payments all around Southern California.

[00:21:07] Brady Finta: Yeah, so in the very beginning of this case, the San Diego District Attorney's Office, uh lead prosecutor, Scott Pirrello for Elder Fraud and Abuse, and their lead investigator, Felix Salazar, came to my office at the FBI based on a referral from a friend and said, hey we have, we have multiple of these cases, lots of them actually. But we have this one in particular that seems especially egregious in terms of people knocking on our victims' doors and demanding money.

[00:21:36] Bob: So local prosecutors make their plea to get the FBI's attention and the FBI's help. They don't just have reports about strange visitors, they have Susan's video, a picture of a suspect. That's rare. Still, the suspect was wearing a COVID mask in the video and identifying someone from a picture like that isn't as easy as it seems.

[00:22:02] Bob: The woman who knocked on Susan's door, um, did quite a lot to hide her tracks. She, she used a rented car, she parked around the block, and so she walked, and so right away I can see how multiple jurisdictions would be involved in figuring out who she was, right?

[00:22:17] Brady Finta: There was no doubt. And she was actually from LA County. The records for that one-day rental were up there. The money immediately went back up there, and as often as people think, hey, you have some video, you can figure things out. It's not, it's not that easy. And it is frustrating for our, for our local police that do, they do have these victims. They want to be able to pursue this, but just the, you know, the context of the, of the evidence and the crime make it incredibly difficult.

[00:22:47] Bob: But, prosecutors make their case that this case is worth the extra effort from the feds. If they can catch this one suspect, bring her in, pull on that thread, who knows what might be revealed.

[00:23:00] Brady Finta: So yeah, they presented a heck of a case in terms of hey, if, if we're able to identify this person, and use this victim was a launching pad to other victims, I think we could do some real good here. So yeah, the FBI, at least in my office, some jumped on board. So when they had this particular victim, not only that was so helpful but had this kind of great level of evidence, they just didn't want to let it essentially go to waste.

[00:23:25] Bob: So what does the FBI do with the evidence they don't want to go to waste? And what happens when they pull on that thread? Well that's next week on The Perfect Scam.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:23:42] 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.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

END OF TRANSCRIPT

When Susan gets a frantic call from her “grandson” saying he’s been in a terrible accident, she doesn’t waste any time. She rushes to get him the $9,000 he requested for legal fees, but as soon as she hands the money to the courier, the phone line goes dead. She knows instantly that it was a scam. Similar crimes are popping up all over her area, and the stack of case files is pretty big by the time it lands on FBI agent Brady Finta’s desk.

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