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One Woman’s Story of Attempted Suicide and Survival After a Scam, Part 1

An online friendship that began with the game 'Words With Friends' led to devastating financial losses

spinner image During the pandemic, an online friendship leads to the devastating loss of one woman's retirement funds.
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spinner image During the pandemic, an online friendship gives leads to the devastating loss of one woman's retirement funds.
Full Transcript

(MUSIC INTRO)

[00:00:02] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan. Before we get to today's story, we wanted to share a bit of breaking news, good news with you. The Federal Trade Commission has just announced that gift card companies are now doing a better job of flagging fraudulent transactions and, in some cases, freezing stolen funds and returning the money to victims. So, if you have been a victim of a crime involving gift cards, and you fear your money is gone...it might not be! Make sure you report the crime as soon as possible to the gift card company and ask for your money back. Time is of the essence, which is why we've topped today's episode with this news.  You can find a handy list of gift card contact information at https://consumer.ftc.gov/articles/avoiding-and-reporting-gift-card-scams. Now, if you didn’t get that or if you have any other questions, don't forget you can just email us at The Perfect Scam. That’s theperfectscampodcast@aarp.org. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming...

[00:01:14] Bob: Today we are bringing you a very special story about a very brave woman who faced the darkest of days. The criminal stole most of her family's retirement savings and the emotional turmoil led her to try to take her own life. But Kathy Book is a survivor and her story will show you two really important things. First, the emotional depths that these horrible crimes can drag people into, but more important, how a supportive family, professional help, and lots of courage are the key to surviving and thriving. I promise, when you hear about the 50th anniversary party that Kathy recently celebrated with her husband and extended family, you'll celebrate too. But it's a party she almost missed.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:02:05] Bob: And so, a warning to our listeners: This episode includes extensive discussion of suicide. If you are in crisis or you know someone who is, please call or text 9-8-8, a free nationwide service where professionals can listen and get you the help you need. Later on in this two-part story, we'll have much more from professionals on how to deal with scams and the potential for suicide. But now, let's meet Kathy who grew up in Pittsburgh, but moved to New Jersey when her husband got a job there back in 1989.

[00:02:39] Kathy Book: I have a wonderful family. My husband and I were married 50 years in beginning of June, and we have a son and a daughter and four grandchildren.

[00:02:47] Bob: 50 years! Congratulations. That's fantastic.

[00:02:50] Kathy Book: Thank you. I hope I can keep my composure here.

[00:02:54] Bob: Like many of us, Kathy was struggling during the pandemic and wasn't even really aware of just how hard that time was for her.

[00:03:04] Bob: Take all the time you need. That's, I, I understand, this is hard.

[00:03:08] Kathy Book: How the pandemic affected me in such a negative way because I'm always you know, fine, never a depression problem my whole life, you know, nothing. But I now realize that I was very depressed and had a lot of anxiety about the pandemic. We, I had to cancel our cruise that we had booked. We couldn't visit or see our family or friends. We had to wear masks all the time and it was just, I, I just couldn't stand it after a while. But I had played Word with Friends for like 10 years, 13 years or so, and, you know, my girlfriends were on there. So I don't know, I guess it was around the year after the pandemic started or whatever, I got some requests from people, new requests from people to play. And they seemed nice. I mean some were, you know, men, some were women or whatever, and again, it was like a diversion, to again, get...

[00:04:02] Bob: Well, well I don't think we can overstate, right, at the time that might have been the only way you could talk to people.

[00:04:08] Kathy Book: Yes, yes.

[00:04:09] Bob: Yeah.

[00:04:10] Kathy Book: So, so it was, again, it was a diversion and, you know, I'm a trusting person, um, thinking that everybody's trusting like me.

[00:04:18] Bob: And among the connection requests that Kathy receives is one from a man who says his name is Richard Peyman Brooks.

[00:04:26] Kathy Book: He sent me a message through Words with Friends, and I told him right away that I was married and had a great family. And he was fine with that. He said he lived in New York, Brooklyn, for a while, and then he got this contract, and they sent him down to Mexico. You know he sent me his pictures, you know online, I mean through the app, you know. Oh this is me and you know and of course I sent him pictures of myself, and my family and you know, whatever.

[00:04:55] Bob: Their friendly banter continues for several months.

[00:04:59] Kathy Book: So we would continue to play, and he was very challenging to play with. And then he started sending me emojis and that were cute, and then some prayers and then music to listen to, which was nice. It was nice at that time. Then convinced me to get on What's App so we could talk more.

[00:05:17] Bob: So Kathy and Richard keep chatting on What's App and keep playing games and swapping music and prayers for a full 8 months. His friendship is a great diversion.

[00:05:27] Kathy Book: So time went on and he asked me, again, he was continuing with, you know, emojis and the prayers and the music and that, and then he asked me to borrow some small money so he could keep his phone running. If I would send him, you know, an Apple card so he could keep his phone, whatever. And he would pay me back.

[00:05:44] Bob: But this was just a couple of bucks, right?

[00:05:46] Kathy Book: Yeah, you know, $100 card, you know.

[00:05:50] Bob: Yeah, yeah.

[00:05:51] Kathy Book: And at the time I had the money, so I thought okay, what's the, what's the harm, you know.

[00:05:55] Bob: And if, and if you didn't send it to him, you might not have been able to play with him anymore, right? He was going to get disconnected.

[00:06:01] Kathy Book: Yes. Yes.

[00:06:03] Bob: Kathy decides to send the $100. If she doesn't, she'll lose touch with her friend, but the requests don't stop there. Because he's stuck in Mexico and can't access his bank account, he says he needs more financial help.

[00:06:19] Kathy Book: Then he started asking me to borrow money and promised to pay me back. And then he asked me for more because he was working on, in Mexico on a road project.

[00:06:29] Bob: The requests start to increase quickly. Because he's overseas, he says he needs thousands of dollars in cash. Kathy doesn't have immediate access to that kind of money, but she knows how to get it.

[00:06:43] Kathy Book: I borrowed cash from my credit cards. And again, he would pay me back. And he even sent me a, a copy of a legal document showing that I would be, I would inherit all the money he got on the job if something happened to him. I mean, you know, it was a legal as, as anything can look.

[00:07:04] Bob: Thousands of dollars becomes tens of thousands of dollars during the next several weeks. Richard promises he's going to pay Kathy back, very, very soon. And finally, he gets that big paycheck he's been waiting for. So he offers to send Kathy the money he's borrowed from her. But there's a catch. He says he can only send cash.

[00:07:26] Kathy Book: And then he says he got paid a big amount, and it, it was in a credit union over in England. And he had to send the money to me. And I said, "Send a check," you know, send whatever, you know, a certified check. Oh, he couldn't do that. And he said he had to send it through the mail, it had to go through customs, and because the money was in the box that he owed me, he didn't have the money to pay for that. So can I send money and send it through bitcoin and, and Apple gift cards.

[00:07:56] Bob: So Kathy decides to send the money to him, thinking she's going to cover the customs fees. She really needs to get that money he borrowed back. It's now been about 18 months since she first met Richard, and with her credit card bills and interest mounting, Kathy agrees to send a bitcoin payment.

[00:08:14] Bob: At one point he asked you to go to a, a bitcoin machine and, and insert money into the bitcoin machine? Is that what he asked?

[00:08:20] Kathy Book: Yes.

[00:08:21] Bob: It was like a, one of those machines that are at a local gas station or something?

[00:08:24] Kathy Book: It, you know like a convenience store, some of the convenience stores have them, and I never knew anything about them, but and then they charge you a fee, you know, they take off the money that you're sending, they take it off of that. So I mean this is, it's all that encrypto stuff or whatever that I never understood or want to understand any of it. I don't.

[00:08:45] Bob: Given the timeline you've given me so far; how much money are we talking about?

[00:08:51] Kathy Book: I think I was like up to around 85,000.

[00:08:55] Bob: Wow. It sounds like $85,000 was a, a lot to you and your husband.

[00:09:01] Kathy Book: Yes. And, and you know, and the bad thing is, is he worked so hard his career, and set up a really nice retirement time for us. We're not rich, but we were, we're comfortable. We were able to pay our bills, you know.

[00:09:16] Bob: But even after sending the bitcoin, Richard still doesn't send the money he owes Kathy, and as Kathy slowly starts to doubt she'll ever see that money, her mind panics and her heart goes to a dark place.

[00:09:29] Kathy Book: I, I just maxed out my credit cards thinking I was going to get this money back. This went on and I started to have total anxiety about this. Um, I was up against a wall. I just wanted for this to be over. Um, I was sick of it. Uh I was in a lot of debt because of him. I was realizing that. And I had nowhere to turn.

[00:09:53] Bob: I'm so sorry. That sounds like so isolating.

[00:09:58] Kathy Book: It was, it was terrible. Um, um...

[00:10:07] Bob: Take your time.

[00:10:09] Kathy Book: I was just, I was embarrassed, I was mortified, I was, I had all these things in my head that you know, I couldn't realize that I, I did this. I felt so ashamed and embarrassed and distraught, and um, I really didn't want to live anymore because I knew I hurt our family by my actions personally and monetarily. I couldn't eat or sleep. Um, I cried all the time. I would go into the bathroom and cry so my husband wouldn't see me. And um, I just, for weeks I just was thinking about how could I take my life? How could I get away from this, you know? Um, and, and then I even started um, you know drinking, and I had never done that before, only would have a glass of wine occasionally. Um, but I just had to settle myself down, um, because it was just so much anxiety on me, because he'd never pay me back.

[00:11:06] Bob: She realizes she's the victim of a crime. She isn't getting her money back. It has been stolen by a criminal or criminals. Kathy is going to have to face family and friends, everyone with the devastating news. And she wants to do just about anything other than that.

[00:11:25] Kathy Book: I just, these thoughts just kept going through my mind all the time, and I didn't know what to do, but I was just desperate.

[00:11:33] Bob: So desperate that only a few days before Christmas last year, normally her favorite season, she takes action on those thoughts.

[00:11:45] Kathy Book: I wrote my family um, my son, my daughter, my husband good-bye notes. The last December 14th, I prayed to God to forgive me and take me to heaven when I committed suicide that day.

[00:12:01] Bob: So, Kathy takes a walk into the woods behind her house and does something violent to herself.

[00:12:07] Bob: That sounds so painful. Oh my God.

[00:12:10] Kathy Book: It is. Every time I talk about it, I get choked up, but my husband um, called the police and they put a dog out and they found me before I died. And I guess God didn't want it, I think he wants me to help some others to not do this, to learn from me...so...

[00:12:35] Bob: God has much better plans for you is what it is.

[00:12:39] Bob: So Kathy's life is spared, thanks to quick thinking by police who find her and get her to a hospital which takes care of her physical wounds, and soon after, they get her into a place that can really help with the emotional wounds. First a trauma center, then a psychiatric hospital where she spends Christmas, and then months of intensive therapy.

[00:13:00] Kathy Book: This was general classes with different kinds of people in there. And I was the oldest one of all of them. There might have been 20 people in the class, and I was the oldest one, even older than the four women who were therapists. And I just sat there, and I just listened, and I observed, and I took all of the information that they gave because they passed, they had handouts every day, and they touched on different subjects about our personalities and how to do this, and how to do that. And I even asked them, I said, how? Can you give me something to take home to my family so that they could read on how to forgive me. And they did that. They gave me papers about that. And then we talked about how to forgive yourself. I mean I have a whole, whole file of all of this stuff that they gave me to get me back on track. And I learned so much there, and it was very, very, very beneficial to go there, and then after that, again, to see my own personal therapist. And that's what has helped me to get back to my old self. My new self I should say.

[00:14:19] Bob: Hmm, a new and improved self, yes.

[00:14:22] Kathy Book: Yes, new and improved self.

[00:14:24] Bob: We're going to hear a lot more about Kathy's new and improved self a little later on in this two-part episode about her new job, about her big family 50th anniversary party. But we want to stress here one of the things that helped Kathy was to see she wasn't alone. That the world was better off with her in it. Her friends and family would miss her terribly if she were gone, and that the criminals who manipulated her were professionals committing a heinous crime who've done it to many others before. And who have left deep emotional wounds in many victims.

[00:14:58] Honestly, I am so glad that you've picked up on this, and I'm so glad that you are interested in working on this, because I, the stakes have, I want to say, doubled, tripled, but it's not, it's more than that.

[00:15:15] Bob: That's Erin West, a Deputy District Attorney in Santa Clara County, California. She specializes in prosecuting computer crimes in and around Silicon Valley. And she says she's now seeing many, many more very serious cases like Kathy's.

[00:15:31] Erin West: What's happening right now is that the world is the target of a massive crime syndicate that is happening, and what we're seeing is that people are being devastated in ways that we have never seen before. Because we have never seen the scope, the volume, and the, the matching up of relationships where our victims truly believe they are in a, a really special, loving, trusting relationship, and then, at the same time, they believe they're achieving financial success they never dreamed for themselves, and one day both of those are ripped from them and found to be completely false, and everything they believed was wrong. And the level of what is happening to people from experiencing that phenomenon is nothing we have ever seen before, and really deserves attention.

[00:16:39] Bob: We often talk at The Perfect Scam about the undercounting of tech crimes and scams since many victims don't report the crime. So, we don't have good statistics on how many scam victims consider or attempt to take their own lives. But Erin will tell you the phenomenon is becoming more common.

[00:16:59] Erin West: So I think there are a lot of people like Kathy out there who don't want to tell anybody what has happened to them, and we don't even know the extent of, of this epidemic. We know that it's bad, and we know that it's like nothing we've seen before, but we don't even know how bad it is.

[00:17:19] Bob: Kathy's story is so important because only through real empathy can victims like Kathy see their way clear to surviving such a devastating crime.

[00:17:30] Erin West: I talked to a man about four weeks ago who told me that not only had he liquidated all of his retirement accounts and, and all of his bank accounts, that he had also then taken out a, a reverse mortgage on his house, and now there was no value left in his house, and I think that for a lot of people they, they can't even fathom at this point in their life, how can they financially recover from this? And then the loss of the relationship also cannot be understated. Like they really, I think question everything about their entire existence.

[00:18:08] Bob: And like Kathy, some are in need of immediate help.

[00:18:13] Erin West: But then the truth of the matter is, we're dealing with a very serious sub--, subject, and I'm, I'm not a, I'm not a therapist. I have no training in this, so what I need to do immediately is get them in the hands of people who are trained to deal with this, because this isn't something that we can toy around with and I can pretend to be a amateur therapist to get them in good hands. And so if they're open to it, I will, I will make referrals. But then in other cases where I'm, I'm literally scared for their health and welfare, I, I will call the police and send the police to their house.

[00:18:51] Bob: You've called 9-1-1 and sent the police to a, a crime victim's house?

[00:18:55] Erin West: I have done that.

[00:18:57] Bob: What's that feel like?

[00:19:00] Erin West: I, I had to take some time off after it. Um, it, it's, it's a lot. It's, it's what, like I said it's, it's, I never expected to find myself in this position. Like you know I, I do high tech crime, and what, what we're seeing is we're seeing victims who are, are literally on the phone with me as someone they don't even know at their worst moment, at their literally, at their worst moment. And, and so it, it feels awful. It, and, and it feels very scary, and it feels like the world is a little out of control, that this is what's happening to people.

[00:19:45] Bob: While high tech crimes are relatively new, it's important to know that there are healthcare professionals who are ready to deal with victims, who feel like Kathy, who feel like their lives have spun out of control.

[00:19:57] Erin West: Even though this is a, a new, a new way of people reaching this point of suicide, there are a lot of trained psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, who are very familiar with how to treat someone who is feeling like they have no other options. So reaching out to mental health professionals is, is absolutely the way to go here, and, and, and really advocating for yourself and, and getting yourself in front of someone quickly who can help you.

[00:20:34] Bob: Criminals almost always tell their victims to keep a secret, not to tell any friends or family about what's going on. That's what happened to Kathy. It's very, very isolating for victims, and even after the crime has run its course, that kind of isolation remains damaging.

[00:20:52] Bob: I know when we spoke to Kathy, she, like so many of these people, believed she was the only one in the world that this had ever happened to, and I, I hope it's at least um, a help to know that that's far from true.

[00:21:04] Erin West: I can imagine how, how lonely that must have felt for Kathy and to feel like she was so alone. And, and when I talk to these victims, they're so hard on themselves about, that they find themselves in this situation, and I often tell them, you're not alone. I talk to people like you every day, and I talk to really smart people, and I talked to really, really well-educated people, and I talk to really, I mean I, I go through all the categories of successful people that find themselves in this situation. And, and one of the best things that I've done, I think, is to try and connect some of them with each other so that I think you really nailed it when you talk about the concept of them not feeling alone, because there are, there are, gosh, there are so many people going through this.

[00:22:06] Bob: And Erin does all she can to tell victims on their darkest day that there's another path.

[00:22:12] Erin West: So when these victims find themselves at their very lowest point, and they realize they've, they've lost their money and they, they have to do a difficult thing in telling people what happened to them, I just want victims to know that there are other options, and they, that their mind is playing tricks on them at that moment. That there are people who really care, and there are people that really want to help you. And there are people who will listen to you and be there for you. And that what your mind is telling you that, that that's the reasonable solution, that isn't the reasonable solution, that your mind is tricking you and, and there are options, and there are, there are people who will be devastated that that was the decision that you made. And I just hope that victims are able to, to somehow see, see through that and see that there are other options, that, that money can be remade. Friendships can be repaired. Um, but we can't live with you being gone.

[00:23:16] Bob: Erin is a professional prosecutor on the frontlines of cybercrime talking every day to scam victims suffering with the emotional fallout, but we felt it was important to talk with a professional therapist, an expert in suicide to bring even more context to this subject. So we reached out to Jonathan Singer.

[00:23:36] Jonathan Singer: I am a Social Work Professor at Loyola University-Chicago. I've been a Clinical Social Worker for over 25 years. I'm the co-author of the bestseller, "Suicide in Schools." I'm the past president of the American Association of Suicidology. I serve on lots of national boards related to uh suicide prevention and suicide awareness. And I have uh lost loved ones to suicide, and um, uh, this is my area of expertise.

[00:24:04] Bob: There are a lot of misconceptions about suicide, things research can dispel, he told us.

[00:24:10] Jonathan Singer: You know that the suicide rate was increasing, you know, pretty steadily for a number of years and then it plateaued, started to decrease. And then it, it, it has gone up again in 2021, which is the most recent year we have stats for. Suicide death is, is only one of the, the metrics that we use to think about suicide risk. You know there's thoughts of suicide, and about 15.6 million Americans every year report seriously considering ending their life. And about 1.7 million report a suicide attempt. And then if we think about how many actually die, which again one death is one death too many, right. In 2021, it was just over 48,000 people who died by suicide. And so I think one of the helpful ways to frame this is that, you know there are, if you wanted to do percentages of the total population or just raw numbers, but you know you have a sizeable percentage of the population that is, at least once, will have thoughts of ending their life, and a, a very small number actually die by suicide. And so one of the things that's important for us to do as people and friends is to be able to recognize when somebody might be having thoughts of suicide and not be afraid to ask about them.

[00:25:36] Bob: One of the best things for friends and family to understand is how to look for warning signs. And when a person becomes a victim of financial crime that wipes out a considerable part of their life savings, that's a warning sign.

[00:25:50] Jonathan Singer: Well, one of the things that we know is that for adults, finances is, is an important contributing factor to suicide risk. So for example, on the, on the upside, when you have increases in the minimum wage, it reduces suicide deaths in the population. When you have people who experience significant economic downturn, it increases suicide deaths in the population. So even though we are not, I mean I don't know any stats that, that, that are on the exact situation you're talking about, we do know that finances play a role in suicide risk, especially for adults.

[00:26:35] Bob: So it makes sense, uh, if someone in your life has been the victim of a scam, uh that this is one of the things that you should look out for, right?

[00:26:44] Jonathan Singer: Yes, absolutely. I mean if we think about one of the core experiences of people who are suicidal, it's that they feel like they are a burden to others and that being alive is more of a burden than being dead. And so if you think about somebody who has experienced an economic scam, even if they were not responsible for financially supporting anyone else, the results of losing their ability to support themselves might mean that somebody else has to come in and bail them out, might have to support them financially, and that could make them feel like a burden to others. And for some people, then the next step in thinking that as well as sort of the shame and the humiliation, the sense of being hopeless about the future would be this sense of burden, and that taking themselves out would be the best solution.

[00:27:48] Bob: Another misconception about suicide is understanding which age groups are at a higher risk.

[00:27:55] Jonathan Singer: We do a very bad job in our society of, of letting older adults, of recognizing the value that older adults have in terms of their, their wisdom, their experience, their what they can add to a community. The highest rate of suicide is men over the age of 85. You know we oftentimes think about adolescent suicide risk, right, there's a lot of headlines about that, but adolescent suicide risk is, you know, about a third of what it is for older adults. And so you have high risk anyway, and when you put financial burden on top of that, maybe shame, embarrassment, right, that, that they, they didn't see it or they didn't recognize the scam, then all of those things can add up to a, a sense of hopelessness, a sense that you're going to be a burden to others, and that you, you failed people.

[00:28:51] Bob: In Kathy's case, in particular, and in many others that I, I talk about, one or the other spouse gets involved in a scam like this, and the, the money that was designed for retirement for the couple is stolen. So that feeling of burden and guilt is, is overwhelming.

[00:29:08] Jonathan Singer: That's right. That's right. And, and, and the, the hopes for the future, right, the ideas of what you can do, they're gone. And again, you know if we had a society where somebody who is 65 or 70, even if they wouldn't want to, could just turn around and find a job, that's one thing, but there's so much ageism and bias against people who are sort of seen as older adults in the workplace that that kind of social construct can really contribute to the sense of I have no options.

[00:29:44] Bob: Kathy felt all those things. She felt like a burden, felt hopeless, felt like she had no options when she put that pen to paper on December 14th and wrote those farewell notes to her family. That's why it's amazing to speak with her now as she's survived and is living her new life which she's devoting to help others. So how does Kathy learn how to forgive herself, how to accept the forgiveness of her family? How does she make it to that 50th wedding anniversary party? Well, that's next week on The Perfect Scam.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:30:20] Bob: Also next week, we're going to have very specific recommendations for people who might be in crisis and how loved ones can spot crises, take steps to help. But if you or someone you know is facing suicidal thoughts right now, remember you can call 9-8-8 and talk to a professional who will listen with empathy and get you the help you need right away.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:30:45] 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. Our email address at The Perfect Scam is: theperfectscampodcast@aarp.org, and we want to hear from you. If you've been the victim of a scam or you know someone who has, and you'd like us to tell their story, write to us or just send us some feedback. That address again is: theperfectscampodcast@aarp.org. 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 OUTRO)

END OF TRANSCRIPT

Like many of us, Kathy struggles in the early days of the pandemic to adjust to isolation from family and friends. She enjoys the diversion of playing Words With Friends and soon strikes up a friendship with a fellow player. For months the friends continue playing online games and chatting on WhatsApp, until one day he asks Kathy for a loan. He says he is stuck in Mexico and having trouble accessing his accounts. Kathy sees no harm in helping out a friend, especially when he promises to quickly pay the money back. When the repayments never come, Kathy comes to the devasting realization that it was a scam and that most of her and her husband’s retirement savings are gone. Distraught and ashamed, Kathy begins to have thoughts of suicide. This is the story of one woman’s survival from the darkest of days. 

This episode contains discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call or text 988, a free nationwide service where professionals can listen and get you the help you need. 

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