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Lawyer Fights to Regain Identity From Time-Share Resale Scam

Retired lawyer Todd Alper discovers criminals are using his name to defraud time-share owners

spinner image lawyer learns his name is being used in a time-share resale scam

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Todd Alper is a recently retired lawyer and teacher in New York City. One day in 2020, he learns that there are many people trying to locate the lawyer Todd Alper, even though he hasn’t actively practiced law in several years. To his astonishment, an online search reveals a website for a law office in his name. Criminals are impersonating him in an elaborate scheme targeting owners of timeshares. Todd is devastated that his name is being used to defraud innocent people, and he begins the long fight to regain his identity and his sense of control.

spinner image "The website was still up, this fraud was going to continue in my name. Your mind starts to spin. I felt there was nowhere else to go and I felt helpless."
Full Transcript

(MUSIC INTRO)

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

[00:00:03] Todd Alper: But now I really felt at a loss because, and I understood, and listen I, I have full faith and respect for our law enforcement agencies and I fully understood where they were coming from, and there is a reality of how they can expend their resources. So at an intellectual level, I fully understood that. At an emotional level, I felt helpless.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:00:31] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan. It's one of the first things you learn in school when you first start writing stories, even as a small child. Every story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but the story we're bringing you today is unique, uniquely terrible because as you'll hear it has no end. Today's victim is a lovely man, a kind man named Todd Alper, a lawyer turned special education teacher whose life is completely turned upside down one day when his family starts getting phone calls from people, complete strangers, who say they are looking for Todd Alper. And then one stranger actually shows up at his doorstep, interrogates his child, says he's hunting for a Mr. Todd Alper. And Todd, well he has no idea why. But as the mystery starts to unfold, Todd uses every tool at his disposal looking for answers and for closure, but it never really comes.

[00:01:37] Todd Alper: So I won't forget it. It was Pearl Harbor Day, December 7th, 2020, and someone from the public began contacting people, including my mother, other relatives, even relatives of relatives in other states.

[00:01:50] Bob: Naturally, they all call Todd to say someone is looking for you.

[00:01:56] Bob: So if, if you don't mind saying which relative was it who called your first?

[00:02:00] Todd Alper: I believe I got a call from my brother.

[00:02:03] Bob: And, and what was that like?

[00:02:04] Todd Alper: Shocking. You know, really shocking and disturbing. He didn't have much information for me other than somebody was trying to contact me. Then over the course of, I would say, the next few days, I started receiving calls at home, my wife had answered a call, my, as I said, my mother, and so I started hearing, you know, both personally on my own telephone number and from relatives that uh, people were trying to get in contact.

[00:02:29] Bob: Was it some kind of crazy, cruel prank? It seems nearly everyone in Todd's extended family has been contacted by someone, maybe many someones, looking for Todd Alper. But that's not all.

[00:02:46] Todd Alper: It got worse because at one point a stranger showed up at my door.

[00:02:52] Bob: Oh my God.

[00:02:53] Todd Alper: My son answered the door. I was in another room. Uh, my wife was downstairs, my son answered the door. And this person started demanding to see Todd Alper. "I want to speak to Todd Alper." My son had said, "Who is this?" He wouldn't give any other information. "I need to speak to Todd, to Todd Alper." When I eventually did come to the door, I learned that this was a process server, and I was being sued ...

[00:03:16] Bob: Being sued. This is no prank. Now lawyers are looking for Todd Alper and they found him. And that sends more chilling thoughts up Todd's spine.

[00:03:29] Todd Alper: It was confusing, and it also brought to light the fact that if these people know where I live, whoever's behind the scheme, are they going to retaliate against me in some way?

[00:03:41] Bob: The lawsuit and Todd's own internet sleuthing start to give him a glimpse of what's happening. Someone, somewhere is pretending to be Todd Alper, and worst, they're pretending to be Attorney Todd Alper. Todd hasn't practiced law for a long time. Remember, he changed careers to become a special ed teacher, but there it was on the internet for anyone to find if they knew what they were looking for.

[00:04:10] Todd Alper: Well the first moment was shocking because I, I googled and found the website. So that was what the criminals had created was an entire website with The Law Office of Todd Alper, a lot of different specialty areas, but real estate was one of them. And there was a, an address. There were working email addresses, both for Todd Alper and I believe for a paralegal. There were also, uh there was a working telephone number.

[00:04:39] Bob: But that working number, well it doesn't work for Todd.

[00:04:44] Todd Alper: And so uh probably within the first couple days I had a friend uh reach out and call that telephone number and try to get through, and they were told that uh Todd Alper only speaks to existing clients. So they would have to...

[00:04:59] Bob: Oh wow.

[00:05:00] Todd Alper: Yeah, so they weren't able to get through that gatekeeper.

[00:05:02] Bob: But at this point with the threatening calls piling up, a lawsuit from out of state and fears about other kinds of retaliation, Todd slowly starts to realize he might be up against the fight of his life. Someone is pretending to be Todd Alper, the lawyer on the internet, and it appears that someone has some very angry customers who want to get at Todd. His identity has not just been stolen, it's being used in a most elaborate way. But Todd, well if anyone is prepared for something like this, it's Todd.

[00:05:39] Todd Alper: And a little bit about myself. I went to University in Washington DC, had an internship in Capitol Hill with a senator from California and decided I wanted to go to law school. After law school I had a variety of jobs, mostly in the financial services industry. I worked with the uh National Association of Security Dealers, that's now called FINRA, and around 2003, I learned about an initiative called the Teaching Fellows Program, that provided an opportunity to change careers and become a teacher.

[00:06:12] Bob: As you can see Todd knows his way around the law and around the financial world. So while he's not a practicing lawyer, he knows what to do right away. He takes this very seriously.

[00:06:26] Todd Alper: The first thing I did was call the Bar. They have an ethics hotline. I wanted to find out if there was any reporting obligations under the ethics hotline. And then I consulted right away the law firm I was referred to uh, an ethics attorney and through that referral, retained a law firm. And that law firm, you know, they, they put together a team. So that team included an attorney that was, had apparently experience in taking websites down, and they had attorneys that were experienced in criminal matters. And so you know I thought it was important to address it and hit it head on. I was concerned for my own reputation, but I was also concerned that members of the public were being defrauded in my name.

[00:07:08] Bob: So he hires a lawyer to make sure his legal obligations are covered, and then he goes to the police.

[00:07:16] Todd Alper: I went down to a local uh, a state police office and I reported in person that a fraud was being perpetrated in my name. And I gave the uh officer the number, the telephone number of a victim who had contacted my house personally.

[00:07:35] Bob: The fraud is being perpetrated in his name, yes, but what fraud? Why are so many people mad at this impostor version of Todd? Local police open the window into this world a little bit wider.

[00:07:50] Todd Alper: So that officer, while I was waiting in another room, had reached out to the victim, and had a private conversation with the victim, and the officer shared with me that the victim had said that he was in a transaction with an attorney named Todd Alper, and that he had lost apparently $4000 and that the transaction related to the sale of a timeshare that he owned, or the, the potential share of a timeshare that he owned.

[00:08:20] Bob: Okay so now you know this isn't, I mean you probably didn't think it was when you saw how elaborate the website was, but this isn't some prank or something, like real people are getting hurt.

[00:08:29] Todd Alper: Correct. And you know, I, I was very concerned.

[00:08:35] Bob: So apparently fake Todd Alper is somehow involved in real estate transactions, timeshare related transactions, and at least in this case, several thousand dollars had been stolen from a victim.

[00:08:49] Todd Alper: I didn't personally speak with the victim, but I made sure to follow the steps that the attorneys uh advised. And so one of the first steps was to the FBI has uh something called the Internet Crime Complaint Center, IC3, they suggested reporting that to IC3 which I did promptly. I also filed a report with the New York State police based on the interaction I, I had with the uh state police officer and the state trooper, and I asked the state police to investigate, and I asked the FBI to investigate.

[00:09:23] Bob: But Todd doesn't wait around for the investigation to be complete.

[00:09:27] Todd Alper: In speaking with my attorneys, our first step was to try to have the website taken down. So they uh filed legal action against the domain provider to have the website taken down, and it was taken down within a, I believe a week. The problem was the website popped right back up shortly thereafter with a new domain provider. And again, the attorneys went in, filed the appropriate paperwork action to have that website taken down, and it was only to find out that sometime later the same website or virtually the same website popped up again, maybe under a slightly different domain. So instead of Law Office of Todd Alper, it was OfficeofToddAlper.com or some slight variation.

[00:10:14] Bob: Ah, that sounds so frustrating 'cause now you know you know this is going to go on.

[00:10:19] Todd Alper: Correct. This is going to go on, and then you begin to wonder who's behind it, how many victims are out there.

[00:10:27] Bob: How many victims are out there? How exactly is that money stolen, and how many fake websites are out there with Todd's name? He has to find out, because things are starting to feel out of control.

[00:10:40] Todd Alper: In working with the law firm, they advised that an appropriate step might be to retain a private investigator that they worked with, a former US Postal Inspector, to see what information that investigator could find out in order to gather enough evidence to bring to the FBI in the hope that the FBI or another law enforcement agency might then take on the case. And it was important enough to me. I, you know, I had a conversation with my wife and although, you know, at this point we were spending significant resources you know financially, we felt that it was important to do. So we did retain that private investigator who went out and contacted the victims that we knew of in order to get information for the purpose, again, of potentially sharing that information with law enforcement and finding who's behind the scheme.

[00:11:32] Bob: But while all that is going on, the lawyers are engaged, the law enforcement is engaged, he's hired a private investigator, it seems like there isn't anything Todd can do to stop this fake Todd from committing crimes in his name.

[00:11:48] Bob: And it's ongoing as this is happening. It must be hard to sleep at night knowing that someone's using your name to commit a crime and you can't stop that.

[00:11:55] Todd Alper: So, thinks like anxiety, uh paranoia, strains on relationships, the loss of control, the feelings of betrayal and violation of trust, even to the extent of blaming yourself. I must have done something wrong, you know, why me? Why did they, you know my name out of anybody?

[00:12:15] Bob: And while the investigation continues, Todd can't help but google his own name over and over to see if the scam is still going on.

[00:12:25] Bob: I can like feel you at the keyboard looking for this and ready to duck you know emotionally or physically.

[00:12:33] Todd Alper: Which is why I had to stop, exactly, because it was just at that point you know I, I had to at some point just stop and, and kind of leave it, but it, it was hanging out there.

[00:12:42] Bob: Within a few weeks, the investigator comes back with a pretty thorough report and the crime is even more complex than Todd imagined.

[00:12:52] Todd Alper: In some way these victims were contacted to sell their timeshares, so it's possible that the fraudsters obtained a list of people who own timeshares and then reached out and said, "If you'd like to sell your timeshare, we can help you do that." You know, "We'll arrange for that. You just need to work through the Law Offices of Todd Alper." And so that's, that's my understanding of, you know, how the fraud was perpetrated. And then in terms of how they were defrauded, either through sending money for that transaction to their, who they thought was their attorney, and it seems like if that didn't work, they were in some way threatened by being reported to customs officials. Uh, and so yeah, there were international SWIFT codes, payments to financial beneficiaries in Mexico City. There were alleged calls from a Mexican, Mexican customs officer and a warning of a Mexican customs investigator to the victims that if they didn't send money that they would be reported to the Mexican US Foreign Asset Recovery Unit.

[00:13:53] Bob: So timeshare owners who are motivated to get out of their contracts are somehow contacted by this impostor who claims to represent a buyer. The sellers pay a fee to this fake law firm to manage the transaction. Then, if they refuse to pay more, they are threatened. In the end, the losses these victims endured, well they're large, but they're not too large on purpose.

[00:14:20] Todd Alper: This was really where I think when you talk about the perfect scam, this, this is why it was, uh one of the reasons it might have been a perfect scam is because the criminals seemed to know that if they take a small amount of money from multiple victims that it can fly under the radar. So in this case, most of the dollar amount for each case was relatively small, under $5000 and I think that was very intentional by the criminals, because they, they certainly have a, if they have a large volume of victims but they keep the amount small, victims either won't report it and it's less likely to show up like you know on a radar and much harder to track down when you have multiple victims and small amounts as opposed to one victim with a, you know a larger amount.

[00:15:07] Bob: This is also a, a shockingly sophisticated crime. I mean whoever did this had to have a really good understanding of the timeshare problem in America, of, you know, at least roughly how the legal system works. Obviously, an understanding of how um, to get websites up and down and move them around as, as quickly as possible.

[00:15:26] Todd Alper: Yeah, it was highly sophisticated, highly organized, you know was it organized crime? Was it ... these are all questions that I have. Are these violent criminals? These are all questions that run through my mind. Did I do the right thing by taking the action that I did? Is there more that I could have done? These are things that I'm constantly thinking about. And it is apparent that this was highly organized, highly sophisticated, and that these criminals, it was profitable enough that they were not going to be deterred by taking, you know, by having a legal action taken against them to take the website, you know down.

[00:16:03] Bob: So Todd takes all he knows, wraps it up, and sends it to the FBI.

[00:16:08] Bob: So what was the time span between, say, you know this first call you got from your brother and when you approached the FBI? How long did that take?

[00:16:16] Todd Alper: So the first phone call from my brother came on December 7th, 2020, and then the, let's see, the letter actually went out to the FBI and we received a response from the FBI on uh, June 15th of 2021.

[00:16:37] Bob: Todd does get a courteous response from the FBI, but it's not what he wants to hear.

[00:16:45] Todd Alper: So the FBI shared, you know, "Thank you for forwarding the information. They've reviewed the emails and determined that at this time the FBI is unable to expend resources to investigate the matter due to the limited loss amount. Since FBI details regarding this matter have been submitted to IC3, the facts will be retained by the FBI for future review and evaluation." And then it said, "In addition, it appears Mr. Alper has sought legal action against the website engaged in the scheme and filed the complaint with state authorities which are additional mitigation tools against the scheme. We appreciate you contacting us, and if you have further questions, feel free to contact me."

[00:17:23] Bob: That sounds crushing to me.

[00:17:24] Todd Alper: So it was. I'll say, you know, at that point I had anxiety before, you know while this was occurring, but now I really felt at a loss because, and I understood, and listen I, I have full faith and respect for our law enforcement agencies and I fully understood where they were coming from, and there is a reality of how they can expend their resources. So at an intellectual level, I fully understood that. At an emotional level, I felt helpless. I felt that people, you know, the website was still up, this fraud was going to continue, it would continue in my name, people were showing up at my house. The, your mind starts to, to spin, and at that point I felt there was nowhere else to go, and you know, I had to uh so I think emotionally it became harder after that point.

[00:18:20] Bob: Facing the prospect of a criminal using his name, his legal degree to defraud people who then might threaten him or sue him potentially forever, it's all too much.

[00:18:33] Todd Alper: Eventually, I just stopped looking for the website because the more that I did, the more anxious it made me, and I tried to put it out of my mind, but I'll, I'll tell you, Bob, it was, it, it, it's really, it's hard. It's hard to, to move on from it. But I'm lucky. You know I'm lucky because I have a strong family, I have a very supportive wife and family circle that can support me. I had financial resources, so I had a lot going for me that other people don't.

[00:19:04] Bob: But not endless resources.

[00:19:08] Todd Alper: The total legal bills were probably in the tens of thousands of dollars, yeah, tens of thousands of dollars. And that's for, you know, all the legal bills, but again, uh, the emotional impact I would say, you know money can be made back, and, and a lot of victims of identity theft I've learned from the support groups for iden--, for victims and families, they'll tell you that the money is, is tragic, but it's the feeling of being violated, of loss of control, of, of all of these emotional issues that can arise that are really the most damaging.

[00:19:43] Bob: And here, dear listener, is where the story ends. Or rather it doesn't. It's more like a TV show where a season ends, but you're waiting, wondering if a new season will start again because identity theft is a crime that often has no end. After about a year of this the phone calls peter out, the criminal or criminals, it seems, have moved on to other crime. maybe the website game of whack-a-mole got tiresome for them. A few of the loose ends have been resolved, but there is no assurance the fake Todd Alper won't pop up again.

[00:20:21] Bob: It's astonishing to me that your story basically ends there.

[00:20:24] Todd Alper: I think there's no real closure. So fortunately, I haven't, you know, at this point, heard from any additional victims. That lawsuit in New Mexico, eventually I had to hire an attorney in New Mexico uh, to represent me, and people say, why didn't you just ignore it. And the reality is, you can't ignore it because someone can get a default judgment against you, uh, they can garnish wages, they can put a lien against your property. So any lawsuit, you need to respond to, and so although uh I did hire an attorney in New Mexico, at that court eventually the case based on the evidence provided was dismissed, uh but it was dismissed without prejudice, which means that there's a possibility that the plaintiffs can refile in district court, and this can go on and on. So, you know I'm hoping at this point that the fraud is over. You know recently I took a look, and it seems like the website is no longer there. And what's more concerning is it seems like they've done a really good job of covering their tracks, because uh, if you google it, I can't even find the website anymore. So they knew how to put it up, they seemed to know how to take it down.

[00:21:35] Bob: Todd is speaking out about this troubling incident for the first time with us, and he considers it part of his recovery from the emotional trauma of all that's happened along with other work he's done privately with AARP.

[00:21:50] Todd Alper: I am hoping that it's over, and participating in this podcast, attending the AARP support sessions, and hopefully volunteering with AARP, is what has been and will be helpful to me in recovering um, emotionally uh, from this experience. And again, I do hope that sharing my story publicly in this way will be helpful to others and will encourage others to come forward.

[00:22:17] Bob: There are a few more updates and thoughts from Todd that we'll share in a moment, but to better understand what happened to him and what all of us can learn from it, we have a special guest today to help with that. She's Eva Velasquez, who is Executive Director of the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center. It's been helping ID theft victims for 25 years.

[00:22:40] Eva Velasquez: Talk about a complex case and a persistent thief. My heart goes out to this man because my goodness, what a, what a story about so many people say, "Oh, well, identity theft, you'll, you'll be made financially whole." This, this man is spending all of this money out of pocket for something that he has, has nothing to do with, just to defend his identity and his name.

[00:23:10] Bob: The story is astonishing, and it, it's actually quite different I think from many of our episodes because, you know, usually there's a beginning, and a middle, and an end, but his story just sort of peters out. You know he's had, he's a victim of this thing, he keeps getting phone calls or lawsuits or, you know, interactions from, from people who think he's a criminal, but the, the criminal is using his name. Uh, and then it, it quiets down, but law enforcement says they can't do anything, and he has to now live with this idea that who knows when he might get another contact from another person.

[00:23:45] Eva Velasquez: You know when you put it that way, Bob, it's that concept is actually not that unusual for a lot of identity crime victims. They will often liken their victimization to a medical condition and tell me, "Well it's gone into remission, but I don't know when it's going to come back." So that, like I said, that concept and that feeling is not unique. Now, a lot of the details in this gentleman's story are extremely unique and, and quite shocking, frankly. But the, the concept of this going into remission and this, this victim just living his life knowing that this can pop up again and I'm going to have to go take care of it, and I never know when it's going to happen is, that's a, it's a terrible way to have to continue to live.

[00:24:35] Bob: The word remission just hit me right between the eyes when you said it. It makes, it's a perfect metaphor, but yet, that sounds, that sounds so serious. How serious is it?

[00:24:46] Eva Velasquez: Well I would like people to think about that word, that it goes into remission. And think about anything that you've gone through in your life where it's ongoing and you know it's never over, and that can be challenges with, you know, relationships, with an illness or a condition that you have where you have flareups. You know what it means to know that you have that that you have to deal with. It will never go away, and it just sort of hangs over you. Now think about the fact that we're talking about finances, where this is very public. We're talking about your reputation. You're talking about physical safety. If there are people out there in the world who think that you have harmed them and any of them are even a little bit unstable, that's jeopardizing your physical safety. And so this gentleman's case that is now currently in remission, but we don't know when the thief will pop up again, he's living with that every day. That is, that is tremendously debilitating.

[00:25:55] Bob: The Identity Theft Resource Center does a victim study every year. It partly looks at the emotional impact of the crime on victims, and the recent results are disturbing.

[00:26:07] Eva Velasquez: When I look at our Consumer Impact Report, which is a report that we issue where we talk to folks that we helped in the previous year and we ask them a series of questions, not just about how much time did you spend and how much money did you lose, but the real emotional, physical, behavioral, life impacts, one of the startling things about our most recent report is the dramatic increase in thoughts of suicide due to victimization. It has doubled in the last two years. That statistic alone, so it, it, it has historically there's always been a small percentage of people who have said yes to that question. "Yes, I had suicidal thoughts as a result of my victimization." It would hover around 2 to 4%, and over the last couple of years, we've seen it increase and then two years ago, it jumped up to 8% which shocked me, 8%. And now two years later, it's now at 16%. Sixteen percent of people are contemplating ending their life as the only way out of this, this, resolving this crime and this issue in their life. If that doesn't tell you how traumatic and how impactful victimization of this crime is, I don't know what other statistic will convince you.

[00:27:34] Bob: Now is a good time to remind listeners that if you or someone you know is in crisis right now, you can dial or text 988 and get immediate help from a professional. Of course, the term identity theft can mean a lot of things starting from a single, simple instance of credit card theft, all the way to complex cases like Todd's. Clearly, they aren't all the same.

[00:27:57] Eva Velasquez: A lot of people have become numb to it, and they're just saying, oh, I'll just call my credit card company and dispute the transaction and tell them, yeah, that wasn't me and I'll get a new card, and it's an inconvenience and a hassle, but it isn't necessarily traumatizing. But, but along with those types of incidents, you have ones like we're talking about, you have ones that you know someone has opened new accounts in my name, and the person didn't even know about it. And that can be from a house to a car loan, to a credit card, and that's financial. People can apply for government benefits in your name, like unemployment benefits. They can file false tax returns in your name. I mean there are just all of these different types of misuse of your identity and your identity credentials, and to get people to wrap their heads around it, I always tells them, I want you to think about, just in one day, how often and what, and the different ways that you use your identity credentials, from your Social Security number, your date of birth, your log in and password, your email account, all of those things are part of your, your digital identity or your, your foundational identity documents. Anything that you do with those things, in the wrong hands, a thief can do with them.

[00:29:18] Bob: You've been trying to fix this problem for 25 years and, and yet here we are; things are maybe worse than they were 25 years ago.

[00:29:26] Eva Velasquez: In the identity crime space, absolutely. They are absolutely worse. And you know I, I could see some people making an argument that that's not the case. It might be more accurate to say some things are better, some things are worse. When the organization was founded, we didn't have any statutes on the books for identity theft or fraud. Often time the victims were treated like criminals because it was automatically assumed that because those credentials were used, it had to be you. And so people often not only were dealing with the financial implications, they had criminal cases filed against them. That doesn't happen as nearly as often now, and in fact, it's somewhat rare. Now I'm not saying that criminal identity theft doesn't exist. It absolutely does. People will provide someone else's identity credentials during the commission of a crime. But for someone to be a victim, report that victimization, and then be charged and treated like a criminal, happens much, much less. But the rate, the scope, the scale of these crimes has increased over the past 20 years largely because of just the, the changes in society and our digital lives. Our digital lives are now fully, fully integrated into our analog lives, and that has created all of these vulnerabilities and opportunities that the bad actors are exploiting.

[00:30:54] Bob: Back to Todd's story, when you think of the 17 different things the criminals had to do to make that crime work, um, it probably wouldn't have been possible maybe even 10 years ago, but, but now um, there's so many tools that are cheap and, and easy for them that it enables these elaborate crimes that also, unfortunately, I think often the more elaborate the crime, the more painful the crime is for the victim.

[00:31:18] Eva Velasquez: Well, and think about, there's multiple victims in this particular case. So we've got the identity theft victim, whose name is being used to perpetrate these other crimes, and I agree with you that you know as someone who did investigate old school con men, you know, back in the '90s, you would have had to walk the walk, talk the talk, have the look, an office for this type of crime would have been required, probably in a very nice building. You would have had to have a receptionist, you would have had to have a, a, a phone number that was associated with that office. So there, there just would have been a lot of presentation that would have been necessary, physical presentation that would have been necessary, and most people were very used to, if they needed a lawyer, they were physically going to go into a building and talk to someone. That's how consultations were conducted. And but we have shifted from that. It's become more of the norm, even with professional interactions, with attorneys, with your financial advisor that we do those digitally. We do them online. We will talk by email. That makes perpetrating this type of crime so much easier and, and frankly, cost effective because it's not hard to build a slick looking website. It's very easy to get a, a, an anonymous email address, and my assumption is that the physical address is probably a drop box even if it exists at all.

[00:32:53] Bob: So it's almost like these tools are tailor-made for an elaborate crime like this.

[00:32:58] Eva Velasquez: And there are how-to books now on the Dark Web. I mean that's the other thing is, is we have created these, this infrastructure for ourselves as consumers, you know, like Amazon. If you need something, and you need something in a hurry, you can get it and you can get it cheap, and you don't even have to leave the comfort of your own home. Well the fraudsters have done the same thing. They, the fraud ecosystem has ballooned to the point where the bar to entry, it doesn't exist. It's not even a bar. It's not even a threshold, they're just, they're just walking with a top hat and cane, you know, right into the room because you don't need to have any skills, you just have to have a little bit of seed money to buy both the how-to guide and the data that's all available, and you can learn from there.

[00:33:45] Bob: Can you give people a sense of how many folks you help every week, month, or year? How many are as bad as Todd's story if you can.

[00:33:54] Eva Velasquez: Well I, I think using Todd's story as a litmus test is a little challenging, because this is probably one of the worst I've heard.

[00:34:00] Bob: Sure. Yeah.

[00:34:01] Eva Velasquez: It's not the worst, it, but it is one of the worst that I've heard, and we help on average about 15,000 individuals in our one-on-one direct services through either the, the toll-free number or live chat on our website. Hundreds of thousands of people come to our, our web-based self-help center, and we don't really track the case types on, on the website. But I can tell you that the majority of those 15,000, well more than half are going to be complex cases.

[00:34:37] Bob: I asked Eva to describe a typical complex case.

[00:34:41] Eva Velasquez: We were helping a, a recently released, incarcerated individual who discovered that while he was incarcerated someone took his identity and essentially built a life. Bought a car, bought a home, established credit, had credit cards out in his name. All of these different things while he's trying to rebuild his life and do simple things like pass a background check and get a job, rent an apartment. He's already got some monumental hurdles to try to jump over because he, you know, does have a conviction on his record, but now he has this completely intermingled identity that's been used this whole time that he was incarcerated. He is going to have to go through a lot of different steps with a lot of different entities. I also talked to a woman who discovered that her credentials had been used to apply for unemployment in numerous different states.

[00:35:52] Bob: Oh boy.

[00:35:53] Eva Velasquez: All across the country. And she found this out post-pandemic because she was needing to apply for unemployment benefits for herself, and she came to find out there were, that they were already being received, and on top of that, in numerous different places. She has to go through each and every state and report it, and talk about it, and track it, and make sure that that gets resolved because there's no universal place, there's no one-stop shop for that particular issue. And that's the case with all identity crimes. You have to go to where the entity, where the fraud occurred, and go through their process, whether it's a federal government, state government, a financial institution, you know and a retailer, insert place here, you have to go to each and every one. And so the more incidents that you have, the more time it's going to take to unwind all of those things.

[00:36:56] Bob: And that's why it's so important to be kind to victims like Todd, who go through these complex digital-age nightmares.

[00:37:06] Bob: And one of the things we're hoping to illustrate with this story is, you know out there are people who feel like, okay, so you're a victim of identity theft, you know, get over it. And then you hear a story like this, and you understand, well this is why people then can't just "get over it."

[00:37:22] Eva Velasquez: Exactly. Exactly. That is, that is a big part of our mission, not just building the public awareness, but awareness with decision makers at all levels of industry so that they ensure that their, their products and their processes don't perpetuate these problems. And lawmakers, you know, we need to have policies that hold both businesses and platforms to account, but also provide resources for those who get swept up in some of these issues and these challenges.

[00:37:54] Bob: So Todd, well he will probably never be able to fully move past this crime, but he's doing things to try to move on to take back control like talking to us.

[00:38:06] Todd Alper: Yeah, I mean I will say it has a lasting impact. I'm always you know who's, who's aware of you know, this is really the first time I've been able to talk about this publicly. I've only shared it with publicly inside the uh professional support group that is facilitated through AARP uh recently. And before that, I virtually you know, have not been able to speak with it um, with anybody uh other than people who in my family who knew, because they were contacted or you know or maybe a, a close friend. The fact that even this fraud was existing was embarrassing. There was an embarrassing component to it too. There's a guilt component to it, why? And I'm still trying to understand all of those aspects, and you know in terms of the long-term effects, you know, I, I am, I'm just emotionally it has been, it's been difficult uh for the reasons that I stated. So there it does create a sense of anxiety, a sense of paranoia, you know is, is it over? How will I, will it ever, will it ever end? Will it just pick back up again? Those questions linger and I'm learning to deal with them in a candid way through, by seeking emotional uh support professionally to be able to learn positive ways to deal with the anxiety, uh the paranoia, the guilt, the worry. I've felt all of those things and there's no one that really can understand it unless you've gone through it. Being with others who have gone through it has helped me to begin to move forward and has given me really the strength to want to share the story publicly. Again before, I think a lot of people who know me, this will be the first time they're hearing about this, and it will surprise them. So unless they came across the website you know most people who know me are not aware that this is something in my life, or that's impacted my life.

[00:40:07] Bob: Well I feel um, I feel honored that you chose to talk to us about it. I hope this provides you with a little bit of comfort.

[00:40:14] Todd Alper: And from an emotional aspect, in terms of being able to just share the story, being able to speak with it, about it, you lose a sense of control when this happens to you, and being able to take positive action gives you a sense of control back. So being able to share my story on your podcast, volunteering with AARP and working with the Fraud Network, has provided me an opportunity for the first time really to have some control of my own name, of my own identity and do some positive work, so I thank you for that. Uh, and I, I thank AARP for that. Um, it's been healing and helpful.

[00:40:55] Bob: You can learn more about AARP’s free online peer support group at aarp.org/fraudsupport. So while Todd's story has no ending, it is at least in remission.

[00:41:10] Bob: What was the last indication that you had that the scam was ongoing, the last phone call or the lawsuit or, you know, when, when was the last time you can point to that you knew something was going on.

[00:41:19] Todd Alper: You know, I would say at the end of 2021, when that, you know when there were not any, there haven't been any additional lawsuits uh since I, you know, received that notice from New Mexico courts, I haven't, you know been contacted, by anybody since then. So that's my, you know, last indication and very recently I've had the, you know, courage to look and see if the website is there. And it, it's not, so as far, as far as my search uh you know my own just personal search.

[00:41:50] Bob: But, of course, questions linger in his mind.

[00:41:55] Todd Alper: You know I, eventually I would love to know who's behind this. You know there's, there is that curiosity, why Todd Alper out of all the attorneys? Why me? Uh this was a, a, uh there were victims in different states across the country. How did it come to be my name? These are questions that keep me up at night, and I would love to know, and, you know I would love for it to be investigated, uh, and to eventually know. But I also understand the realities, especially from, you know, listening to podcasts like this one, Bob. I, you recently had a podcast on, you know I, I was, you recently had a podcast on victims who were forced to make phone calls uh, to perpetrate fraud against their will. And so I never realized how, you know, sophisticated and how big this issue was internationally. And it's only now that I'm, you know, learning about it. But I think that unless victims come forward, that we're never going to have the impact that we need to have if we hide, you know, as victims, if we hide these, these issues. So I encourage people to come forward, if in any way, you know, I know that this is a national podcast, if in any way, somebody has been contacted or lost money through the Law Offices of Todd Alper, you know please report to uh the appropriate authorities.

[00:43:22] Bob: What is his advice to anyone going through something like what he's experience?

[00:43:27] Todd Alper: You know, from my experience, I would say the first step is to reach out to an organization like the AARP Fraud Watch Network and to take advantage of the resources that they have as a first step. To consider attending one of the support group sessions. You're not required to speak. You can just listen, but they’re professionally facilitated, they're small group, and I think that's a really important first step to know that you're not alone, that there are others uh, that have similar concerns or are going through, you know, the same type of emotional issues you may be going through. And that's really the important I think actionable first step. And then in doing that, I think that they would then, you know, at least for me, you begin to talk about your experience. You begin to open up, and then I think that helps you to begin to open up more publicly.

[00:44:20] Bob: And he has another important point to make about trust in the digital age.

[00:44:25] Todd Alper: The public puts a lot of trust in their legal professionals, uh CPAs uh license professionals, and I'm concerned from that standpoint too that criminals are, you know as technology improves, that the sophistication of criminals to impersonate people who we put our trust in every day, and so that you know from my perspective using my license as an attorney is a violation of, you know, the public trust and something that I took very seriously um, and ethically, and I think that you know that's an angle that we need to look at as well, and think holistically how can we address, because technology's only going to get better. They were able to scam using really old school technology like a telephone number and a website, um, but we've now, with AI, are moving past that point. And you know I think the other uh something else I've learned is that anybody can become a victim no matter how sophisticated you think you are, no matter who you are in society, the scammers are experts at what they do, and anybody can become a victim. And so I think law enforcement is obviously an important component of this, but the public has to be able to take action. And I think there are opportunities for us to come together in the public to tell our stories, to share our stories, and to take responsibility in trying to, at least to the, the extent that we can impact and have a positive impact on working to bring an end to these types of crimes.

[00:46:07] Bob: It's in your nature to help people, obviously, given the work that you've done in your life. So it makes sense to me that, that the way that you would try to heal from this would ultimately be to try to help other people.

[00:46:16] Todd Alper: I think it's healing for me to be helpful, to have something good come of this experience. And so that's helping me emotionally to be able to try to share the story and to try to have something good come out of what's been a really difficult experience for me, and I'm sure for a lot of the victims that are out there, most of whom I, I assume that I don't even know who they are.

[00:46:42] Bob: There is no iron clad advice to offer which can prevent you from becoming a victim of identity theft. But there are some things you can do that can help if and when you're targeted by criminals. Eva told us:

[00:46:56] Eva Velasquez: You know I, I think the biggest takeaway is to have a game plan because we're all vulnerable, and this can happen. Now there, there are things that you can do that can help, that can help lessen your chances of these types of crimes being severe. I don't want to give people any type of false hope saying, if you do these three things you know you'll never be a victim. That's just not true. But there are things, scammers love low-hanging fruit, and so do i--, identity thieves, so you know you can stop yourself from being the low-hanging fruit. Just things like freezing your credit. If you freeze your credit, even if someone does have your credentials, without that credit being thawed, the likelihood of them being able to get it unthawed is very, very low. I'm not saying it doesn't happen. There have been occurrences of it, but it's still one of the most proactive and or most robust, proactive steps that a consumer can take, and it's free. And you can do it for your kids. So we always encourage people to freeze their credit, and then we also encourage them to really up their, their cyber hygiene and their digital game. Easy things like better password management. If, if you're using the same easy password across multiple accounts, you're really handing an opportunity to someone to take over those accounts, and that includes your email account. I mean think about all the transactions that go across your email. It's your password reset option in a lot of cases for your other accounts. So always use strong and unique passwords across all of your different accounts, even the ones you don't think very much of, your social media accounts, maybe a, a magazine subscription, just, just use strong and unique passwords. And then the last thing we tell people is, again, this is digital, turn on multi-factor authentication. It's not mandatory on a lot of sites, but it's an option. Yes, it will take you an extra couple of seconds because you'll have to enter that code along with your log in credentials every time you log in. But again, if those log in credentials are compromised, someone can't access that account without that code. The big caveat on that one is don't ever share that code. I don't care how legitimate sounding the reason is, if someone asks you for that code, do not share it with them. It's only for the platform that you're trying to log into.

[00:49:23] Bob: And have a game plan.

[00:49:26] Eva Velasquez: I do think it's important for people. I kind of alluded to it earlier and said have, have a game plan, but it's sort of like triple-A. You, you can't necessarily prevent every single incident, every flat tire or accident. There's things you can do. You can drive safely of course and, and make sure that you're not a, a menace out on the road. But a lot of people that have that roadside assistance in their back pocket, they know well, at least I know what I'm going to do if that happens. And so I want people to have a game plan. Who are you going to contact? How are you going to handle this? There are a ton of free resources out there. Of course there's us, there's ITRC. We've already talked about Fraud Watch Network from AARP. There's the Federal Trade Commission. But by all means, reach out and get help. There's so much stigma and, and shame and embarrassment, and I really want people to know that that is not something you are. If something like this happens, that's not something you are, that's something that happened to you. And you do not need to feel ashamed or embarrassed. It doesn't mean that you're incapable or you know you can't manage your life. It just means that either you made a mistake, or you were taken advantage of, and you deserve help. So don't let that stigma of shame or embarrassment stand in the way of you getting real help from people who care. Reach out and talk to someone.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:51:02] Bob: You can learn more about the Identity Theft Resource Center at ITRC.org. And of course, you can also get information and resources at the AARP Fraud Watch Network website (aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork) and the AARP fraud helpline (877-908-3360).

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:51:34] 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

The Perfect ScamSM is a project of the AARP Fraud Watch Network, which equips consumers like you with the knowledge to give you power over scams.

 

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