Welcome to Taking Stock, a space where we can take a deep breath and try to figure out what the COVID-19 economy really means for our finances. Every month, personal finance expert Paco de Leon will answer your most difficult, emotionally charged questions about money. This year has forced many of us to reprioritize our finances, and there’s no clear road map for getting through the pandemic yet — but Taking Stock is here to help us figure it out together.
Last time, we talked about how to get through to a loved one who doesn't see that they're about to get scammed. Now, we’ve asked Refinery29 readers to share their brushes with scammers.
Jasmine, 26, Massachusetts
"My mom fell victim to a scam that ultimately cost me my whole inheritance — the value of her house, approximately $271,000 at time of writing," says Jasmine.
"After my dad died of cancer, a man turned up at my mom's door saying he could help her. My mom was diagnosed with an illness a few years ago and had never dealt with any of the household bills; she’s lived her life very innocently naive about money," she continues.
"I can’t prove it, but since none of the neighbors got a knock at their doors, I believe my mother was specifically targeted," Jasmine says. "This man stated that the windfall my dad had left her — roughly $680,000 — was at risk, and that she needed to put this money in a trust immediately in order to protect it from it being taken away to pay her nursing home fees."
"She ended up buying another house in my brother's name that she intended to rent out, as the house that she lived in was going to me in the trust," Jasmine says. "She completely paid off the mortgage on her own house, completed some repairs and was left with approximately $68,000 which was to pay for her everyday expenses, since she's too ill to work and has no income. So the inheritance was the new house for my brother, and the house that she lives in was for me."
"The company took about $4,000 from her in fees to posthumously change my dad's will to put the money and house into a trust," she says. "They then stated that they needed a lot of information from my brother and me, which we willingly gave."
"I had a bad feeling about the whole thing in the pit of my stomach and asked a friend of the family to come and meet this man, who spoke to him and said that everything seemed legitimate and above board," says Jasmine. "I found the website and checked the name of the man who arrived against accreditations online, and that checked out, so I swallowed my fear and let it happen."
"Over a year later, I was still calling them trying to hear back about this paperwork. The man we couldn’t get out of the kitchen in the beginning — he would literally come over once or twice a week for us to ask questions and to meet the friend of the family and gather paperwork — once the check cleared, we could not get hold of him," she says.
"Eventually I got a call back and they put me in touch with another lawyer who worked there, and I gave her the story. She explained that this practice is illegal and that it should never have been started," Jasmine says. "She got in touch with her colleague, the man in my mom's kitchen, who claimed the process had stopped because my brother didn’t hand over his ID. But he did. He then found my brother's ID and said that it was too late to do anything, despite me telling him that this was illegal, we wanted no part in it and wanted our money back."
"I've heard nothing at all since. We will not get my mom her $4k back. I've stated that my brother should keep his inheritance, as without it he would have no house to live in, and that is not his fault," Jasmine says. "My mom called me in tears saying she'll never get the care she needs, because she wants me to have an inheritance. I've told her that that will never happen. It absolutely broke my mom to find out she had been scammed. We never pursued this further as we were involved in hiring someone to carry out something that was ultimately illegal, and my mom really would not be able to handle the stress in her condition."
"She's going to live out her remaining days as comfortable and as happy as we can make her with all of the care that she needs," Jasmine says. "My warning is that people should please tell their fragile relatives to never ever listen to a person who knocks on their door with an opportunity that will ‘change their lives.’ This was a very expensive lesson to learn."
Henrietta, 62, Canada
Henrietta was nearly scammed by someone she met online. "He became friendly and then romantic, until there was an urgency for money. He said he was widowed — that wins sympathy."
"He showed me a contract with Shell saying he's an engineer working on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico," Henrietta continues. "It said he would receive a $200k bonus if work finishes early, and he urgently needed money to repair the crane or he would lose the bonus. This was the scam."
Henrietta didn't send any money, though. "Seemed sketchy,” she says. "He could not provide a bill/receipt for a deposit for the repair because he was short $5k." The warning sign was how quickly he brought up money, and the sense of urgency the would-be scammer communicated. "Such an emergency! Very desperate," says Henrietta.
"If someone hints or asks for money, I abruptly disengage. Break all contact immediately."
Amy, 69, Massachusetts
"On Christmas Eve, I got a text saying I had just signed up for a dating app for $400 — I hadn't," says Amy. "It instructed me to click on a link if I had not made the purchase. I was connected to a smooth talking 'Apple' rep. While my family was doing Zoom Christmas in another room, I was helping a thief move $900 to gift cards with long, complicated addresses!"
"Luckily,” Amy says, she managed to get her money back.
Stacy, 24, Michigan
"In high school, when I was unaware of common scams, I helped my mom list her suitcase set on a Craigslist-like site," says Stacy. "We were over the moon when someone offered us $300 and… sent a check for more than $1,000 over the list price with a 'whoops' and a 'wire the extra money back please.'"
"It seems silly and obvious now, but we wired them the money and were absolutely flabbergasted when the check bounced three days later, and we were out all the money," Nicoe continues. "We filed a police report, and I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before the case is solved. Just kidding — that $1,300 is gone forever."
For Stacy, the warning signs are now clear: "Anything with a wire transfer, a deal that seems too good to be true, a person far away with an 'assistant' that 'messed up' and, obviously, checks written for more than the agreed amount."
"I would never do an online deal through any websites that aren’t protected now," she says. "Websites like eBay are great because you only communicate and pay through the website, so there’s no possibility of a hot check scam."
Valerie, 54, Texas
Valerie lost about $20k due to a scam. "I'm still in damage control," says Valerie. "I moved in with a boyfriend who had one identity theft charge. He convinced me and the court he was just holding three pieces of mail for a friend."
"Never allow anyone to get close," Valerie warns. "I'm living in a hotel with my most loyal BFF — my dog."
Diana, 34, Texas
While traveling overseas to see family, Diana met a man through mutual friends. "So I assumed he was vetted," she says. "We fell fast, and I thought he was the one. He was an entrepreneur, and in the first year he never asked me for money. He was in fact covering me for things. But in the second year, he'd ask for little things here and there, or wind up in situations where money was needed."
"We were in a relationship, he met my family, and then things started to get suspicious. A series of incidents happened, including my money being sent to get exchanged and never being returned, and ultimately he attempted a grand scheme on me, where his friend claimed he was in jail," says Diana. "By this time I'd already lost some money and was suspicious. I didn't contribute to the emergency 'we need it in 48 hours' bail fund, and from there the relationship went downhill. I broke up with him a few months after."
"A week after breaking up, he asked for an iTunes gift card and when I refused, he called me selfish and said that I thought the world revolved around me," she says. "He disappeared from WhatsApp and all social media, and his company website gives a 404 error now."
In total, Diana lost about $1,500. "I will never give anyone foreign currency to change on my behalf," she vows.
Names have been changed to protect identity.