To Lillian Duffey, James Walker seemed like a nice man bringing good news at just the right time. A grandson’s house had burned down and a niece needed some financial support. Walker’s phone call seemed heaven-sent.
Unfortunately for Duffey, it was Jamaica-sent.
Walker and another man named “Ricardo” promised Duffey she had won the lottery, though she now doesn’t completely recall whether she ever entered one.
“I don’t know. I get so much mail, I don’t remember,” she said.
You probably know where this is going.
Duffey is 94, a sharp and funny senior who still drives her friends to doctor’s appointments and reads novels in her bed until past midnight. But she is also trusting, apparently to a fault.
The nice men from Jamaica said they’d need some money in advance to process the transaction and Duffey complied by initially sending the men $8,000. She doesn’t recall whether she gave them her financial information, but she admits she might have inadvertently.
Shortly after her initial conversation, near the end of August, someone opened a line of credit online in her account. Over the next several months, the man calling himself Walker called Duffey and instructed her to take money from the account and send it to various people in New York and Wisconsin. The calls came from Washington, D.C., and Jamaica.
The bank, a northern suburb branch of Wells Fargo, spotted suspicious activity, stopped the line of credit and notified Duffey. At that time, someone notified Hennepin County Adult Protection that Duffey might be a vulnerable adult. Data privacy laws prohibit the county from saying who reported Duffey’s situation, but banks frequently call adult protection investigators when they think someone is a vulnerable adult.
Yet in late May, Wells Fargo sent Duffey a notice that her claim of fraud, which would have limited her losses to $500, was denied. “We found that you or someone authorized by you opened the account in question and no fraud occurred,” they wrote.
The bank did reverse at least one $1,000 transaction, but then took about $3,000 out of Duffey’s checking account to pay for a loan she didn’t want, according to her lawyer.
Duffey is now on the hook for about $13,000 and the bank had been withdrawing payments of $144 a month from her account until her lawyer told her to close it.
“I’ll be dead before they get it all,” Duffey said in an interview.
Duffey is being represented by Mike Persellin, a lawyer for the Senior Law Project at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid. He thinks Duffey “fell for a classic Jamaican lottery scam” and should not be held accountable for all the money taken.
In a letter to the bank, he wrote that “Mrs. Duffy is 94 years old. Her memory of the events is very poor. She has never initiated an online banking transaction herself, and her level of sophistication as to computers and the Internet appears to be negligible.”
Persellin said Duffey received bank statements, but she did not pay attention to them.
John Hobot, spokesman for Wells Fargo Minnesota, issued a statement that said, in part:
“Unfortunately, fraud scams are all too common across the financial services industry. Wells Fargo takes significant steps to protect customers. Due to privacy and confidentiality, I can’t discuss the specifics of this customer’s situation, but I can tell you that we will continue to look into this situation so that we can come to a constructive resolution.”
Persellin and Duffey have had contact with adult protection counselors, and he said they agreed she was the victim of fraud. Persellin sent the bank copies of Duffey’s phone records, which confirm she had numerous calls from Walker from Washington and Jamaica. She said the local branch where Duffey did business knew her well, and knew she was 94 and vulnerable. He said the fact that the bank caught the fraud and stopped it proves it thought she was being swindled. The decision to deny the fraud occurred was made at a national level, he said.
The bank “clearly should have made this a fraud, limiting her liability,” Persellin said.
Duffy said she wasn’t being greedy. She thought the money she was sending the men came out of an account that they put money into, not a loan in her name.
“I don’t even know what they are talking about,” Duffey said. “What’s it called, a line of credit or something?”
“I wasn’t doing it for me,” she said. “I was doing it to help the kids, and now I get into this. I thought it was their money I was transferring. Dumb.”
Duffey said she’s embarrassed she was taken for so much money. “They were really smooth talkers,” she said.
Duffey is not alone. According to the Wall Street Journal, Americans — mostly seniors — have lost more than $1 billion in the scam. The callers can be very persuasive, alternating between charm and hostility to persuade seniors to do what they want. A study by the University of Iowa found that the reason so many seniors fall for scams is physiological: an area of the brain that controls belief and doubt deteriorates as we age.
The scam often starts with a phone call or postcard saying the recipient has won the lottery. To get the money, the recipient has to pay income tax or administrative fees up front. The perpetrators continue to put pressure on the victim over the course of weeks or months. Some seniors have been drained of their entire savings.
Duffey has been a widow since her husband died in 2006. She said her old friends “are dying all around me,” but those who are alive rely on her to drive them to medical appointments and to the store.
She said the bank told her she would either have to pay them back or face a debt collector. “I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop,” she said.
Meanwhile, Persellin has told Duffey to stay away from the phone. She couldn’t resist on Friday morning, however, and finally picked up the call.
It was James Walker.
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin