Column: ‘My life cannot be ruined by this scammer.’ Two victims lost everything and sued their banks

Feb 3, 2024 | Canyon Crest Guide Newspaper | 0 comments



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In a span of just three weeks in the summer of 2022, Alice Lin was swindled out of her life savings in an internet scam that began on a Chinese-language chat app. She lost more than $720,000 and sank so low that the 80-year-old two-time widow and mother of four considered taking her own life.

In the same year, Artemis Yaffe was targeted by a scammer posing as an IRS agent, losing her $1.8-million nest egg and — eventually — her home. It took less than two months for her life to be upended, sending the 77-year-old widow into a tailspin from which she has yet to emerge.

For the record:

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1:44 p.m. Feb. 2, 2024

In a Feb. 2 Golden State column on two lawsuits involving internet scams, it was incorrectly reported that Alice Lin made five wire transfers from her South Pasadena bank branch. She made six.

The column also incorrectly said Lin worked in telehealth marketing. She worked in home health marketing.

Lin also clarified that although she lost two husbands to cancer and wished to supplement her investments for the ongoing care of a disabled son, she did not share that information with the scammer who contacted her on a chat app.

The scary thing is that as huge as these losses are, they’re not all that rare in the midst of an epidemic of ripoffs in which older adults, in particular, are targeted. The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center fielded 3.26 million consumer complaints in the five years ending in 2022 and reports that $10.3 billion was lost in that last year alone.

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Lin and Yaffe acknowledge their own lapses in judgment, but they filed lawsuits this week against JPMorgan Chase & Co. for not putting a halt to their repeated mass wire transfers.

“My life cannot be ruined by this scammer,” a weeping Lin told me in the dining room of her Alhambra home. She said that after being cleaned out of savings amassed by herself and her late husband, a medical researcher, she prayed daily for strength, planted dozens of roses to brighten her yard (she earned a master’s degree in botany decades ago), and decided to share her experience to help spare others the same nightmare.

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“I wouldn’t want anyone ever to go through this,” Yaffe, a retired respiratory therapist from Redwood City, told me by phone from the rental property where she now lives. A year after she lost her husband to pancreatic cancer, she had to sell her home of 40 years to help manage her bills.

The cases are similar to those of two internet fraud victims I wrote about last year. One was a financial services retiree who was duped into wiring money out of the country under the guise of fixing a billing discrepancy. The other was a retired educator who was led to believe, after responding to a bogus virus alert on her computer screen, that she was assisting in a criminal investigation by moving money out of her bank accounts and into bitcoin machines for transfer to a third party.

Each victim lost roughly $80,000. And each one told me they were embarrassed to have been duped so easily. But we live in a time of numbing digital bombardment, and it’s not uncommon for any of us to fall prey to well-executed scams.

“I once represented a Nobel laureate, and I’ve represented professors” who were scammed, said Anne Marie Murphy, a lawyer with Cotchette, Pitre & McCarthy, which filed the Lin and Yaffe lawsuits. “Research tells us … that when people’s brains age, they’re so much more susceptible, and these scams are sophisticated.”

JPMorgan Chase spokesman Peter Kelley sent me a statement that read in part:

“We urge all consumers to ignore phone or internet requests for money or access to their computer or bank accounts. Legitimate organizations or companies won’t make these requests, but scammers will.

“When customers visit our branches to complete wire transactions, our bankers ask questions, raise awareness around various scam scenarios and provide clear warnings that once a wire is sent, you may not be able to recover your money. These interactions occurred in this case when Ms. Yaffe and Ms. Lin authorized wires from their accounts.”

That’s not quite how Lin remembers it. She told me she was given warnings on documents provided by JPMorgan Chase only after she had wired sums ranging from $20,000 to $200,000. She also said her eldest daughter is co-owner of the account and should have been consulted by the bank.

Another daughter, Floy Shieh, sat with her mother during my interview and asked how it can be that financial institutions frequently contact customers to question credit card purchases, but her mother got little or no resistance while uncustomarily moving vast sums of money through her accounts on six visits to her South Pasadena JPMorgan Chase bank and one in Redondo Beach.

Yaffe told me she first went to her Bank of America branch in San Mateo County to wire money but was turned down after being queried about what sounded to bank employees like suspicious circumstances. She said she was coached by her scammer to go to JPMorgan Chase, where on one occasion she was asked about the purpose of the transfer, but the transaction was approved.

During another attempt at a JPMorgan Chase branch in Menlo Park, the lawsuit says, “an employee pulled Yaffe into a private room and told her that he would decline the transaction, stating, ‘If you were my mother, I would not let you do this.’ Nevertheless, on the very same day … Yaffe was able to take a short drive to a nearby Chase … and transfer $286,000.”

Lin and Yaffe told me they had no history of moving large sums of money into and out of accounts — which should have raised more questions from bank officials.

Should banks be doing more to help prevent this kind of fraud?

Put me down as a yes. At the very least, if one branch suspects fraud, why isn’t the account tagged so that a nearby branch is on alert?

“We all should be doing more, each and every one of us,” said Amy Nofziger of the AARP Fraud Watch Network.

Nofziger noted that lots of people make legitimate transfers unrelated to scams, and it can be difficult for banks to determine the true purpose. What’s more, she said, cryptocurrency-related scams are particularly prevalent at the moment. When I spoke to Nofziger on Wednesday morning, she said she’d just been in touch with a team member who told her, “I can’t believe how many crypto calls we’re getting today.”

In Lin’s case, the fraud began with a message from someone, a man, purportedly, asking if they knew each other. She said no, but he kept the conversation alive long enough to learn that she had been working in home health marketing recently, and he claimed he was in healthcare as well. He said he’d lost his wife in a helicopter crash and sent her a photo that, he said, was taken in a hospital where he was recovering from the same accident.

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Lin, who moved from Taiwan to the U.S. in the ‘60s, could identify, having lost two husbands to cancer. Lin cares for her youngest son, who is diabled and lives with her, and her dream was to have enough money so that he could get by after her passing.

The scammer told her he’d made good money investing in cryptocurrency, and before long, he’d set Lin up with an online investment platform that showed big returns on her first deposit of $20,000. If she invested more, he said, she’d make more. So she kept wiring large sums of money, and trusted updated “statements” that indicated she’d made $300,000 in profits. Lin even called one of her daughters to ask for more money to invest. The daughter was immediately suspicious, but it was too late to retrieve any of the wired money.

Such operations are referred to by federal authorities as “pig butchering scams” — the victim is fattened up with confidence schemes before getting slaughtered. The fraud is sometimes orchestrated by Southeast Asian crime rings, authorities say, which use human trafficking victims to contact potential targets on dating apps and social media.

The Yaffe scam began when she was contacted by an alleged Amazon rep who was familiar with recent purchases and asked if she’d just bought four computers. When she said no, she was told she was being transferred to Amazon’s fraud department and, later, a supposed IRS investigator who told her that her Social Security number and name had been used by a criminal enterprise to set up fake companies. She needed to transfer her assets to protect her cash and establish her innocence.

“I was in so much shock, I couldn’t think clearly,” Yaffe told me.

The scammer went so far as to listen in on Yaffe’s phone, which was in her pocket, as she was turned down by Bank of America. Then he coached her to try Chase and to say she was investing in Hong Kong property for a meditation and alternative healing center she wanted to open. She followed instructions until her money was gone and the scammer was no longer reachable.

The Elder Fraud Protection Bill, introduced in Sacramento last year by Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa), could make banks liable if they assist in fraud schemes, knowingly or not.

“Banks must do a better job of preventing the most vulnerable Californians from getting ripped off,” Dodd said when introducing the legislation, which is scheduled for a hearing in June and is sure to face opposition from the banking industry.

Jacqui Serna, deputy legislative director for Consumer Attorneys of California, said the bill would require banks to step up fraud-prevention practices, including the consulting of secondary account holders or designated contacts.

“The primary thing is, we’re trying to get money back for the elderly person” who’s been fleeced, Serna said.

She added that four lawsuits similar to the Lin and Yaffe claims, which ask the court for restoration of losses, have led to settlements.

Lin, who testified at an earlier hearing on the Dodd bill, told me that after losing just about all of her retirement fund, she took up ballroom dancing to get her mind off her troubles.

And where did she dance?

At the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park, where 11 people were massacred a year ago in a shooting rampage. Lin said she knew some of the victims.

Lin said she has been comforted by her faith over the past few years, along with a close family and successful adult children who are helping with her bills.

If you suspect fraud or want to educate yourself on common scams and how to avoid being targeted, visit the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. Or check out the AARP Fraud Watch Network, which can be reached at (877) 908-3360.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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