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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Couple lose life savings in sophisticated scam

Penny Wasser looks at the extensive documentation she has assembled in the wake of the massive fraud that targeted her and husband Marvin, right, on May 22. The retired couple lost nearly $500,000 to a scheme that left them temporarily unable to pay their bills. (Jesse Tinsley)

Marv and Penny Wasser were careful with their money. They saved for their retirement and had only one credit card, which they paid off in full every month.

But that meant little – and they have little left – after they were targeted by a sophisticated con.

The couple, who were wary of potential scammers when contacted by strangers, listened to the man who claimed he was a Los Angeles Police Department detective and asked for their help in an investigation designed to arrest identity thieves. In the end, they lost their entire life savings, nearly $500,000, and were once left unable to buy groceries.

It wasn’t a simple fraud case. The so-called detective was frequently in phone contact with the couple over several months, grooming them to trust him.

“Somebody put a lot of thought into this,” said Liberty Lake police Detective Ray Bourgeois, who investigated the case.

The Federal Trade Commission keeps a database accessible only to law enforcement agencies that tracks fraud and identity theft. In 2014, 2.5 million complaints were filed. Of those, 60 percent were various types of fraud and 13 percent involved identity theft. People over the age of 50 accounted for 49 percent of the fraud reports and 39 percent of the identity thefts reported.

The Washington state Office of the Attorney General runs a special Fraud Fighters program targeted at seniors. More than half the fraud victims in Washington are over 50 years old. The office reports that the number could be higher, but seniors are often too embarrassed to report being victimized.

The Wassers struggled with those feelings as well, but hope that by telling their story they will save others from falling for the same elaborate fraud.

“It’s devastating,” Penny Wasser said. “It’s embarrassing. It’s heartbreaking. If it can happen to us, as careful as we usually are, it can happen to anyone.”

Penny Wasser said she never gave the fake detective information. He already had it, and gave it to her to prove his identity as law enforcement.

“He could tell us where we had lived for years, our old phone number,” she said. “He knew everything about us. That’s what convinced us.”

It started small. The fraudulent detective, who called himself Frank, claimed that the couple’s identity had been stolen. He told them that bills from credit cards the couple never applied for would begin arriving in the mail. He told them to forward the bills, unopened, to a mailbox in Florida. The plan was to arrest the people who arrived to pick up the box, he told them.

Marv Wasser, whose father was a police officer for 30 years, thought that sounded plausible. The couple agreed.

The Wassers didn’t use online banking and would go over their statements that arrived from the bank every month. They noticed a deposit they hadn’t made and called Frank. He said he put the money in their account to reimburse them for the costs to ship the credit card bills to Florida.

Penny Wasser said she questioned how he had access to their account.

“He said ‘Oh, we can do all kinds of things,’ ” she said.

This continued for months. Money would be deposited to their account and used to pay monthly payments on the credit cards the scammers had fraudulently taken out in their name.

Frank seemed to have unfettered access to their accounts. If the couple wrote a check he would call, sometimes the same day, give them the amount and check number and ask if they had written the check.

Bourgeois said the fraud ring may have set up online banking in the Wassers’ name.

“I think that’s how they got in,” he said.

After several months, Frank said his unit was close to making arrests and offered to keep their remaining money safe from the thieves in a special account for fraud victims. The account was in Belize because of favorable interest rates, he told them.

The couple went to the Bank of America branch in Liberty Lake, where they had been customers for decades, and sent a series of international wires. In all, they wired nearly $400,000 out of the country, money they had been accumulating for 40 years.

Soon after, the couple began to realize that something was wrong. Marv Wasser went to the bank and checked his bank balances. He expected about $75,000 to be left in the account – the amount they hadn’t wired to Belize. Instead, they had $194. “Right away Marv got a hold of me and said ‘We’re in real trouble,’ ” Penny Wasser said.

They called the Los Angeles Police Department and found a fraud detective with a name only one letter different than the one that “Frank” gave. It wasn’t the same man they had been talking to for months. Then they called Liberty Lake police.

“It’s just a nightmare,” police Chief Brian Asmus said.

The couple also called Bank of America, who told them they had waited too long to notify them of the fraud and the bank wouldn’t be returning any of their money.

“They said it wasn’t a fraud, it was a scam,” Penny Wasser said.

Bourgeois said he tried to intervene, though he knew the hundreds of thousands of dollars they wired probably was gone because the couple withdrew it voluntarily. The bank balked about the rest of money in the checking and savings accounts because of concerns that the Wassers were in on the scheme, Bourgeois said.

“That’s what really upset me more than anything,” Marv Wasser said.

Bank of America media relations manager Britney Sheehan said how the bank responds to scams and fraud depends on the situation.

“I can’t address hypotheticals,” she said. “There are too many variables.”

The bank did what it could for the Wassers since some of the questionable activity was more than 60 days old, Sheehan said.

“We were able to reverse some of the transactions,” she said.

The bank recovered about $23,000, which the Wassers said was held for a month before being released to them.

“We had no money,” Penny Wasser said. “Taxes were due. We had bills to pay.”

The couple, numb with shock, called their children.

“Thank God for children,” Penny said. “They came and they stayed with us and helped us.”

They set to work calling credit card companies and credit reporting agencies. There were 20 cards involved, some of which had balances of more than $30,000. Many of the charges were made in Costa Rica and Canada, though some were made in the United States. There were bills for airline tickets, medical equipment, refrigerators and $4,000 in lumber.

“Her and our daughter spent nine hours a day on the phone,” Marv Wasser said. “That went on for four days.”

Penny Wasser said all the credit card companies were easy to deal with and immediately closed the cards and forgave the balances.

She said their daughter made them see a psychiatrist to sort through their emotions. “I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “I was crying all the time.”

Marv Wasser said he was embarrassed that they had been taken in. He is 10 years older than his wife and worries about what will happen to her after he dies.

“You really wish you’d die,” he said. “I should have been smart enough not to get into our deep savings.”

The couple is getting by on his pension and their Social Security.

“It’s just like you’re newly married and just starting out,” she said.

The Liberty Lake Police Department did what it could. The people who called the Wassers used magicJack phones that couldn’t be traced, and were likely overseas, Bourgeois said.

The notes and documents Bourgeois collected fill a thick binder.

“I feel bad for them, but there wasn’t a whole lot I could do,” he said.

Asmus, the police chief, called contacts he had with the FBI and asked them to look for the money the couple had wired to Belize, but the accounts had been emptied.

Bourgeois said he was recently notified that someone tried to get two Kohl’s credit cards in the couple’s name.

“That information is still out there,” he said. “It got denied, but they still tried.”

The couple were touched by the number of friends and neighbors who offered them money to get by, offers that they refused.

“You know who your friends are,” Marv Wasser said. “We’re going to make it.”