AARP Eye Center
Kate Kleinert, a widow living near Philadelphia, exercised caution with Facebook friend requests from people she didn’t know. Then she accepted a stranger’s request, and her life changed forever.
Kleinert was a keynote speaker at the 6th Annual Scam Jam, a joint effort by AARP Virginia and Fairfax County Government’s Silver Shield Task Force. This year’s event was held both online and in person at George Mason University’s Osher Lifetime Learning Institute.
In the first part of the program, Kleinert joined forces with Paul Greenwood, former deputy district attorney from San Diego, in a conversation format to share her story. Greenwood served as lead prosecutor for 22 years, mostly working on caregiver abuse cases. He left the courtroom to be a champion in the fight against abuses of older adults.
After serving as her late husband’s caretaker for 10 years, Kleinert, a former executive secretary, found a new purpose in caring for hospice dogs. She had six dogs in her care at the time of the scam incident.
Kleinert said she never actually sought out romance and had no interest in dating sites, but she was active on Facebook. She never responded to friend requests from strangers, but something about Tony’s request caught her eye. His picture showed a handsome man, and his profile indicated he was a surgeon working for the United Nations in the Middle East.
It was August 2020, with COVID-19 pandemic isolation drawing more people to make online connections. Something made Kleinert accept Tony’s request.
Tony told Kleinert he was her age, though he appeared younger in the photos. He said he was a widower whose younger wife died of cancer. He had two children, a 15-year-old girl and a 12-year-old-boy, who were attending boarding school in England.
After messaging back and forth, Tony convinced Kleinert to use an app called Hangout to make internet-based calls. She said it was “nice to have a conversation” with someone interested in her.
When Greenwood asked if they ever had face-to-face encounters, Kleinert said no. Although she wanted to, Tony told her it was “not safe to show my face” because of his involvement in Iraq. Kleinert felt that sounded credible.
The conversations occurred daily, sometimes multiple times a day. He told her charming and romantic things, like he loved her and wanted to spend his life with her. She later learned that some of the things he said were not original but came from other sources.
Kleinert was surprised and flattered with how quickly Tony became romantic with her, and did push back, saying she wasn’t ready.
In retrospect, Kleinert said there were several red flags along the way. Tony’s Facebook account showed pictures of him but no friends; the account later disappeared from Facebook. When she would ask him a probing question about himself, he’d claim his beeper was going off and he had to go.
He sent photos of himself almost daily. Because he looked so much younger than her, she asked him what year he was born. He pulled the “beeper going off” technique and cut her off. Later, he called back and told her he was born in 1953.
Kleinert thought, “It took you that long to work out what year is close to my age?” She said there was a “little voice in the back of my head” telling her to be cautious, but she didn’t want to listen to it.
Tony wanted Kleinert to get to know his children, and soon she started receiving email from them. They called her “Mom” and said they loved her. This, said Kleinert, who has no children, was her “Achilles heel.” She found the idea of marriage and children very attractive. Meanwhile, Tony endeared himself to her by asking about her dogs and knowing them by name.
The first request for money came about three to four months into the relationship. Kleinert received a frantic email from Tony’s daughter, who apparently had just had her first menstrual period and was scared. Tony asked Kleinert to get a $100 Visa gift card for her daughter. Kleinert, who had never purchased a gift card, complied.
When she asked about getting the card to the daughter, Tony told her to take photos of the front and back of the card as well as the receipt and send them to his daughter via email. Kleinert felt that was questionable but thought perhaps things work differently in Europe.
As soon as she sent the email, she checked the card’s balance. It was zero.
The son whined about the daughter getting a gift card, so she purchased one for him. Then Tony wanted more gift cards to pay for medication and N-95 masks for his kids.
Tony also got into the act, saying he needed funds to “increase his signal” for the internet in Iraq. He also wanted money so he could get better food.
Tony promised to pay her back from his U.S. bank account, and he sent her his login information and website address for his Bank of America account. Kleinert said when she logged in, she saw his name and photo, along with a balance of $2 million dollars.
The website, which looked legitimate, was fake.
After Tony told her he was writing to his superiors at the UN to get leave to visit her, Kleinert received an email, supposedly from Tony’s superiors, asking her to pay for the $1,500 airfare with bitcoin.
Kleinert was excited about the visit, which was to be at Christmastime, but she hadn’t said anything about Tony to her sisters. She wanted to wait until he arrived so she could surprise her sisters by introducing him on their planned Zoom call. Kleinert admitted she still had a little voice of doubt but thought all would be well once he arrived.
On the night Tony was due to arrive, she waited all night to hear from him, but there was only silence. He gave her no information about his flight number. She was very concerned something had happened to him.
The next morning, Kleinert got a call from someone claiming to be Tony’s lawyer, who told her Tony had been arrested at the airport on suspicion of drugs in his luggage. The lawyer wanted her to pay the $20,000 bail to release him.
Kleinert, who had already spent all her money helping Tony, said she didn’t even have $20, let alone $20,000. The lawyer was very persuasive, urging her to sell her life insurance and her car, or to go to her family.
Kleinert stood firm but told the lawyer she wanted to visit Tony. He responded that “only lawyers were allowed” to visit.
Then Tony called, sounding upset and crying. And he told her he needed gift cards for better food and better WIFI signals. Kleinert told him that’s not the way things work in the U.S.
When Tony was supposedly transferred to Oklahoma, Kleinert said “that’s when the bomb went off” in her head.
The total amount of money Kleinert lost was $39,000, which included what was left of her husband’s life insurance as well as all her savings and her 401k.
“Losing the money was devastating,” said Kleinert, “but losing the relationship was what really hurt.” Heartbroken, she cried for weeks. On the Christmas Zoom call with her sisters, she put on a brave face but didn’t tell them what happened to her.
Several months later, a close friend who knew something was going on got her to talk, and she finally shared her situation with her sisters. Rather than blame her, they told her how brave she was.
Kleinert called the police in her small community, where she had to leave a voice mail message, but never heard from them. She next tried the Pennsylvania state police, where she talked to a woman who said, “Why did you call here?” and “You gave it to him, hon.”
One of her sisters gave Kleinert the number to the AARP Fraud Watch Helpline. When Kleinert called, she talked to a retired detective, who spoke the first kind words to her outside of her family members. “You know that hammer in your hand, the one you’ve been hitting over your head? It’s time to put it down,” he said.
Kleinert continued to struggle financially, and when her air conditioning stopped working in the summer of 2022, she made do with a portable unit. At 5 a.m. on July 16, 2022, the unit caught fire and spread to the house. Kleinert got out, but in addition to losing all her material possessions and memories, the six dogs in her care perished in the fire.
After the fire, Kleinert stayed briefly with one of her sisters, and then in an extended stay motel. While in the hotel, she got a call from Tony, asking for $1,500. Kleinert told him of her situation, and he replied, “I know your friends will help out.”
With proceeds from her home insurance, Kleinert bought a new house in Lancaster, Pa., in a 55-plus community. On her moving day, staff and volunteers from AARP and local law enforcement helped her move her belongings to her new home.
Kleinert still occasionally hears from Tony. Mark Solomon, a retired detective, has tried to investigate her case and believes there is a Nigerian connection.
She said the photos he sent were of a successful plastic surgeon in South America. When she finally convinced Tony to try a video call, she found out, not surprisingly, he was a 55-year-old Nigerian.
Reinert is now paying it forward by working with the AARP Fraud Watch Network VOA | ReST program, which provides support for people who experience scams. She said her experience, which she shares with groups across the country, was “almost worth going through” if it helps others along the way.
Just recently, she said, two separate young men contacted her because their mothers had been caught up in similar scams. Both women were suicidal. Both women were grateful when Kleinert called to share her story.
A recording of the 2023 Scam Jam is available at aarp.org/FairfaxScamJam.
For more information about fraud and how to find help, visit the AARP Fraud Watch Network.
Read other Scam Jam 2023 related articles:
How to Protect Yourself from Fraud
Paul Greenwood's Top Ten Tips